Designing an Escape Room: Custom Puzzles

If you're looking for a project that'll put your hands to work, build an Escape Room. Or become a construction worker, but we think Escape Rooms are more fun. Especially because you're building the project for yourself (one of the perks of owning your own business). But as you build your puzzle space, you'll realize very quickly that IKEA, Amazon, and thrift shops don't actually sell the furniture/fixtures/objects you need to make your ideas come to life. The majority of your room will have at least some kind of custom flair to it, but that's where the learning curve really kicks in.

Expenses Beget Learning

At Lock Chicago, we pride ourselves on creating unique puzzles that have you interacting with objects you wouldn't normally find in your day-to-day lives. That means a lot of custom work for us. Fortunately for us, custom usually means expensive.

Did we just say 'fortunately'? Yes we did, and here's why: when something is expensive, you get very resourceful very quickly when it comes to cutting costs. We have a lot of pieces that require a significant amount of precision to work (reflecting lasers around the room isn't as easy as you think!), and one of those custom pieces had to be as precise as precise can get. We're talking angles and geometry and trigonometry and all that stuff you swore you'd never try again once you left high school. We're crafty, but there's no way we could make what we needed successfully by hand in the time that we had, so we asked ourselves 'what is the most precise way to build these pieces in one go?' And that's how we landed on 3D printing.

The Design Phase

Once we figure out how to add pictures to these blogs we will, but here would have been a grand time to add a few. We have a whole design drawer here at Lock Chicago (and you might even see a few of those designs hanging on the walls in our lobby). And while custom crafting services will design the piece you need for you, we prefer to do it ourselves so we got onto a free 3D design site called TinkerCAD. Incredibly easy and a lot of fun if you're into that sort of thing. We went through four or five revisions of these designs before we settled on a finished product and sent them out to 3D printing shops. Unfortunately for us, we found out that printing all of the pieces we needed this way would cost us several thousand dollars. Back to square one...

Libraries are Treasures Hidden in Plain Sight

...Or so we thought. We found out that although it would cost a small fortune to go through a 3D printing service, the Harold Washington Library here in Chicago actually has a Maker's Lab on the 3rd floor that lets you use 3D printers for free (as long as you pay $.50 for every half hour of printing time you use). Pennies! We had struck gold! Unfortunately... it would take about 17 hours to print one of these custom pieces and we needed 10 of them. 170 * $.50 per half hour comes out to a lot less than several thousand dollars, but it was no longer an option given our ambitions here at Lock Chicago. Still! Go to your local library and get to know what they offer! You'll be surprised by everything you can find-- we know we were!


Not only do libraries have cool labs like this, but the people who work there are incredibly knowledgeable, and are in fact the greatest resource that library can offer you. We met Will Garza at the Maker's Lab and he helped us out with the 3D printing. When our plans for 3D printing failed, he knew alternatives we hadn't even thought of that would get us the same precision 3D printing would give us, and for far cheaper. Turns out he's the co-owner of White Knight Services, a custom crafting company, and we would end up using his services for all of the custom work you'll see at Lock Chicago. Finally, after a long journey, we had our custom pieces and could get started on the room.

The Lock Chicago moral of this story: just keep pushing. The more you do towards something, the more ways you learn how to do what needs to be done even better. From idea to design to 3D printing to expensive printers to helpful libraries, all added up to us finding not only the best way to create our custom pieces, but also created a relationship that will help us out for years to come. Like we said earlier, expenses beget knowledge, especially when it comes to Escape Rooms.

Designing an Escape Room: The Idea

Everything starts with a small idea (or in the case of a Snuggie, someone accidentally putting a bathrobe on backwards) and the Escape Rooms here at Lock Chicago are no different. It all starts off with the most granular element of the puzzle, and the rest develops as you realize what you can accomplish with that mechanic. Take a look at our Sunburn room, for example. The underlying mechanic for the room is "light" and interesting ways to play around with it, especially redirection (if anyone here has seen The Mummy you know what I'm talking about). Every puzzle that exists in that room involves that mechanic.

An Expert Opinion

For those of you who follow this sort of thing, Johnathan Blow is releasing The Witness on January 26th, a puzzle game for computers and consoles. Johnathan Blow is considered one of the greatest video game puzzle makers around, and in this interview he states that the 600+ puzzles that exist to be solved in the game all have, on their most granular level, the same mechanic running through them: connecting two dots with a line.

Connecting the Dots

That's right, the some 100 hours of playtime it would take to fully beat his upcoming game are spent essentially just connecting dots, but once you see the screenshots and videos of the game you can immediately tell that it's a gross over-simplification. The important thing to take away from this is that the entire concept, and the project he and his team have spent close to 10 years now working on, started with an idea as small as connecting two dots with a single line. All great ideas stem from a granular foundation, and that concept has been generalized into the term we know today as "theme". What is the theme of your Escape Room, and how will you abstract it?

Tackling a project can be daunting when you look at it as a whole. When building a house, don't think of the house--think of the foundation you have to lay first, then the wood skeleton, then the insulation, then the exterior, then the interior, and then the finishing touches. Designing (and not to mention building) an Escape Room is done the same way, and that's how we do it at Lock Chicago. If you're looking to get some help starting a room, or are just curious to learn more, feel free to reach out to us at and we'll give you all of the advice we can.