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Deep inside the piece process

Stave puzzles are so loved, one man spent $50,000 a year on them.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2006



NORWICH, VT.

Before making the trip to this picturesque town on the banks of the Connecticut River, I was sent two puzzles.

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My assignment was to complete them before meeting Steve Richardson, owner of Stave Puzzles and self-anointed "Chief Tormentor." When I volunteered that I am terrible with puzzles, he replied cheerily: "You may be spatially challenged." I had one week.

It soon became clear that Mr. Richardson has earned his nickname. His wooden puzzles come in simple blue and green boxes, some no larger than a Rubik's cube. But they don't come with a picture. Completed puzzles include dropouts (empty spaces that no pieces fill), phony corners (pieces that look like corners but fit into the interior), and whammies (abutting pieces that take a third piece to lock them in place).

Most of the pieces that form "If the Shoe Fits," one of the puzzles I was sent, are shaped like shoes - a Victorian boot with buttons up the front, a cowboy boot with a spur sprouting off the heel. After assembling the "Shoe" (more on that later), I could see what Gerry Jablonski, a Stave customer from Chicago who owns about 20 puzzles, meant when he told me: "You really have to complete one in order to get into it." Prior to that, it was hard to understand why anyone would pay $345 - the cost of "If the Shoe Fits" - for 75 tiny pieces of brightly painted cherry, even if they are hand cut.

But customers do love them. In the showroom of Richardson's workshop there is a note from Barbara Bush, a longtime Stave fan - along with Bill Gates, Stephen King, and a retired gentleman who lived on Cape Cod, Mass., and for 20 years, before he passed away, spent $50,000 a year on puzzles.

Stave's relationship with these customers is unusually close. Richardson loves to toy with them. One year, as an April Fool's joke, he created "Five Easy Pieces." But the fifth easy piece, no matter what one did, wouldn't fit.

During his 30 years as a puzzlemaker, Richardson has developed a number of innovations, including challenging "Trick" puzzles that can fit together a million different ways, but only one is correct. Richardson was also the first to experiment with dimensionality: layered pieces evolved into pop-ups and finally 3-D puzzles.

A helicopter to make a puzzle

Back in the showroom, Richardson picks up "Olivia" - an octopus nestled in a coral reef - and flips her over, miraculously intact. "When you craft them intentionally," he says, "they stay together."

Then there's the "Pebble Beach Golf Links" (Richardson is a golfer) that took two years, four artists, and a helicopter, all to create an accurate flyover view of the course and its coastline.

Along the wall, in a prominent spot facing the door, is the masterpiece whose price earned Stave a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. "Dollhouse Village" was displayed at the White House in 1988 and is actually five discrete hand-painted puzzles, 2,640 pieces in all, that lace together. A hundred were made, 96 have been sold. Today, the set costs $16,500.

The newest puzzles Richardson is dreaming up will also form a village. They're part of a project he's working on with the Lands' End clothing company. When completed, 17 individual puzzles will interlock to form "The Lands' End Four Seasons Puzzle," a village with 12 upright shops selling the seasonal attire and wares found in the catalog. The first set of four puzzles, available over last year's holiday season, was winter-themed and included a cobbler shop and pieces shaped like winter boots. The spring puzzles should be available today at landsend.com. And at this moment, Richardson is hard at work on the summer set, due out in June.

Steve+Dave=Stave
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