Building a Puzzle Library: An Unexpected Journey
Hello there! I’ve been seeing those little neighborhood libraries around my neighborhood and thinking how much better they’d be if they had puzzles in them. Naturally, in spite of lacking any real skills, knowledge, or power tools, I thought, “I can do that!” and I set out to make one for my yard. Believe me, if I can do it, so can you!
I had a few goals in making my library. Here they are in order of importance:
- Must be waterproof. I once spilled a third of a small jar’s worth of fizzy water on a puzzle that I was about to declare my favorite puzzle of all time. By the time I dried the tops of the pieces that got wet, laid them out to finish drying overnight, re-laminated the ones that fell apart with rubber cement, and then jammed the warped and swollen pieces into the remainder of the puzzle, I had added about 36 hours to my puzzle time, thus ruining the experience.
- Must have a window, so that potential borrowers can see the puzzles inside.
- Must hold puzzles. Obviously. Though this is third on the list.
- Must already exist in space-time, so all I have to do is modify it to fit my vision. No procuring plans. No building from scratch. No risk of me building something that leaks.
- Must not require digging post holes. I have dug exactly five post holes in the past, and that is five too many to dig in a lifetime.
- Must be somewhat difficult to steal or at least appear to be difficult to steal, in spite of #5.
Given priority #4, I set about browsing existing furniture on Craigslist, which meant that I had to figure out how to use Craigslist, which turned out to be easy enough. I browsed several types of furniture, most of which didn’t make the cut: armoires/entertainment centers (holds a lot, but too tall), curio cabinets (contents visible, but too much glass), low open shelf (not waterproof), chest (too much bending to rummage, not self-evident as a library).
After several weeks of searching, I found a listing for a smallish, two-tiered wood file cabinet that held hanging files in the top half under a chest-style lid. Down below were two doors that open to the front. A small filing cabinet seemed perfect. It won’t tip and crush, or maim, borrowers. It won’t end up as a pile of glass. It’s easy to reach into and could potentially be waterproofed. It cost $40 and was in a town near me.
I took my son to help me pick it up. The man who met us was cleaning out his late mother’s apartment. “Here it is,” he said. “Mom really liked this filing cabinet. She used it for decades.” I realized it might be a bit small, but not deal-breakingly small. And I politely fussed over it while opening the lid and doors. “Do you like filing?” he asked. Since my answer to that was a hard “no,” and I intended to stick his mother’s beloved filing cabinet out on the curb where it would be ravaged by the time and weather, I said, “I really do like storing things.” I paid up, and we wheeled my soon-to-be library down the hall to the elevator. That’s when I realized it was on coasters!
When I got it home and proceeded to the phase of remodeling that is “extended staring while pondering” at the victim, er, piece, I realized that it appeared to be homemade.
Pencil lines ran in the inside corners and under the lid. The doors were sunk and flush with the front, rather than set on top of the front. The lid was held on by piano-style hinges.
The first thing I did was remove the hanging file hardware. Next was to borrow power tools from my in-laws. I cut a window in the top portion of the front, so that passersby would realize there are puzzles inside. I hit the hardware store for some trim and plexiglass that they cut to fit the opening.
Then I set about decorating it to match my vision. Since it would sit outside the house as a fixture of the yard, I wanted it to be whimsical and fun. Or at least not an eyesore. And because the kids are particularly into “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” I figured I’d follow that design path. I wanted it to look weathered, with a pop of color, like it could have come right out of the Shire. I burned a Hobbit design in the top and quotes from the books around the edges. It went VERY slowly. Like, you-could-have-gone-to-Mordor-and-back-with-a-few-of-your-closest-friends slowly. Partway through, I realized that I was using a soldering iron that had been marketed as a wood burner. I obtained a real woodburner, which made quick(ish) work of the rest of the burning. I also realized partway through that the cabinet had been varnished. It looked so natural that it didn’t occur to me that might be the case. So, I headed back to the store for furniture stripper and a respirator to wear while woodburning. Then I stripped it and finished the woodburning.
I returned to the hardware store for some additional trim, because I had forgotten to check for straightness at the store, and I was unhappy with the crookedness of the first trim I bought. I labeled the thing as a puzzle library, so there would be no mistaking what the heck it was.
I tested out my stain, was disappointed, and returned to the hardware store for more stain.
I drilled holes for the window trim, which meant I could install the plexiglass. I headed back to the hardware store because I thought I had clear caulk around the house, but I had only white. I caulked it liberally under the trim and around the inside and outside of the trim with clear caulking to make the window waterproof.
