Jigsaw puzzles for connoisseurs exasperate the experts

THINGS are always going to pieces for Stephen Richardson. But somehow he manages to put everything back together again. Well, that's the way life goes if you're a puzzle maker.

Calling himself a ``corporate dropout,'' Mr. Richardson wandered into the puzzlemaking business a dozen years ago. He says it took three full years before the logistics of jigsawing made any real sense to him. ``It took nearly 10 years before it made any real cents -- and dollars.'' But since 1974 he's turned a million pieces ``plus'' into bread and butter for himself, his wife, and two sons.

His puzzles definitely aren't kids' stuff. They're for jigsaw connoisseurs who have the chips to spend -- say between $100 and $2,000 per puzzle.

Tucked away in his green house and workshop amid Vermont's greenery, Richardson's company is the ``Tiffany's'' of the puzzle trade. He doesn't deal in the cardboard bafflers that are stamped out by machine at a rate of 2,000 a day. His puzzles are all custom crafted out of eight layers of wood with the reverse side made from a highly polished mahogany.

Richardson can create a puzzle of bottom-rung complexity (70 pieces) in two days. The 1,400-piece jigsaws take a week of solid work, and that generally means upping the 40-hour work week to six or seven days.

Richardson registers about 500 customers in his account books; of these, 400 are regulars, some wanting a puzzle a month.

A master at part-and-whole conceptualizing, he revels in matching wits with puzzle doers. And he's delighted when a frustrated buyer calls him -- even at 3 a.m. -- with a tirade because ``nothing fits together.''

But it does, eventually. For Richardson, all this interaction is like a chess challenge, only he isn't sitting across from his opponents. They're miles away.

With a bachelor's in math and a master's in computer science, Richardson has trained himself in the wiles of complexities and perplexities, so he's quite capable of tossing multiple teasers into each jigsaw.

He never puts a puzzle's picture on the slick blue shipping box -- the buyer gets only the title. And often all the puzzle's pieces have nearly the same shape, nearly being the key here. Or lots of the pieces look like edges (or borders) when they're not. Or one piece fits perfectly into two spaces. Richardson has no qualms about putting several of this type into a single puzzle -- a trick that's exasperating even for the experts.

The jigsaw artisan also goes for hiding puzzles within puzzles. He conceals sayings amid the pieces, using the rebus technique (a combination of pictures and letters). After a puzzle doer has his jigsaw together, he starts to search for a cryptogram in the picture, something like ``See you later, alligator'' (formed by puzzle pieces in the shapes of C-U-L-8-R plus an alligator outline).

In one form or another, Richardson personalizes most of his puzzles, often with the customer's name, initials, motifs of a hobby, or a message. Some of his special specializations:

For Queen Elizabeth (the puzzle was ordered by the premier of New Brunswick as a gift), Richardson ``puzzle-ized'' an original painting by a New Brunswick artist, hiding within the pieces the pictures of a polo pony, pastoral animals, and royal crests.

For an orienteering buff, he made an eight-tiered puzzle reflecting the eight elevations on a particular topographical map.

For a European, he slipped in a love message to an American sweetheart.

For a Chicago couple, he added a message in Braille dots that were disguised as the jigsaw's design.

Puzzle pictures can be anything from a calendar to a Chagall; or a photo supplied by the buyer; or a painting Richardson has specifically commissioned.

From start to finish, each jigsaw takes about 30 steps, and Richardson will gladly share steps 1 (deciding on the picture), 2 (gluing the picture to the wood), and steps 28, 29, 30 (the finishing touches). But steps 3 to 27 are top secret. He doesn't even let visitors with an engineering eye tour the workshop.

As a child, Richardson wasn't a compulsive puzzle doer, although his grandmother always had plenty of jigsaws on the dining table at her summerhouse. And his business today isn't an inner dream that surfaced. He just sort of fell into the vocation when his life went to pieces a dozen years ago.

After stints in management consulting, Richardson says the corporate-commuter squeeze ``got to me.'' So he decided to chuck the big city for the placidity of the countryside. With family in tow, he took a job with a computer firm in Vermont. But within six months, he was on the street in a mass layoff.

``There I was,'' he says, ``with a new house'' and four mouths that needed food. That's when he joined forces with Dave Tibbetts, a graphic designer who also was a layoff victim. Together they marketed games and puzzles, doing only the ``creating,'' with the actual construction farmed out.

Their next move was the jigsaw business, and they named their company ``Stave,'' a combination of their first names. And wouldn't you know, stave just happens to mean ``come apart or break up'' -- ``that's if you take the dictionary's 20th definition,'' Richardson explains.

A year later, the partners parted, with Tibbetts going into children's puzzles while Richardson stayed with the adult line, retaining the name Stave.

``In those early days we were almost on welfare,'' he explains. ``But six one-inch ads in the New Yorker showed me there was a market out there.'' So the native New Englander stuck with the venture until all the pieces finally meshed into place. Orders now average 400 a year; his wife, Martha, has joined him at the scroll saw; and even the family car is part of the picture -- it carries the plates ``PUZZL.''

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