An interview with puzzle box maker Dave Cooper

Puzzle Designer interviews

TheMetagrobologist is delighted to present an interview with Apothecary Puzzle Chest project manager and puzzle-box maker Dave Cooper.

Puzzle box maker Dave Cooper

Dave agreed to chat with us earlier this year and we hope you enjoy the article regarding the incredible, and possibly, the single, most, epic and awe-inspiring puzzle-box – the Apothecary Puzzle Chest Project.

Dave Cooper lives in Cairns, Far North Queensland, Australia. He inherited the disease ‘puzzle-itis’ from his Grandfather and now has over 900 individual puzzles and puzzle boxes in his personal collection, and has been ‘in the game’ for over 48 years.

As a child, he would get puzzles from his Grandfather, and Mother for Christmas and Birthdays. He has several puzzles that originate back to before the 1900s.

Dave graciously took the time to complete an interview for us this month regarding his experience managing the Apothecary Puzzle Chest Project.

In Issue two of TheMetagrobologist magazine, we completed a thorough and incredibly popular interview with Robert Yarger about the Apothecary Puzzle Chest along with his career history, puzzle design history, and creation.

The limited edition hand-crafted Apothecary Chest

The limited edition hand-crafted Apothecary Chest was the culmination of a four-year collaboration between Robert Yarger and eleven other exceptional puzzle contributors and was crafted from quality Sapele wood and decorated with Purpleheart inlays, measuring 18” x 16” x 12”.

The whole chest is itself a puzzle that locks twelve individual puzzle drawers into place, each of which is signed and numbered by an artist. For those not familiar, a piston and gearing mechanism must be manipulated to release the individual puzzles and in some cases, you must use items found inside of a puzzle to make further progress with the Chest or other individual puzzles. The Apothecary Puzzle Chest has an open back so that the solver can appreciate the craftsmanship and mechanics.

Originally, the only way to obtain one of these chests was to be an artist contributing to the project, and none was intended for public sale. By the end of the project, two additional copies were produced and sold at auction to help cover expenses. Each of the artists submitted fifteen identical copies of their own unique puzzle box drawers and in exchange, each received their own copy of the chest. The chest came with a fifteen-page, fully illustrated instruction book.

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart. Dave Cooper

Apothecary Puzzle Chest

TheMetagrobologist: Dave can you explain your participation in the project and how the idea was first introduced and by whom? What was your role?

DaveC: The idea for this project was born on Cubic Dissection, which is a puzzle dedicated website owned and operated by that loose cannon, Eric Fuller, in North Carolina USA. I just couldn’t pass up that opportunity to have a friendly swipe at Eric, who I regard as a very good friend indeed. Splitting a bottle of prime bourbon with Eric (my shout of course), when I get to the US, is actually on my bucket list.

On Cubic, the idea of this project was first floated by Eric and Rob and I quickly registered my interest to assist in any way I could.

Probably because of either a lack of good judgement or that I was just too slow that particular day, I was nominated the overall project Co-ordinator and secretary/record keeper for the project. Why anyone in their right bloody mind would want me steering their project is beyond me!

Rob Yarger refers to himself as my ‘little brother’! Dave Cooper

It was my role to promote and advertise the project, and then to screen and select the participants depending on what they were intending to submit as their project. An example of why some interested parties had to be declined included proposals to submit puzzle boxes made of plastic etc.

Another responsibility that was bestowed upon me was to draft detailed rules for the project which governed every facet, including, limited edition numbering, distribution of additional copies of the puzzle boxes outside of this project, materials to be used, chest number allocation etc. It was also my role to ensure compliance with the rules, which was an exercise in diplomacy at times.

A Twist of Fate Prototype
A Twist of Fate Prototype

Exploring the project!

TheMetagrobologist: We know from Robert that the Apothecary Puzzle Chest was originally conceived by Robert Yager! What was the basic aim of this unique and complex mechanical puzzle project?