I realized late in the game that the lid was kind of heavy. And since I didn’t want puzzlers to lose puzzling fingers while browsing the puzzle library, I hit all the hardware stores near me in search of a slow-close toy box hinge. No one had anything like that. I bought one online and installed it with remarkable ease. I stained the library. Then varnished it.
I didn’t know what weatherstripping would work, so I bought all the types of weatherstripping at the hardware store. I used the thin, foldable weather stripping under the hinged edge of the lid. And the overhang of the lid meant that I didn’t need weather stripping around the other 3 edges. For the doors, I used thick foamy weatherstripping that made them close tightly. Last, I upgraded the knobs from wood to…something amazing.
I decided the best way to prevent theft and to keep the library generally secure would be to padlock it to two stakes sunk into the ground behind it. At least no one could mistake it for free furniture out on the corner, and a puzzle-obsessed thief would need to be carrying bolt cutters in order to to wheel it away. It put my mind at ease that any theft would have to be that pre-meditated.
I had the utilities marked. Near the corner, there was a small piece of ground where no utilities were buried. The man who marked the gas line offered to drive the stakes into the ground for me. He said it would be safest and he had the tools in his truck. It made perfect sense since he was slightly smaller than me in both height and stature. I told Mr. Ambassador to stay away from windows while the utilities man was working outside on my posts, lest my hero realize there was an able-bodied man nearby and give up on his task. He struggled for about an hour before deciding to come back in the morning to finish the job, which he did! It took him all morning. I bought him doughnuts. Mr. Ambassador was allowed near windows again.
I went to a different hardware store and bought some patio stones that I could set in the yard to keep the library level and up off the ground and any wet grass. I screwed my eyelet screws into the back of the library, and they promptly snapped. So I headed back to the hardware store for bigger screws and a padlock that would fit the hole.
I was in the padlock aisle when the employee who had checked me out on all these trips hugged me. I hadn’t been in for a week or so, and she must have thought I was injured or worse. But in reality I was just almost done with my project.
Too nervous to leave it outside the first night, I brought it in for one last warm night indoors. Then I filled it what I thought were good starter library puzzles: Bavaria, a speedy and colorful puzzle that, in spite of its quaint European feel, is made in the U.S.A.; Symi With Boats In The Harbor, Greece, which took me a long time to do, as I accidentally did it in a room that was too dark; North American Wildlife Vintage Stamps, which had a lot of fur, if you’re into fur; Candy Shelf, which I got from a neighbor and seemed perfect to pass along to other neighbors in the library. I stuffed some more in the lower cabinet and set it out on the corner, ready for its new life out in the wider world.
Then, obviously, I proceeded to spy on the library. Any time someone would come near, I’d turn off the lights and hover a few feet back from the window. Mr. Ambassador’s home office is near a window that overlooks the library, and he was able to let me know when someone stopped by. In the first few months, a few neighborhood kids and one grown-up stopped by, but that was all I could see. And no one took a puzzle. Then winter came. Four months after putting the library out, one person had taken a puzzle, and it was a friend who I had insisted should definitely come and please just take a puzzle already.
But now that the snow has melted, things have picked up. I have one delightful neighbor who leaves puzzles every now and then. Just the other day, I noticed someone had left some princess puzzles. And my mom, inspired by the princess puzzles, brought a brand new 50-piece Ravensburger for the library, just in case the princess puzzler stops by again.
I guess I’ve learned that if I build it, they might just come. Maybe slowly at first, but the puzzlers are out there. Anyway, the joy was always in the journey, which was delightfully unexpected. And I’m sure the folks at the hardware store are waiting for me to start my next project.
Comments (Add Comment)
This is fantastic! I love your creation and the whole idea of these neighborhood puzzle libraries. We have someone in our neighborhood who has one, but it's mostly books that get left vs. puzzles. If I didn't live at the end of a cul-de-sac nobody ever drives down, I'd totally do this too! Well done.
That is the coolest thing I've ever seen! You're so talented!! If I lived near you, I'd definitely visit and use your little library!
So cool. I had seen the book boxes in Colorado, but I haven't seen anything like this.
WOW! What a labor of love! Your little puzzle library turned out amazing!!! https://hurrayforpuzzlesblog.wordpress.com
What a wonderful way to breathe new life into a piece that sounds as if if was hand made and well loved! Your artist talent and determination deserve a purple ribbon!
This is so cool! And you put a lot of work into this for starting out with already-made being a criteria. :)