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A Puzzling Art Form

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image Bob Crane's 3D model carousel design was based on “Jane’s Carousel” in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A glimpse of some of today's top puzzle makers

In this high-tech, fast paced world where online games and entertainment offer instant gratification, it is refreshing to find a group of skilled craftsman who still carry on the traditions of hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles. But make no mistake. Today’s top of the line jigsaw puzzles are not the simply constructed puzzles your grandparents played with. Nosiree. These puzzles combine old fashioned charm with mind-boggling techniques and outrageous cuts designed to challenge and even astound. Here is an overview of some cutting edge puzzle artists who are redefining the art of puzzle making.

Bob Crane Design

Five years ago Bob Crane read an article in Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts Magazine that featured Carter Johnson and his puzzles. “They intrigued me. So I emailed Carter, followed his instruction and as they say, the rest is history,” Bob laughed. Today, he continues to find ways to challenge himself—raising the puzzle bar with each new piece.  “I really wanted to do something that had never been accomplished before—a true 3D puzzle the actually stood up, rotated and incorporated micro LED lighting.  The result is the NY Carousel puzzle, a project that took 104 scroll saw blades and a full year to complete.”

This 24” high by 18” wide 3D model carousel design was based on “Jane’s Carousel” in Brooklyn, N.Y. The model consists of 48 puzzles (1,423 pieces in all) with 661 handset Swarovski crystals and eight micro LED light units on the interior ceiling of the carousel. The eight “Stander” type carousel horses are magnetic puzzles.  The front horse is a puzzle, while the rear horse is solid (not cut).  The polished brass pole is drilled through the rear horse and wrapped with a pin stripping tape to simulate a carousel pole. Each horse has a small piece of steel on the bottom hooves, to attach to magnets in the floor panels. The 8 floor panels and fabric covered roof sections were cut from poplar as tray puzzles.

Contact Bob at bobcranedesign@gmail.com.

Thingamajigsaw Puzzles

Artist Andrea Farnham began as a cutting apprentice at Stave Puzzles, and discovered that she had a talent for designing puzzles as well  In 2003, she started her own company and began creating handcrafted wooden puzzles ranging from traditional, photo, and guestbook puzzles to newfangled and treacherously tricky puzzles. “The thing I find most intriguing about puzzle-making is trying to incorporate surprises for the puzzler like a dropped-out element, an unexpected edge design, a two way solution, or the realization that the most obvious way to assemble a puzzle might not be the correct way.” http://www.thingamajigsaw.com

Black Cat Magic is an example of Andrea Farnham’s two-way puzzle designs. The puzzle was cut from custom-made 1/4"-thick plywood with a cherry veneer backing. The print was mounted on the wood and a semi-matte laminate was applied before cutting. It measures 6-11/16”- diameter and has about 70 pieces. In the first view, the cat is looking for his catnip mouse located directly behind him on the rug. But by rearranging some of the pieces, the puzzle can also be assembled so that the cat grabs the mouse with his paws. The challenge is to assemble the puzzle both ways.

Ferguson Puzzle Company

Shawn Ferguson’s life is filled with kids and puzzles, and they fit together perfectly.  In addition to caring for his own two children, the 43 year old pediatrician runs a busy medical practice. “I have always loved assembling puzzles and take great enjoyment in not only reviving the tradition of early American wooden jigsaw puzzles, but exploring new ways to make them even more appealing to all ages. My philosophy is to treat every puzzle as a piece of art, and not simply cut a picture into pieces.  I believe that every puzzle has a story to tell, and I absolutely love being part of that process.”

It Takes a VIllage is an original design by Shawn Ferguson that reflects the motto that it takes the support of a community to raise a child. This technically complex puzzle utilizes four individual levels of depth. It was cut from premium formaldehyde-free PureBond mahogany plywood, and has 191 pieces. It measures 11" by 14" and is fully interlocking. The scene was etched with colored pencils to look like and elementary school drawing.  The puzzle was donated and auctioned off to help raise money for a local school.

For more of Shawn's work, visit www.fergusonpuzzles.com.

Fantasy & Legend Scroll Saw Puzzles  Woodimals CD Collection

Chris Yates Studio

Chris Yates is a prolific multimedia artist primarily known for his handmade wooden jigsaw puzzles. He sells his work through his website and at conventions and festivals around the country. He also licenses his designs to puzzle manufacturer Ceaco, which stocks The Baffler series in stores all over the world.   “My goal is not just to make challenging puzzles, but also to create a more sculptural and artistic experience,” he said. “Each puzzle is created with the knowledge gained through hundreds of previous puzzle experiments.” 

The Test, one of Chris Yates’ most challenging puzzles, consists of five bases, each with five layers adding up to 1,239 pieces total. It took about two solid weeks to create, and four full days of serious attention from the expert Baffler Assembly Team to put back together. The puzzle was completely hand cut on scroll saws from 1/4”-thick medium density fiberboard then hand painted. The central base is 1-1/2" by 13-1/2" by 13-1/2" and the cardinal bases are 1-1/2" by 6-1/2" by 6-1/2".

