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My Father’s Workshop: Five Letter Opposite Words Game & Puzzle

Joel's most recent projects include Burning Man 2017, Colorado Hemp Expo, Denver Paper Fashion Shows, Arise Music Festival and more.

My Father’s Workshop

The Five Letter Opposite Word game is the first of many games and projects that were birthed in my father’s workshop back in 1967 when I was only ten years old. I loved that workshop. I spent every hour I was allowed, studying Mechanics Illustrated, Popular Science, Popular Electronics, and a good selection of other woodworking books and magazines. Since then, the passion for creating has never left, in fact, over the past many years, my projects have gotten larger and more complex. The last “biggest” project that I was honored to help design and build, was “The “Dragonfly Mating Ritual” that was built in the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man 2017 which was a sculpture that included a fire that would shoot forty feet in the air and became a featured article in the October 2017 “Rolling Stone” magazine. Funny how one thing turns into another. Even though I love huge complicated projects and designs, the simplicity of Five Letter Opposite Words is still one of my favorites. Big or small, it all starts with a simple sketch.


It Starts with an idea and a sketch

One of the first things that my Dad built me was my own design and creation center. He made it out of reclaimed materials and incorporated a large angled drawing and work surface. He designed it with storage and an adjustable work light. Hundreds of projects were birthed here for many years. As a youth, I spent thousands of hours sitting on my stool in front of my design center creating. I learned quickly to create sketches of my imagination. So many school projects, art projects, designs, and a multitude of projects started there including simple games, bird feeders, model rockets, ceramics, and, eventually a large hovercraft with two engines that my father and I built under the carport. It all started with a sketch and an imagination. Five Letter Opposite Words is a great example of simple sketching and prototyping skills that provides hours of challenge.


Five Letter Opposite Words

The first project I developed in my father’s workshop was Five Letter Opposite Words. I wish I could completely take credit for it but a form of it was inspired by a similar 1957 “how-to” article I read in one of my father's magazines and books. The concept and solution of it seem to have been lost over the years(until now). I have not found any person who has presented it since. It is simple to design and make, but very hard to solve. (A hint to solving the puzzle is at the end of this article.)

The object of the game is to slide the opposite five-letter word letters along the grid replacing the top word with the bottom word without lifting any of the letters (no cheating).

The simplest version of this puzzle game can be made from one sheet of 8-½ x 11” card stock in about thirty minutes. A longer-lasting version can be made out of wood using the same basic layout pattern but also requires some woodworking skills and tools. (Thick cardboard or foam core board can also be used but would also require a sharp knife.)

The Words

There are a handful of 5 letter opposite words that you can use to create the game puzzle. Back in 1967, I designed my original using the 5 letter opposite words, BLACK and WHITE. There are other five-letter opposite words you can use. Here is my top list of opposite words that you may want to choose from when creating your first practice and prototype version. (The “ANGRY vs HAPPY” challenge is the easiest to solve because of the double letter “P”).

  1. ABOVE vs. BELOW

  2. BLACK vs. WHITE

  3. RIGHT vs. WRONG

  4. ANGRY vs. HAPPY

  5. LOVER vs. HATER

  6. BIRTH vs. DEATH

  7. CHILD vs. ADULT

  8. CLEAN vs. DIRTY

How to make a “Five Letter Opposite Words” Step by Step

Materials Needed:

  1. 8-½ x 11” paper or cardstock(preferred)
  2. Wood or paper glue


    1. Scissors
    2. Markers
    3. Ruler
    4. Pencil
    5. Knife (optional if you want to use cardboard or foam core board)

Basic Layout:

The base grid is five squares wide by three squares high. Each square of the grid measures 1-½”. After layout and cutting you will have sixteen pieces:

  • 10 squares are for the letters
  • 3 squares are for the “blocks”
  • 2 squares are “extras” and not needed
  • 1-Base Grid 7-½” x 4-½”

