Bright Ideas: Puzzle-Maker Keeps Fans Guessing

Steve Richardson walks a fine line as the self-proclaimed “Tormentor In-Chief” at Stave Puzzles in Norwich, Vt. The maker of hand-crafted wooden jigsaw puzzles has made a career out of frustrating his customers, but not so much that he scares them off.

“I can easily design a puzzle that they can’t do,” Richardson said. “Well they won’t buy any more ‘cause they haven’t done the first one and they’re not happy. I can’t totally crush them.”

Richardson, who said he’s much better at designing puzzles than putting them together, got into the business by accident. He and a friend, Dave Tibbetts had been laid off from their jobs at a computer programming company in 1969. The Stave name is a combination of “Steve” and “Dave.” Both had a penchant for designing games so they opened up a small business, first called “Strategy House.

He said they were making enough to pay their bills for about five years until the phone rang one day. The caller was “a wealthy Bostonian,” asking if they could create a wooden jigsaw puzzle, like the ones he’d been buying from Par Puzzles in New York, which was scaling down after one of the founders retired. When the caller said he’d been paying about $300 per puzzle, he got Richardson’s attention. It was a lot of money at the time.

“Our monthly mortgage was $246,” he said.

Par Puzzles was well known in the business, with a customer base including names like DuPont, Mellon and Rockefeller. Richardson knew next to nothing about cutting wood but he and Tibbetts knew an opportunity when they saw one.

In the summer of 1974, Richardson’s father-in-law gave them a saw and they figured out how to make wooden jigsaw puzzles. By the fall, they were running an ad in The New Yorker magazine, “and the very first customer from that ad was $50,000 dollars a year, [and] was with us for 20 years. Bingo. We hit the lottery.” The rest of the existing customer base took notice and Richardson was on his way.

A few years later, Tibbetts decided he didn’t want to be in the business full-time and he let Richardson buy him out, “for a dollar and a saw,” as Richardson puts it. They’re still good friends and Tibbetts still does some artwork for Stave.

Today, Stave Puzzles usually run $750 to $7,500 each and sometimes, more. In 2000, a set of five puzzles went for $14,500, going into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most expensive jigsaw puzzle at the time. That set later sold for $20,000 and Richardson said they’ve sold about 100 of them.

Each puzzle Stave makes also contains one piece in the shape of the company logo, a clown. The clown can also be a joker, or wildcard of sorts. Stave has used it as fake piece in some puzzles, an extra, which had no place in the design, typical of the demonic twists Richardson is known for.

“I’m thinking they’ll figure it out, it’s going to be obvious but they didn’t and we got hammered, and so, then we put a little sign under the clown that says ‘sometimes I just don’t fit in.’ “

Richardson said the company, whose clientele includes the Gates family, the Bush family and even Britain’s Royal Family, sells about 3,600 puzzles a year—or about 300 a month.

That rate doubles during the holiday rush, putting the pressure on Stave’s 25 employees, including artists and master cutters who make each puzzle. They do it all by hand and each puzzle, even multiples made from the same original design, has its own unique set of pieces.

“The wealthiest people in the world are faced with a decision at Christmas time—what are they gonna buy for their wife or their husband or somebody else?” Richardson said. “They’ve given them jewelry, they’ve given them coats, what are you gonna do? We rescue them. If you have everything, you could always use another Stave puzzle. That’s the beauty of this business.”

Richardson’s loyalty to his customers is also why he’s constantly looking for new ways to fool them.

“It’s like the fox and the hound. They’re chasing us all over the fields and we just have to keep one step ahead of them.”

While Richardson wasn’t the first puzzle creator to work tricks and gamesmanship into his product, he may have made the most out of what he calls Tricks, Teasers and Troublemakers.

For instance, his “whammy edge” is designed to frustrate puzzlers who like to start by finding all the straight edge border pieces. The “whammy” uses two straight edge pieces which won’t hold together a third piece is found. He’ll also put straight edge pieces and fake corners into the middle of a puzzle. Sometimes he’ll also incorporate straight edges right along a change in colors, a straight-line cut, making it very difficult to figure out what piece should be next-door.

Richardson said he gets the most satisfaction when he comes up with a new, ingenious design but, like any creative type, he said he has his dry spells.

In 2013, he’ll debut his latest concoction: five puzzles in one. It consists of four different kids riding their soapbox cars, which are attached to form one finished puzzle, a flying machine of sorts. It kept one of his top puzzle testers guessing for weeks. “So I’m saying OK, I’ve got a winner here.”

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