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.”