A huge thank you to Mark Geis for sharing his impressive collection with us over the past few weeks. If you’ve missed any of the posts in the series, I’ve linked them below.
Mark was also kind enough to answer a few questions. Learn more about wooden jigsaw puzzles and why they are so special below.
What made you get into collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles?
I have always enjoyed doing jigsaw puzzles from the time I was little. I asked for and received a present when I graduated from college: The Jigsaw Book by Linda Hannas. The set contained a full color book about the history of jigsaw puzzles with many antique and vintage puzzles shown. The set also included two reproductions of 1930s era puzzles: Tom Kitten, a silhouette puzzle with illustration by Beatrix Potter and Ocean Liner with a colorful illustration of the Queen Mary cut to the pattern of the original puzzles. This opened my eyes to the variety of puzzles out there and piqued my interest, because I loved the illustrations on the puzzles and the variety of die-cut and hand cut puzzles that were to me way more interesting than the contemporary ones I was doing. Back then, I was mostly collecting cardboard puzzles from the 1930s and 1940s because that was what I was able to find locally, but would occasionally find a wood puzzle.
With the advent of eBay and after joining the AGPC (Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors) which is now the AGPI (Association of Game and Puzzles International) I had access to many more puzzle options, from buying online, to buying and trading with other collectors. I have continued to buy both cardboard puzzles and wooden ones, but have shifted over time to buying mostly wood puzzles over the last couple years.
Can you tell me more about the different types of wood used in puzzles today? I’d love to know more about materials and why a manufacturer might choose one over the other.
Early wood puzzles were made with solid wood. The down side of that is that long pieces may warp over time and some pieces might break along the grain of the wood. After plywood was invented around the time of WWI, most manufactures switched to 3 ply wood for puzzles. The plies were glued with the grain alternating in 90 degree directions making the pieces warp less and increase strength. Today you will see some premium cutters use 5 or more ply wood.
When puzzles were first produced in the 1700s and through much of the 1800s the puzzles were hand cut with a fret saw and later with a foot powered saw. The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 introduced the powered scroll saw to the public which became known as the jigsaw. This increased production and allowed for more intricate cutting. Today there are still many cutters using jigsaws to make puzzles, but that can be very time intensive. There are also several companies out there making puzzles with lasers. They can increase production and make many puzzles that are virtually identical once they design a die and program the laser. There is at least one company making wood puzzles with a water jet, but you need a strong plastic like print to withstand the water pressure.
What’s the best way to store and care for wooden puzzles to keep them in heirloom quality?
Some older puzzles have gotten damage called foxing where part of the print has turned brown. This is most often caused by the print being in stored in contact with cardboard boxes with high acid content that discolored the pieces. Some collectors will replace the boxes or place acid free paper between the box and puzzle. If I am storing pieces in an older box like this, I always put the first layer of pieces on the bottom of the box with the wood down and print up to keep the print away from the box. If you store the puzzles assembled, it is good to have them on a quality matt board, ideally acid free, so that when you stack them up, the board doesn’t damage the print below it.
High moisture content can damage cardboard puzzles, and wood pieces can expand, or warp making the fit on some old puzzles very tight, which can cause damage when trying to take them apart. Moisture can also cause wood plies to separate and prints to come off their backing. High temperatures can be hard on puzzles, causing warping or prints to come loose when the glue gets dried out. Storing your puzzles in the attic or in the basement if it is a moist environment is not recommended.
In your opinion, what is the key to a good wooden puzzle
What I like in a good wooden puzzle is imaginative cutting. There are strip cut wood puzzles with two ins and two outs, but to me they aren’t any better than a cardboard strip cut puzzle. I like puzzles that have variety in the cutting, great graphics and I prefer illustrations over photography. In general I like having figural pieces (pieces cut into recognizable shapes: animals, birds, people or geometric shapes) in the puzzle. Pastime and Par puzzles would be examples of vintage/antique makers that make excellent puzzles with great graphics and make excellent use of figural pieces. Current wood puzzle companies using lasers to make quality puzzles with figure pieces include Liberty Puzzles, Jigsawow and DaVici. Stave and Fool’s Gold Puzzles are two examples of companies that are still cutting quality puzzles by hand with scroll saws (jigsaws).