Chris Yates: a Puzzling Woodworker
Issue: Issue 307
Posted Date: 8/14/2012
Chris Yates has been
woodworking for what he figures to be around 18 years, from his early
days of building sets for high school plays to studying at the Rhode
Island School of Design to starting his own design and woodworking
business, so it's no surprise to see him out and about in the
woodworking community. What was a bit of a culture shock was seeing
him, and his work, on display at Comic-Con.
The reason, however, was
simple enough. He was already making comics of a sort on his website,
and after not really finding much success at craft fairs and
festivals, he found a home with a group of comics artists called
"Dumbrella" and a new market for his work: comics fans.
It shouldn't come as much
surprise that there's a lot of crossover; after all, fans and buyers
of art will often be drawn to art in any style, and Yates' work is
definitely stylish. He likes to call his puzzles "handmade
sculpture you can play with." He elaborates that the "key,
I think, is to approach every puzzle with a modus
operandi that is a balance/compromise of
beauty and trickiness."
His most popular line is
what he likes to call the "Baffler." In those puzzles he
sets out "to make some extreme
challenges for myself, and when it's really complicated to create,
it's usually going to be just as complicated to reassemble." He
marks his favorite challenges as puzzle #1,000 -- "The Test,"
a 9.9/10 difficulty rating puzzle with 1,239 pieces; #1,500 -- "The
Staircase" at 9.92 and 804 pieces; and #1,750 -- "The
Structure," with 1,263 pieces and a 9.93 difficulty. That puzzle
was so difficult to construct and arrange, it took Yates "eight
days of full concentration to assemble, and I am pretty dang good at
my own puzzles."
His works are fairly
unique in that they're multilayered and wrap around the base in
different directions, so a lot of planning goes into figuring out how
each piece is cut into the puzzle, especially ensuring that the
different layers stay matched up perfectly during glue-up. Once he's
sure that everything lines up right, cutting the individual pieces is
"more or less improvised." Individual joining techniques
will probably be different for every puzzle maker.
Though the Bafflers take
up most of his time these days, Chris tries to squeeze in other
woodworking projects from time to time. His main obsession from 2001
- 2004, he says, was Terraforms, topographical maps made in a similar
style to his puzzles. He still does them by commission, but his
crowning piece was made in 2003: a scale model of the 20-mile radius
around Aspen, Colorado made with just a Ryobi band saw, a project
that he notes "probably drove (him) insane."
Chris uses MDF for all of
his pieces, knowing that a lot of woodworkers would "pooh-pooh"
him for using "something you hide behind veneers and only use
for basement paneling." But he finds that MDF's unique
composition and shape-ability makes the perfect material for
constructing his multilayered puzzles.
The construction comes
courtesy of a DeWalt 788 scroll saw, which Chris praises as a quiet,
stable, and accurate alternative to his old Dremel 1800/1830 scroll
station, but also more "fickle" and expensive, so the
Dremels work well for beginners. For those going for the DeWalt, he
cautions, "Be sure to clean or replace the 'brushes' after every
200 hours of use and check your speed and table angle every so often.
I've found the machine occasionally likes to make its own settings."
Other tools he suggests
for potential puzzle makers include lots of blade clamps, some
220-grit sandpaper in case the blades slip ("If it doesn't
happen, either you're not cutting enough or you are LUCKY") and
other standard shop tools like your band saws, table saws, jigsaws
and sanders. Yates also goes through a lot of
paint. He has 90 active spray cans of different colors ready at any
time and 200-300 more backups on hand.
Chris Yates invites anyone
interested in learning more about his specific puzzles or buying one
to visit his website, and check out his gallery
and "give yourself some fresh woodworking ideas."