Friday, 21 September 2012

Elephant No. 355: Chain-Face Puzzle

I was out for lunch with my best friend the other day when she asked if I'd tried to make a chain-face puzzle yet for this blog. I'd completely forgotten about these fun little toys, so I thought I'd try one for today's elephant.

A chain-face puzzle usually features a human face in profile. Half of the face—and sometimes just the nose—is not drawn, replaced instead with a short piece of chain attached to the drawing at both ends. The person handling the puzzle shakes it gently to form various profiles, or various shapes of nose.

German dexterity puzzle, ca. 1930s.

I couldn't find anything about the origins of these puzzles, but they probably arose around the same time as most other dexterity puzzles. Since I covered the history of dexterity puzzles in a previous post, I'll just describe today's process here.

I began with an aluminum watchmaker's case with a glass lid. These are perfect for toys like this, and come in a wide range of sizes. I got mine at Lee Valley Tools. This one is the 70 mm size (2.75 inches in diameter).

Next, I cut two pieces of 0.6 cm (0.25 inch) foamcore. I used black because it was what I had on hand, and also because I thought it would be less obvious if the edges of the elephant disc weren't quite perfect. I cut two layers because of the depth of the watchmaker's case. You could obviously use another colour of foamcore or even corrugated cardboard or corrugated plastic.

Now it was time to draw something. I sketched an elephant in pencil, including the trunk. Although I planned to substitute chain for the trunk, I found that I couldn't really draw a trunkless elephant.

Once I was happy with the general form of the sketch, I pulled out the finest chain I had and figured out where it would go. I did this so that I could decide where to stop the final sketch and painting, leaving the trunk area blank.

I went over the design, without trunk, using a pigment liner, then heat-set the outline with a hairdryer.

I painted everything with gouache, and added some gold dots in the purple with metallic acrylic paint. I'm not sure I should have painted the background at all, because the elephant will now have a purple trunk outlined in silver, but it was too late when I realized this. Oh well.

I poked holes in the drawing for the chain next. I deliberately made the holes small, figuring that the chain would enlarge them to the proper size when I pulled it through.

I fed the chain through the holes by threading the first link of the chain and then threading a needle. I did this for both ends of the chain, then tied them at the back. I could have taped them down, but I liked the idea of tying them instead.

This is what it looked like when it was assembled.

To finish up, I put on the glass lid. The lid fits onto the main body of the case with a nice, tight friction fit, so there's no need to glue anything together.

If I'd had time, I might have considered painting the case, but for now I'm very happy with this as it is. It only took about an hour from start to finish, and it's rather pretty in real life. It's also surprisingly easy to make a decent elephant trunk by giving it a little shake, so it even works the way it's supposed to.

I think I'd make it a bit smaller next time, but this was so easy that I may make a few for gifts at some point.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants are surprisingly susceptible to infections in their tusks, which are as painful to them as a serious toothache is to us. In fact, it is believed that some elephants have "gone rogue" simply because they are in pain from infected teeth and tusks.

In November 2010, however, a team of three dentists in Kerala, India sought to remedy this with what is believed to be the world's first root canal on an elephant. A 27-year-old male elephant called Devidasan had been suffering with a chronic tusk ache for years, and there were signs that the infection was getting worse.

The dentists decided that it would be better for the elephant if the procedure was done without anaesthetic. Instead, they relied on the elephant's trusted mahout to keep the animal calm. In a two-and-a-half-hour operation, the dentists cleaned out a six-centimetre (2.4-inch) cavity which was badly infected. They then filled the gaps with nearly a kilogram of resin (2.2 pounds), which is about 40 times the amount needed for a human filling.

Because of the novelty of the procedure, the team of dentists filed a patent for the treatment, and are developing a range of proper elephant dentistry tools based on the oversized implements improvised for the operation.

Devidasan quickly recovered and was soon ready to return to his duties in religious processions and traditional Hindu weddings—a much happier and more comfortable elephant.

Dentists working on Devidasan's infected tusk, November 2010.
Photo: Jalees Andrabi

To Support Elephant Welfare
Fauna & Flora International 


  1. oh wow this blog post is the best one i have come across today! super cute! love the pencil sketch and the strokes there!

  2. Thanks so much! This was one of my favourites, and very fun to make. :)