DaveC: The actual initial aim of the project was for each craftsman/participant to submit a puzzle box to the chest as a ‘salute’ to the eleven other craftsmen/participants. The intent was to compliment each other as a mark of respect resulting in a physical memoir at the end. The original concept was for (twelve) participants who were also puzzle designers and craftsmen/women to submit fifteen copies of a puzzle box with their original design.

Each particular puzzle box had to fit within a 4” x 3” x 3” cavity within a chest carcass, which was to be designed and built by Robert Yager. Rob would design locking mechanisms which would retain each box within its cavity until such time as the puzzler had worked out how to remove that box from the chest. The mechanism locking the boxes within the chest was also linked to another box, so this was a puzzle in itself. All this had to be accomplished before the puzzle box could be removed from the chest. And of course, the aim was that not any puzzle box could be removed from the chest at will, but would require careful coordination as each box held a clue or a key for the next.

TheMetagrobologist: There were ten craftsmen and twelve participants involved in the project each producing a quality hand-crafted puzzle including:

1. Abracadabra by Matthew Dawson
2. Knight vs. Dragon by Robert Yarger
3. Parameter Motion by Kelly Snake
4. Reversal of Fortune by Jeff Aurand
5. A Twist of Fate by David Cooper
6. Trinary Box by Hiroshi Iwahara
7. Now What Box by Peter Hajek
8. Spinnomotto by Stephen Chin
9. Topless Box by Eric Fuller
10. Thick and Thin Garnet by Mark McCallum
11. Ferris’ Puzzle Box by Peter Wiltshire
12. Blocks Away by Ron Locke

TheMetagrobologist: How did these come about? When were they approached to contribute?

DaveC: This project, with its initial general concept, was formally agreed to and launched on November 13, 2009. It was formally completed on December 16, 2013, exactly 4 years, 1 month, and 3 days later.

Aluminium CoverExpressions of interest and invites!

Immediately commencing on November 13, 2009, I commenced both sending expressions of interest and invites to qualified people, and also receiving emails from persons wishing to register their interest to contribute. The list of participants who finally completed the project is different to the initial list. Six participants withdrew from the project as it progressed.

However, I do wish to highlight that the above list of (twelve) participants lacks a notable person in the project…….Mr John Devost of Lower Sackville, Novia Scotia, Canada. I tried in earnest to have John volunteer as a contributing craftsman, however, other commitments prevented John coming aboard in that capacity. However, this true gentleman, who instantly becomes a firm friend of all he meets, both in person and online, did wish to contribute.

Anyone who has seen John’s woodwork knows that his work is first class, and with his puzzle making the background, John joined the project as a ‘consultant’ offering his services to any participant who wished to float ideas off or obtain assistance in designing a puzzle box for this project. An overview of this project, without recognising John’s involvement would be deficient.

My good friend, Eric Fuller initially was not going to participate either, however, I reserved a position for Eric. I could not view this overall project as being ‘complete’ without the participation of Eric, for, without his ideas and website, this project would likely never have originated in the first place. To Eric, each of us participants in this project, owe a vote of gratitude.

Other Craftsmen

TheMetagrobologist: Two participants did not make their actual puzzle box, which was instead made by other craftsmen? How did this process work?

DaveC: It was quite surprising to Rob and myself that some difficulty was experienced in locating ten other designers/craftspersons who could compete. A range of obstacles was encountered including health, work, and family commitments, or the materials the candidate proposed using etc.

However we did recognise that there were experienced puzzlers out there who had excellent ideas for puzzle boxes, however, could not actually produce their design for a variety of reasons. After all, there are people out there, unlike us other idiots, who do NOT enjoy being covered in sawdust from daylight to dark. Endless sawdust inside one’s clothing doesn’t exactly inspire one to take up woodworking.

Therefore, the decision was made by Rob and myself to allow two participants to have their designs manufactured by other craftsmen, however, all other rules were required to be strictly adhered to in order to ensure their contribution was accepted.

So yes, you are correct in that two participants designed their entries, which were then built by another craftsman. And although they did not manufacture their entry, we were certainly happy to have those two participants aboard and they enriched the overall project.

Read the rest of the interview in the pages of TheMetagrobologist Magazine Issue 3.

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