NORWICH — Steve Richardson wants to drive you crazy. The cofounder, inventor, and self-appointed “chief tormenter” at Stave Puzzles has been in the business almost 30 years and still delights at the way his creations confound the most skilled aficionados.
“Our clients are very bright and they’re not used to getting tweaked. But we just love to tweak them,” he said.
In the small, bright showroom here, Richardson slides open drawer after drawer, displaying puzzles created over the years.
These are no ordinary puzzles. Crafted from five-ply, cherry-backed wood, each is decorated with original art, and is hand cut, one piece at a time, with a thin electric blade.
Richardson entered the game and puzzle business in the early 1970s after getting laid off. Armed with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Michigan, he teamed with Dave Tibbetts, a graphic artist looking for a new venture. The pair began by selling cardboard jigsaw puzzles, but made the switch to wood after discovering a high-end niche market. The company now employs 25 people, including local artists and puzzle cutters, marketing and administrative staff. (Tibbetts left after two years.)
Richardson speaks with glee about bending the rules of his craft. He opens one drawer to reveal the Snow White and Seven Dwarfs puzzle, explaining that when it is almost finished, the dwarfs look like they fit in seven empty spaces — and they almost do — but they don’t.
“Our clients called and said, ‘Dave, you sent the wrong pieces,’ ” he said, chuckling at the memory. He reveals that the empty spaces in the center represent shadows. The actual dwarf puzzle pieces cavort above the image where their feet slide into notches along the top of the puzzle.
The company offers five puzzle varieties. Traditional scenic puzzles, cut into anywhere from 75 to 1,000 pieces, including a number of silhouettes in the shape of a person, object, or animal. The shapes can be personalized to commemorate a birthday, holiday, or event, and have features such as adjacent edges that do not interlock, lines cut between two colors, fake corners that go in the middle of the puzzle, picture riddles within the puzzle, and more.
“Making order out of chaos. This is one reason puzzles are so popular,” said Richardson. “You get something done. You find that piece to slide in there and you feel good, a little rush of endorphins.”
For those who want more of a challenge, Richardson invented Teasers and Tricks, designed to “maximize befuddlement” with repeating shapes and colors, empty spaces in the middle, and some pieces that fit in more than one place, all rated for difficulty.
He points to one of his popular Trick inventions, Champ, named for the Lake Champlain sea monster. Small in size, the puzzle has 44 pieces that go together 32 ways, but only one way that is correct. “It’s relatively inexpensive, but really, really hard,” said Richardson.
To make things even more difficult, Stave boxes never include an image of the artwork.
“At the beginning we couldn’t afford to put a picture on the box, but we turned that to our advantage. We don’t put a picture because we want to drive you crazy. We tell people, ‘No cheating by looking at the website,’ and people like that,” he said.
The two additional categories are custom images, created from customers’ photographs, wedding invitations, original art, or other personal items, and limited-edition puzzles — complex and elaborate creations that include double layers, riddles, mystery stories (accompanied by a book), and more complex trick puzzles.
Such detailed hand-crafted puzzles cost more than the cardboard variety, and as the photos on the wall reveal— and as Richardson is happy tell you — they are often collected by the rich and famous. Photos of Barbara and George W. Bush are framed on the wall, as well as a thank you letter from Queen Elizabeth II, who received a gift from Stave when she visited the White House.
“We sell to the Rockefellers, the Duponts, the Phippses, the Mellons, you name it, the wealthiest people in the country are our customers,” said Richardson, adding, “Bill and Melinda Gates came for a tour, and for 20 years they’ve been good customers.”
No matter what your name might be, the showroom is open to all visitors, and Richardson has created a series of smaller, more affordable puzzles (from $145) suited to the beginning collector.
“Years ago I decided to create small challenging puzzles to whet people’s appetite, because honestly, if you’re going to buy a puzzle of this size that starts at one thousand or two thousand dollars, the sticker shock is significant,” said Richardson.
“So I created smaller ones in hopes that people will move up. The small ones are becoming very popular. We have a whole family of small, teaser puzzles. There’s three to four hundred to choose from.”
Every fall Richardson presides over a Stave Puzzle Weekend at Twin Farms, an all-inclusive resort on 300 acres in nearby Barnard.
“Our job is to entertain people,” said Richardson. “We have tables set up in a big room, and people come in Friday night and stay up to all hours with the puzzles.”
When guests want a break, the property offers hiking and biking trails, fly fishing, canoeing, and spa services — including a Japanese furo housed in a cabin where you can soak away stress in 104-degree waters.
“The combination of doing puzzles, the camaraderie with other puzzle nuts there, plus the competitions, the location, it’s just a great escape,” Richardson said.