Restoring past treasures - piece by piece

Once a way to bond with family and pass time, wooden jigsaw puzzles are now a near full-time hobby for a retired lawyer

Bob Armstrong likes piecing together history and making order out of chaos. But Mr. Armstrong's idea of chaos is different from other people's: He repairs old wooden jigsaw puzzles - elaborate puzzles that are often 60 to 100 years old and, when restored, worth upwards of $400.

His love of puzzles began in childhood. "My mother and her mother loved puzzles," he explains. They whiled away the hours assembling them while Armstrong's father served in Europe for the duration of World War II.

Armstrong remembers the women bringing home armloads of puzzles from puzzle lending libraries, which were beginning to disappear by the time of the war. "They kept us busy through all the years that my father was away," he says fondly.

But that experience was just the first piece of the picture for Armstrong.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, he married Hildegard Nixdorf, who also enjoyed jigsaw puzzles. Not long after, he began to track down the old family puzzles he recalled so fondly from childhood.

And find them he did, in an aunt's garage in Rehoboth, Mass. All of the original puzzles he remembered were there, although some had pieces missing.

So the love affair with puzzles continued. Armstrong pur-chased puzzles for his family's entertainment and even commissioned new puzzles from prominent puzzle makers Roland Chesley and Charles Russell.

But the final piece wouldn't fall into place until years later, when an acquaintance of Armstrong's suggested that he take a look at some antique puzzles in need of "damage control."

"So, sometime in 1992 or '93," he says, "I began to fiddle around with repairs in the basement. I realized what could be done to improve these old puzzles, to make them enjoyable. Not all are wonderful, of course; some are just so-so. But I got a kick out of making them 'whole' again."

"Bringing back a puzzle" isn't easy to do, although Armstrong, a retired attorney who lives in Worcester, Mass, makes it sound as though it is.

The first step is to determine what's missing.

The missing links

"I advertise and buy old puzzles in bulk," he explains. "It's not unusual for a single individual to send me 15 or 20 puzzles at a time."

These are puzzles that do not arrive with a guiding picture on the cover. Often they are puzzles from the early 20th century that contain hundreds, even thousands, of intricate, delicate pieces. These types of puzzles don't always end in square edges.

Armstrong invites friends to puzzle parties, where they work at putting the pieces together, though they have no idea what they are making. When they're finished, he knows what he will have to restore.

Since Armstrong has been collecting for almost 30 years, he frequently can identify the maker simply by seeing an assembled puzzle.

"The leading authority on American jigsaw puzzles, Anne Williams, has become a friend of mine," he says. "She has taught me how to identify the characteristics of early works. This gives me a head start in how to repair them."

The tools of the puzzle-repair trade are glue, Plastic Wood, and the toughest watercolor paper on the market.

"It's a little like being a dentist," he says. "I developed a technique of rebuilding knobs [the small protrusions on the puzzle piece that allows it to interconnect with another piece] into the configuration of the puzzles. I fill up the hole with a mixture of glue and Plastic Wood, then join the new part with the old. I pack it in there and let it dry. When it's finished, I recut the proper shape and sand down the edges with my Drummel drill."

For Armstrong, making the replacement piece is the easy part. Re-creating the image or picture that goes on it is a lot harder. If he's fortunate, he is able to call up the picture from his computer databank, then simply copy the missing fragment.

More often, however, he has to wing it. "I am not a natural artist," he says. "I have no formal training. But this work requires me to re-create artwork, extrapolating from surrounding shapes, colors, and shadings."

That's where the tough watercolor paper comes in. Once it's glued to the surface of the newly created replacement piece, Armstrong uses watercolor pencils to match adjacent colors and forms.

"It's not easy," he says. "I go over some areas again and again, trying to complete the picture and get it right. My anxiety level increases every time I tackle this portion of the job. I never know whether I can pull it off or not." But he keeps at it until it's good enough to fool the eye.

"Thankfully, most missing pieces are pretty easy - sky or shrubbery," he adds.

Restoring wiggle room

What he rarely mentions is the time one piece arrived at his home broken into 15 separate sections. Or when he had to redraw hands and face on newly made replacement pieces (tough duty, even for an accomplished painter). Or the myriad puzzles that can't be taken apart because the wood has swelled over the years.

In the past, one trait that indicated a better-quality puzzle was the snugness with which the pieces fitted together. This was accomplished by cutting them with an extremely fine saw.

"When they were new," says Armstrong, "they were tight. Now, almost a century later, because of moisture absorption and swelling, the 'wiggle room' is gone."

When he encounters one of these puzzles, his job is to sand away the edges on each piece - making it smaller.

"Sometimes I go over each piece three or four times," he says. "It's the only way to keep them loose enough to last another 100 years."

Today, among his collection of nearly 2,000 puzzles, Armstrong has managed to collect all the puzzles of his youth. "Some of them were pretty good ones," he says.

Armstrong does not offer his repair services to the public. His explanation is simple: "I fall in love with every puzzle I work on," he says. "Whether exemplary or mediocre, each one is cherished. I can't bear to part with any of them."

Consequently, any puzzle Armstrong fixes, he owns. "The major criticism leveled at me [by his family] is that I spend too much time repairing puzzles that are too far gone," he says. "If I worked only on more expensive puzzles, or those with only minor damage, I could then sell my services to others."

But if he did work on someone else's puzzle, "I'd have to let it go immediately, and I can't bring myself to do that," Armstrong says.

As it is, he repairs so many that he manages to sell a couple hundred in a twice-yearly sale. He puts a catalog together, then mails it out to a list of interested collectors. Prices range from $10 to more than $300.

No repaired puzzle leaves his home without his initials on the back of each newly minted piece. "That way," he says, "a collector can't sell one of these as 'original' or 'complete.' "

The hobbyist says he devotes between seven and eight hours each day to his pursuit, is also an adviser to "Warman's Antiques and Collectibles Guide," "Schroeder's Collectible Toys," and "Maloney's Antiques and Collectibles Resource Directory," answering an assortment of queries from the editors.

When he's not bent over his 18-inch variable speed scroll saw, he is also an officer and board member of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors. And to fill what's left of his his free time with a puzzle- related activity, he lectures on and curates exhibitions of some of his prize puzzles.

They're all 'keepers'

His grandchildren are one reason Armstrong thinks twice before selling a puzzle. "My criterion for giving up a puzzle might best be described as 'shifting,' " he says with a chuckle. "I have defined a number of subcategories or sub- collections which I need to keep 'complete.'

"For example, there are puzzles with opera scenes, puzzles with scenes from Shakespeare, puzzles of World War I, and puzzles featuring women in adventuresome activities like fishing, hunting, or driving cars," he explains.

"Those were made in 1909, way before women's lib. Once I've decided which I need to complete my own collections, then I choose a few I think my children and grandchildren might be interested in," he adds. "Finally, I look at what's left and decide what I absolutely can't part with - no matter what. The rest I sell."

This love affair with puzzles doesn't seem as if it will end anytime soon.

If anything, it's becoming more complicated. Until now, Armstrong has always drawn the line at cardboard - not allowing any of the papery pulp to cross his threshold. "Cardboard puzzles aren't as intricate, or delicate, or clever," he explains.

But lately, he adds, "in the dark of night, they somehow steal their way into the house, and, of course, if they need repair, I can't turn them away."

For more information about Bob Armstrong's puzzles, see www.oldpuzzles.com.

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