Step One: Tools & Materials

Scroll to Continue
  1. Acquire materials and tools

    1. Paper
    2. Pencil
    3. Ruler
    4. Scissors

Step Two: Layout

  1. Measure points

    1. Using a ruler create a grid base by making parallel dots with your pencil 1-½ inches apart (six across and four down)
    2. Hint: I used a ruler that is 1-½ inches wide

Step Three: Draw

  1. Using a pencil, connect the dots
  2. This pattern is the same for both the base and the squares. Make two.
  3. Darken your lines with a pen or marker for easier cutting

Step Four: Color and Words

You could switch step four and five and end up with the same results but it is a lot easier to do the “graphics” first, trust me, I’ve done it both ways. I like to use a combination of highlighter type colors and a black sharpie for the lettering.

  1. Color your squares with opposite colors.

    1. 5 letter squares a light color
    2. 5 letter squares a dark color
    3. 3 blocking squares with a third color that stands out from the first two
    4. The base can be left plain or a fouth color
  2. Use a marker to create the lettering of your opposite word choice

Step Five: Cut

  1. Cut out base grid along cut lines as shown in the sketch above
  2. Cut out squares along the cut lines as shown in the sketch

Step Six: Glue

  1. Glue the three blocking squares to the base grid where the large “X” is shown in the sketch
  2. Let dry and then try!

Step Seven: Solve

To solve, begin by sliding one letter at a time into a blank space until you successfully exchange the top word with the bottom word. (not as easy as it sounds!)

It’s been such a long time since I’ve created the first version of Five Letter Opposite Words that I forgot the original solution and so I had to prove to myself that it could be done, and I did. This time, however, I created a computer generated record of every move. I won’t give the solution(s) away but I will give you a clue that is the secret to solving the puzzle quicker. The clue made the difference of me personally solving the puzzle in 22 moves…the first time I solved it took me over 120 moves. I still ponder how, why, when I was only ten, I was able to figure it out.

Make One With Me!

Here is the design sketch. I started with a piece of my sketch pad and a pencil and then darkened my lines and added notes. The importance of doing it the “hard way” is in education. Even though my years of higher education involved design drafting and computers, the initial sketch is always the premise of a final design whether I use a pencil or a computer design program. All of my designs start with a sketch and then developed further. The notes on my design pages are usually more important than the lines I create.


The Clue

The clue below is mirrored just in case you don’t want it. I would love to hear if anybody can solve it in less than 44 moves. Good luck!


In Conclusion

Looking back, and, as I said earlier, my father’s workshop inspired me in a direction that led to a lifetime of projects, designs, and inventions. Some are simple and, through life, some became very complicated. I’ve designed and managed the build of theatrical scenery for the world’s largest theatre for twenty years. I helped design, build, and install huge Burning Man Art Projects in the Black Rock Desert. And, hundreds of other things. But, like Five Letter Opposite Words, I always come back to the simple sketch. My hope is that one person tries this simple project and solves it. It's my way of passing this secret on to future generations. Thanks for reading. Joel. Please feel free to comment or contact me.

At the point of this writing, we are in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic. I stay pretty isolated but have also discovered that my desire to share projects such as this, (hopefully), may bring out the creativity of others. Time will tell, but together, we will get through this. Keep creating!


Joel Diffendarfer (author) from Jonesville on January 06, 2021:

Ann thank you. Yes, in times like these, sometimes we need to step back to go forward. My favorite game is online Scrabble. I love words.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 23, 2020:

Now you have me intrigued! This is the sort of thing I like to solve and that I could play with my grandchildren, most of whom are interested in words and puzzles, much to my delight.

I love your history behind this too, working with your Dad in his workshop. Just the sort of family story which appeals to me.

I have copied this hub to my desktop and will be working on this whilst we have all this time in lockdown! No busy family Christmas for me but we'll make up for it next year - I hope!

Hope you are safe and well. Happy Christmas!


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