Kagen Sound, 39, of Denver, Colorado, belongs to a small circle of world masters of the Japanese art of puzzle box creation. Yet nobody taught him how make one. He had to solve the puzzle himself.
Sound was about 8 years old when he saw a puzzle box for the first time. Intriguing and ingenious—the idea stuck in his mind. His parents encouraged him to explore crafts, but it wasn’t until his college years that he got his hands on woodwork. In his free time, he started to visit the school wood shop and learn the craft.
“I have sort of befriended the director of the wood shop. Gradually, he would let me come in there at night and eventually just gave me a key,” he said.
But fiddling around in the wood shop was far cry from crafting a puzzle box. “There wasn’t anyone around who could show me how to make a puzzle box,” he said.
At the time, in late ’90s, you couldn’t just search Pinterest for puzzle box ideas.
“I was pushed to be really inventive on my own,” he said.
He was inspired by Japanese puzzle boxes from Akio Kamei’s Karakuri Creation Group, but that only gave him ideas, not blueprints.
“Inspiration gave me hope but mostly I used trial and error to test my ideas,” he said.
But that was, and still is, part of the fun.
“I continue to invent new processes and use trial and error today. It is part of my work that I find very satisfying even if an idea does not work out,” he said.
The biggest difficulty emerged from the wood itself.
“The hardest thing is letting go of precision,” he said. “The material shrinks and swells with humidity and it’s still a living material, in a way.”
He had to start with an ambition to be precise, but at some point it got in his way. “You come in the next day and the humidity has changed and all the parts are different size,” he explained. “So there’s a funny, sort of, zen quality of being in peace with the material and knowing it’s never going to be perfect.”
Even today, after 15 years of crafting puzzle boxes for a living, it takes him about two years to bring a piece from an idea to a polished product. The final production itself can take 3 to 6 months.
But both the process and the result bring him satisfaction.
“People always ask: ‘What [do] we put inside? What’s inside the box?’ People really expect that I built the box with the intent to store objects. And I have no idea what to put in the box because I don’t really make them for storing any kind of objects,” he said.
He just likes that it’s possible to put things inside.
“For me, the meaning is that it’s like a functional puzzle,” he said. “There’s something inherently fascinating about the object.”