Deep inside the piece process

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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).

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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

In 1969, Richardson, with his family, abandoned New Jersey and a high-powered career as computer analyst for this small town two hours north of Boston. Less than a year after beginning a new computer job here, he was laid off, along with Dave Tibbetts, a graphic designer. Together they formed a game business.

They were making $3 cardboard puzzles when a wealthy puzzle aficionado offered them $300 to construct a high-end wooden number. Richardson drove down to meet him in Boston, took one look at the "fancy wooden puzzles" this man and his wife were so fond of, and agreed to give it a shot.

The puzzles had been made by Par Company, the premier maker of luxury puzzles for five decades before it shut down in the '70s. Richardson quickly realized "there was an existing customer base of rich and crazy people who wanted to buy puzzles." So in 1974, Steve and Dave merged their names to form "Stave," which they "serendipitously" discovered can also mean to break into pieces. (Mr. Tibbetts went his own way a few years later.)

Stave picked up where Par left off, using many of the same techniques - personalized silhouettes in the shape of a customer's initials or favorite animal. It also ushered in what Anne Williams, an economics professor at Bates College, describes in her book "The Jigsaw Puzzle" as "a renaissance of puzzles aimed at the luxury market."

The US has a long history with jigsaw puzzles. The first were made from images of maps split into pieces to help children learn geography. Later, before television, video games, and the Internet, they were a choice diversion, reaching peak popularity during the Great Depression.

Today, Richardson's workshop, with its nine scroll saws quietly buzzing away, employs 25 workers. He collaborates on original art with five outside artists. His wife, Martha, is the company's controller. She drives an Audi with vanity plates that read "JIGSAW." His say "PUZZLES."

'If the Shoe Fits' gives me fits

Back in my office, without a picture, I had no idea what Richardson had sent me. It was only after browsing through a Stave catalog - Stave puzzles are primarily sold through their catalogs (802-295-5200) and online at stave.com - that I stumbled across "If the Shoe Fits." So, yes, by cheating, I got a sense of the puzzle's basic shape - a high-heeled button-up boot much like one of its individual pieces. I also saw it was a "Teaser," not one of Stave's most challenging "Tricks," but its difficulty was three on a scale of four.

So, with some pictorial guidance, I spread out the pieces on my desk at work. (This was work, after all.) The outline of the boot fit together more or less in the way traditional puzzles do. Colors and patterns and shapes corresponded to other nearby colors and patterns and shapes.

But the interior was something else. Dozens of shoe-shaped silhouettes jumbled together in the middle to form an unexpectedly coherent pattern. And there were all the Stave tricks: irregular edges, cutouts, and whammies.

Working intermittently over the next two days, I finished, with some help. I also managed to snap together the second, traditional puzzle during breaks.

It's hard to overstate the ingenuity of these puzzles, or the deep satisfaction I feel as I turn to look at them on my desk.

It's the contentment of "making order out of chaos," says Michael Fenswick, a puzzler from Nashville, Tenn. But the beauty isn't just surface - he and his wife also enjoy the smell of the wood.

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