For more of Chris' work, visit www.chrisyates.net.

Bogarts Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles

Jay Hollis started his company after a chance encounter with famed puzzle maker, the late Pagey Elliott. “We met at a craft show and she invited me back to her home to talk about puzzles.  I’ve been hooked ever since.”  Trained as an architect, Jay pours his extraordinary visual sense, keen attention to graphic design, and unwavering commitment to perfection into each puzzle creation. Bogarts puzzles was selected from among 1,300 applicants to display their jigsaw puzzles at the 2010 Smithsonian Craft Show, at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. one of the most prestigious venues in the country.

Chips features delightful pop up figural pieces along with a series of layered segments and layered whimsies. Measuring 10" by 10" and consisting of 250 pieces, this puzzle is constructed from 1/4"-thick furniture-grade 5-ply cherry plywood. The image of Chips has been laminated onto the front surface of the puzzle. The back of the puzzle is cherry veneer brushed with three coats of tung oil. The layered portions of the puzzle actually protrude 1/8" above the surface of the puzzle itself. A secondary puzzle constructed out of figured ebony can be found beneath the layered portion of the puzzle. The three geese in flight were carefully articulated showing wing and tail feathers, and painted a contrasting gloss white.

For more of Jay's work, visit www.bogartswoodenjigsawpuzzles.com.

Creative Cutting Styles

John Stokes was putting 500-piece puzzles together at the tender age of four. In mid-life, John discovered the world of wooden jigsaw puzzles on eBay and instantly realized he wanted to start making them. He soon made it his mission to develop the most interesting cutting styles—and have fun doing it. Today, he is well known for his breathtaking puzzles with amazing shapes.  “I enjoy exploring swirls, curls and spirals and all of the things which can be done on the "way out" after spiraling in on a deep curl cut.” 

A good example of John's work is The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch (© Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid Spain). This puzzle measures 56 1/4" by 30" (prior to cutting) and consists of 4,271 pieces. The paper used was Ilford Gallerie Smooth Pearl Paper, the image was printed on an Epson 7600. John used OCB Reprographics (now "Arc") to mount the prints using a mounting film and a large roller press. The wood was a 5-ply ApplePly with maple on the front and back with three layers of birch inside. The puzzle is divided into three panels. The left panel was cut in "Swirl Curl"-style, the center panel was cut in "Long Round"-style, and the right panel was cut in the "Creative"-style. The puzzle sold on eBay for $25,100.

For more of John's work, visit www.custompuzzlecraft.com.

Platinum Puzzles

Steve and Dee Rogers founded Platinum Puzzles in 2006, and the operation is truly a family affair. "When we do a puzzle like the Odyssey, everyone has a say and a part to play in its creation," says Dee. Their favorite puzzles are the ones where they turn the puzzle into a puzzle game and challenge you to come play. Their signature piece is an umbrella to represent shelter from the storm. "In a world where high technology storms our lives, it is nice to know there is something low tech that can relax and challenge us at the same time" Dee added. http://www.platinumpuzzles.com

Homers the Odyssey is an epic adventure for the puzzler. You take on the charter of our brave Odysseus, after the war in Troy, you climb from the Trojan horse to make your way home, and so your journey begins. You will encounter ogres and giants, witches and monsters all trying to keep you from your beloved Penelope and Telemachus.

This puzzle has two layers and sometimes three pop ups, Dee-lightful and Dee-spicable (goes together more than one way) puzzles, tray slide puzzles and a three layer stand up Trojan horse. A guide book and a gadget box and a copy of the Odyssey will help you solve some of the puzzles that lie within the larger puzzles. It will it take you 10 years to make your way through the puzzle, but fear not, it even it took Odysseus ten years to make it home. Steve and Dee offer clues theywill trade for M&Ms.  This puzzles measure 29” by 57”.  The bottom layer is the map of the Mediterranean. The second layer is puzzles of places Odysseus visited.

For more of Steve and Dee's work, visit www.platinumpuzzles.com.

Steve Malavolta

Steve Malavolta’s puzzles range from single layer entertainment pieces to multi-layered sculptural creations. His designs include landscapes, abstracts, geometrics, and 3-dimminsional architectural forms created for both visual pleasure and intellectual challenges. Each inlaid piece is hand-cut from exotic hardwoods on a scroll saw with a jeweler’s blade, and finished on both sides. He uses a standard shaped puzzle piece with a well-defined lobe and socket on each side locking it to another piece. “My goal as a woodworker is to create an enjoyable, playable piece of heirloom quality . . . and my challenge to you is to find peace by piece.” he said. 

Pyramidal 551 is an example of Steve's 3-D sculptural puzzles. Cut from quality wenge wood (African Rosewood) with sterling silver, it measures 10” by 10” by 12”. The sculpture contains 551 pieces stacked in 36 perfectly balanced layers.

