The history of the venerable jigsaw puzzle and how it has evolved to include dazzlingly intricate designs that may knock your eyes out. A professor at the University of Washington is one of the many professionals and other adults who enjoy the cutting edge of jigsaw puzzles.
When I was in elementary school, holiday time meant visiting my grandparents and doing the Mushroom Puzzle. I would hide the last piece in my fist, and my grandmother would scour the floor for it. Then I would magically reveal it and snap it in place.
My mother would sometimes pitch in — a jigsaw ringer — but the men of the house steered clear. My father, who can calculate all kinds of math problems in his head, would claim he was no good at spatial relations. My grandfather showed no interest.
Jigsaws have their frustrating side. They are often used in intelligence tests, and their origins are pedagogical: The earliest wooden puzzles, from the 18th century, were dissected maps meant to teach geography to the children of aristocrats.
Then a funny thing happened: Jigsaws turned into adult playthings, so popular in the 1930s there were lending libraries of them where the pieces were counted after each puzzle was returned. Anne D. Williams, a jigsaw historian, cites several reasons for the change, including the introduction in the 1870s of a foot-powered fret saw that turned well-off American women into wood-cutting hobbyists.
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From there, puzzle makers started using grown-up images, including political cartoons, on their creations, and glamorous people would hold dinner parties where guests competed to put puzzles together.
For some people, jigsaws easily inspire obsession. Williams — who is arguably the queen of the jigsaw world — owns 10,000 puzzles and has a room in her Lewiston, Maine, home for them.
“I like the wooden ones that are manufactured with saws, because to me there’s a reflection of the puzzle creator in the puzzle itself,” said Williams, a retired professor of economics at Bates College. “There’s sort of a little long-distance dance going on between the person who made the puzzle and the person who is trying to solve it.”
John Stokes III, of San Diego, who cuts dazzlingly intricate puzzles by hand, would agree. Sometimes he deliberately leaves wavy or irregular borders to thwart people who like to put the edge pieces together first.
“By far the hardest-to-assemble puzzle I ever made was a transparent plastic puzzle with nearly identically shaped pieces,” said Stokes, 60, who turned to puzzle cutting after a career in computer programming. “Also, you can’t tell which side is up.”
At age 4, Stokes said, he was putting together 500-piece puzzles. He turned professional about 10 years ago, spending long days guiding pieces of wood into the stationary blade of a scroll saw. “It’s very much like a sewing machine,” he observed.
Among the more spectacular puzzles he has created — all of which are pictured on custompuzzlecraft.com — was a map of the world that had 1,384 pieces and measured nearly three feet long; it took three weeks to cut, he said. His largest puzzle was a four-and-a-half-foot triptych of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” with 4,271 pieces. It sold on eBay for $25,100.
Each panel of the Bosch puzzle was cut in a different style: one in what Stokes refers to as “swirl curl,” a second in “long round” and a third in “creative.” These idiosyncratic styles — a far cry from the simple grid patterns used by commercial puzzle manufacturers — take varying amounts of time and energy. Stokes charges $1.10 per piece for his long round style and $3 a piece for the creative style.
Another puzzle cutter, Mark Cappitella of East Haddam, Conn., sometimes uses a style so infuriatingly difficult he calls it “nightmare.” His largest puzzle measured eight feet long and sold for more than $10,000, he said.
A video on Cappitella’s website shows him rapidly twisting flat pieces of birch around a vertical saw blade. As a child, he said, he drew elaborate mazes on the back of his school notebooks; later, he studied architectural drawing.
“I can typically cut between 120 and 150 pieces per hour, depending on what is involved,” Cappitella said. “The only thing I ever plan out in advance is the personalization of the puzzle.”
That stage involves designing the figural pieces that are cut to in recognizable shapes: a cat, the sun, a ballerina and so on. They tend to be favorite pieces among puzzle fans; they are certainly mine. The nicest puzzle in my collection comes in an unmarked box (no picture for guidance) and turns into a snow scene replete with figurals: a sword, a musical note, a heart.
No jig saws are involved in the cutting of jigsaw puzzles. Cutters who work by hand use scroll saws for a more delicate cut. Other artisans create a design on a computer and send the image to a laser cutter, which carves it into a slab of wood — sort of like printing a document. A few puzzle makers use a high-pressure water jet to cut their wood.
Mass-market puzzle makers — who use metal dies to press a design into a piece of paperboard — say their sales have risen during the recession. Springbok has seen sales grow nearly 20 percent in each of the last two years, said Steven Pack, president of Allied Products of Kansas City, Mo., which owns Springbok. That is up from the 12 percent to 13 percent growth that Allied had been seeing since 2002, when it bought Springbok from Hallmark.
“One of the possible reasons for a jigsaw puzzle resurgence is it gets people sitting and talking,” said Christopher Wirth, 43, the founder of Liberty Puzzles in Boulder, Colo. “There’s really something about a wooden puzzle — the heft of the pieces. It’s really sort of satisfying to plunk them into place.”
A few younger people are getting into the business. Maya Gupta, 34, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington, set up a laser-cutting puzzle business, Artifact Puzzles (www.artifactpuzzles.com), last year. “I was hoping to find an audience that would be a lot like me — people who are technology professionals and want to get away from the computer,” Gupta said.
She likes jigsaws because they can be assembled neatly in a finite amount of time. By contrast, in her engineering work, “the problems are not solvable, and things don’t finish,” Gupta said.
Although there has been a lot of talk about whether jigsaw puzzles can retard the advance of Alzheimer’s disease, Gupta does not buy it.
“We would love as a company to claim that these are good for the brain,” she said. “We refrain from doing so because we respect the scientific process, and we are waiting to see the evidence.”
It is not clear what makes some people jigsaw fans or why there seems to be a strong overlap between jigsaw lovers and crossword solvers. Williams, the jigsaw expert in Maine, said she wondered about those questions, too. “I learn new words when I do crosswords, and I am amused by the wittiness of them,” she said by e-mail. “I find that with jigsaws, I am entertained by different things, such as the color line cutting, the figure pieces and craftsmanship.”
Jigsaws also tend to be a more social activity. Sydney Jones, a member of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors, recalled childhood summers when she and her stepmother bonded over jigsaws. “I remember when we were looking for a piece, my stepmother would turn it over to look at which way the grain was going, and I would accuse her of cheating,” said Jones, 55.
Although my own grandmother is no longer with us, I still have her Mushroom Puzzle, which is now legitimately missing several pieces. My children, alas, show little interest.