Steve Richardson, a designer of wooden jigsaw puzzles, says he has a sadomasochistic relationship with his customers, who pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to indulge in the tortures that he devises. Richardson engineers each piece for maximum frustration; false corners, false edges, irregular edges, and artful gaps (called dropouts) are common, as are fanciful shapes that resemble clowns, cars, animals, and other familiar objects. Richardson, 67, founded Stave Puzzles in Norwich, Vt., 32 years ago and has held the title of Chief Tormentor almost as long, but he is capable of mercy. “We have a policy that we’ll eventually give you some clues on how to put it together,” he says. “You can beg for hints, but you have to humble yourself.”
He remembers receiving a phone call from a customer who was baffled by a Christmas tree jigsaw. The caller claimed that the puzzle’s final piece, which was green, did not belong in the remaining gap, which should have been filled by a piece depicting part of the tree’s trunk.
Richardson asked, “What color is the trunk of a tree?”
“Oh no, you wouldn’t!” the caller cried.
But Richardson would, and did: The caller flipped over the piece, saw its mahogany back, and understood the solution. “He chewed me out, but praised me for being so diabolical,” Richardson recalls.
Other Stave puzzles can be far more difficult to solve. In 1984, to satisfy customers who could finish 50-piece jigsaws in a sitting and would demand a refund and a fiercer challenge, Richardson invented his first trick puzzle. Titled Champ and resembling the sea monster of the same name that, according to legend, resides in nearby Lake Champlain, it can be completed in 32 different ways. But only one solution, the one that inserts the tail into the beast’s mouth, is correct. Shortly after debuting Champ, Stave introduced teasers: puzzles that feature multiple false solutions and also rely on clever uses of color and shapes.
So devious are Stave puzzles that occasionally a customer will surmise that a piece must be missing from the box. Packing errors rarely occur, but when they do, Richardson’s torments boomerang on him. He remains haunted by a decade-old incident involving a traditional puzzle with a busy, complicated print. After the puzzle had been shipped from the workshop, Richardson noticed one of its pieces sitting on a counter. A Stave employee retrieved the puzzle the next day, a Friday, and Richardson promised to send it by the following Tuesday. “I couldn’t just throw the piece back in. I had to make sure another one wasn’t missing,” Richardson says. To that end, he and 12 recruits spent that weekend assembling the puzzle in shifts. “It was like doing a Jackson Pollock scene,” he says. “It was a bitch to put together.”
Ultimately, Richardson and his crew met the reshipment deadline, and the customer received his jigsaw—complete, but not intact. “It was humiliating,” says Richardson, “but it had a happy ending.”