Cradle of Piece consists of 14 layers precisely cut from wenge and maple with 350 pieces in all. It measures 10” by 6” by 6” and comes with a glass cover.

For more of Steve's work, visit www.stevemalavolta.com.

Jardin Puzzles

Melinda Shebell first pieced together puzzles with her grandmother when she wasn’t much taller than a card table. With a high-tech career winding down, and time for puzzles again, she discovered the wonderful wooden puzzles of the past. “Being an engineer at heart, I started to create some of my own,” she said. Melinda sold her first puzzle in 2000. Today Jardin Puzzles are well-known for quality hand-cut craftsmanship, a highly skilled use of multiple cutting styles, and compelling artistic beauty.  

Exchanging Flowers is a limited edition puzzle made for the 2012 Pagey Elliott Puzzle Exchange. About 7" by 13" and 100 pieces, it was cut from 1/4" thick five-layer plywood with a hand-finished mahogany back. The puzzle can be assembled as two separate one-layer puzzles, a double layer puzzle, or one large single layer puzzle. Deception is woven into the artwork where a novel leafy cutting style, combined with the use of key dropouts, make it possible to assemble this puzzle in thousands of incorrect ways. Not aiming for complete frustration, the design combines two levels of difficulty. Sections are mildly challenging to solve. Rearranging sections for a given solution is much more difficult.

Most layered puzzles consist either of entire layers of different thicknesses or key pieces glued together to anchor the layers. But, Exchanging Flowers 2 uses unique hidden positioning pieces to hold the top layer in place.

For more of Melinda's work, visit www.jardinpuzzles.com.

Fool’s Gold Custom Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles

David Beffa-Negrini founded Fool’s Gold in 1997, as a result of his long-standing love affair with antique wooden jigsaw puzzles. “There is just no comparing the puzzles of years gone by to the standard cardboard variety of today,” he said. David holds true to the time honored methods of puzzle cutting, but also likes to incorporate a variety of special tricks to challenge puzzlers; such as cuts along color lines, irregular edges, drop-outs, silhouettes, and false edges.  “The true test of a great jigsaw puzzle is how satisfying and consuming it is to put the pieces together.” 

Back-to-Back Butterflies is a  tricky two-sided puzzle was especially created for die-hard puzzle enthusiasts. It consists of 225 pieces and measures 10” by 12” with the identical butterfly image on both front and back so puzzlers won’t know which side is which. It is all hand cut on a scroll saw from 1/4"-thick solid basswood. The entire puzzle interlocks and holds together once assembled. As with all Fool’s Gold Puzzles, you’re on your own—no pictures are included.

For more of David's work, visit www.foolsgoldpuzzles.com.

 

Woodimals  Wooden Puzzles

Image gallery
Jane's Carousel by Bob Crane. Black Cat Magic by Andrea Famham Black Cat Magic by Andrea Famham, alternate assembly It Takes a Village by Shawn Ferguson It Takes a Village by Shawn Ferguson The Test by Chris Yates The Test by Chris Yates The Test by Chris Yates Chips by Jay Hollis Chips by Jay Hollis Chips by Jay Hollis The Garden of Earthly Delights puzzle by John Stokes The Garden of Earthly Delights puzzle by John Stokes Homer's The Odyssey by Steve and Dee Rogers Homer's The Odyssey by Steve and Dee Rogers Pyramidal 551 by Steve Malavolta Cradle of Piece by Steve Malavolta Exchanging Flowers by Melinda Shebell Exchanging Flowers 2 by Melinda Shebell Back-to-Back Butterflies by David Beffa-Negrin Back-to-Back Butterflies by David Beffa-Negrin
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Comments (5 posted):

wood-n-things on 01/11/2014 11:00:43
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Very informative and kudos to all the members of this forum who were mentioned in the article. I can remember most of your first puzzles. You've come a long way!
davem_or on 01/11/2014 13:58:02
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I really like Steve's work. If I remember, there was an article about him in an earlier issue of the magazine. Any chance of Fox Chapel working with him on a book?
Scrolling Days on 01/11/2014 16:25:14
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Very informative and kudos to all the members of this forum who were mentioned in the article. I can remember most of your first puzzles. You've come a long way! Thanks, Mike! :) I'm just honored to be surrounded by such great company in that article......many very gifted cutters, several who I know personally, and I respect all of them very much. Thanks Kathleen for writing such nice things about me! Thank You I'm so happy to see "It Takes A Village" appear in the write up....although I had crafted multilayered puzzles in the past, that was the one that really forced me to develop some techniques with which I could break free from the restrictions of a flat surface. I'll make sure that the winner of the auction for that puzzle receives a copy of the magazine...they'll love it!
B'ville Scroller on 01/13/2014 17:04:50
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The link takes me to the page for the "Tale of Two Frogs" video.
BobD on 01/14/2014 05:58:47
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I've fixed the link. Bob
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Kathleen Ryan
Kathleen Ryan is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in business and people profile stories more