Tavern Puzzles Confuse and Amuse

Featured Article, Made in America, Odd Jobs
on November 3, 2013
steel-tavern-puzzle-blacksmith
Faye Murman Dennis Sucilsky manufactures a line of 35 Tavern Puzzles—some based on centuries-old patterns—in his East Setauket, New York, shop.
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Blacksmith Dennis Sucilsky, 60, knows that his metal sculptures are a success when they leave people confused and clueless.

“The Patience Puzzle requires 43 steps to solve,” Sucilsky says about the mechanical Tavern Puzzle that he forges from steel rods inside his red metal barn at Tucker-Jones House Inc. in East Setauket, New York.

Since 1980, Sucilsky has designed and created thousands of the metal mind benders, which are based on centuries-old puzzles that originally were used as training exercises for blacksmith apprentices.

During the Colonial era, the puzzles also provided entertainment for guests at taverns and inns as they tried to solve the sequence of moves required to separate the entangled metal pieces.

“I carry this on for the historical value,” says Sucilsky, who became fascinated with the old iron puzzles in the 1970s when he worked as a blacksmith apprentice at Old Bethpage Village Restoration in Old Bethpage, New York.

After specializing in making 18th- and 19th-century architectural hardware, he transitioned to puzzle making and created his first three Tavern Puzzles in 1980. For 20 years, he and his wife, Donna, 59, peddled the puzzles at craft shows on the East Coast.

Today, they sell a line of 35 Tavern Puzzles, boasting names such as Old Shackles, Yankee Ingenuity and Satan’s Stirrup, to retailers and through their online store. Each year, Sucilsky designs a new brainteaser.

“I went through a period of making puzzles that look like butterflies or other objects, but now they’re symmetrical designs,” says Sucilsky as he uses a machine to bend a steel bar into a half circle, then adds a dip in the middle of the circle.

“The more bends the better,” he adds, before hammering the steel pieces on his anvil to ensure that every part fits precisely.

Some of the mechanical puzzles are based on traditional designs, while other patterns spring from Sucilsky’s imagination. He spends days shaping and linking pieces until he finds the perfect combination of challenging puzzle and attractive sculpture. Completed pieces are scoured in a tumbler, steam cleaned and coated with acrylic.

“They’re substantial, rough-and-tumble things,” Sucilsky says. “What I’m making is going to last.”

The feel of maneuvering sturdy, clanking steel pieces is part of the game’s attraction, along with finding the solution. For frustrated puzzlers, Sucilsky provides the answers, though they aren’t packaged with the puzzles. His most memorable request for help came from the White House in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush was stumped.

“The appeal is more than just the eureka moment when you solve the puzzle,” Sucilsky says. “The puzzle is something you can hang up and enjoy.”

Curtis T. Christian IV, 53, of Richmond, Kentucky, devoted two weeks to decoding the series of twists and turns needed to remove a large ring from a triangle in the complex Sneaky Pete puzzle, one of 11 in his collection.

“These puzzles are simply good for my soul,” the Presbyterian minister says. “They’re obviously designed to be aesthetically beautiful, but I also see beauty in the way they are solved, in their object, and in their geometry.”

Another collector, John Martuscelli, 44, principal of Wilson Area High School in Easton, Pennsylvania, bought his first Tavern Puzzle 20 years ago when teaching a computer programming class. Today, he owns 19.

“I was teaching students about the importance of following steps in a certain order,” he says. “And it worked.”

Martuscelli displays his puzzles near his basement bar. When friends visit, they pick up the games and laugh as they try to untangle the pieces.

After centuries, Tavern Puzzles continue to amuse and bewilder the brain.