Demand is apparently sky-high during the pandemic.
“We’re scrambling like crazy to keep up,” said Richardson, 81, in a recent phone interview from his Norwich, Vt. home. “When we had to shut down in March, orders were pouring in. We reopened and haven’t caught up since then.”
The Attleboro native, who moved to Vermont in 1969, goes by the title “Chief Tormentor.” Retired from day-to-day duties, Richardson still designs puzzles. He’s noted for his “trick” puzzles which often use negative space.
“We want to drive the customer crazy,” he said playfully.
So what makes a $1,000 jigsaw puzzle? Attention to detail and meticulous craftsmanship, Richardson said.
Stave Puzzles are handmade and made-to-order. Each one is hand-drawn by one of the many artists Stave works with from around the world. Some are based on photos supplied by customers — representing, say, a pet or the family home. Hundreds of others feature images in dozens of categories — including animals, architecture, people, seasons, magazine covers, and museum art.
Each category even has its own subcategories. “Landscape” for instance is broken into 19 subcategories, from Mediterranean to Venetian. Searching www.stavepuzzles.com for “Boston” yields 13 puzzles, including “Old Fenway” (priced at $1,046) and “Boston Swan Boats” ($907).
In terms of difficulty, customers can choose from levels one to five. Do you want a traditional jigsaw or a “trick?” Perhaps a “teaser” or a “tormentor”?
Each puzzle is meticulously hand-cut, one piece at a time, by a blade no wider than an eyelash. The pieces are then sanded, polished to shine, and placed inside a thick signature blue-and-green golden-embossed box.
“Our boxes don’t have a picture on it — there’s no clue. People see $1,000 and say, What the hell’s in the box?” Richardson said, explaining why they sell direct rather than on store shelves.
Over the years, Stave has made a few custom $10,000 puzzles, he added. “There is some sticker-shock.”
So how did a guy from Attleboro, who jokes about failing woodworking class, cofound an ultra-high-end wooden-puzzle company?
After Tibbetts and Richardson were laid off from a computer company in 1970, “we felt around to reinvent ourselves and formed a cardboard game and puzzle company called Strategy House,” Richardson said.
In 1974, Richardson met a jigsaw fan from Boston who was “desperate” for a new wooden puzzle. He told Richardson he typically paid $300 for them.
“I sat up and saluted!” Richardson recalled. “We were getting $3 for our cardboard puzzles.”
Back in Vermont, Richardson’s father-in-law gave him an old scroll saw. Tibbetts and Richardson set out to see “if we could make these fancy puzzles” and cater “to the Rolls-Royce crowd.”
They eventually took out six ads in The New Yorker. The week after the first ad ran, they received a check for $2,400 from a customer buying all eight of their $300 puzzles, Richardson said.
The ads “did smoke out a customer base” who were “raring to buy the puzzles,” he added. “In our right minds, we would’ve never thought of this. We were focused on cardboard.”
In 1975, they got a big break by landing in the high-end Horchow Catalog. In 1976, Richardson bought out Tibbetts.
Their cult following grew. They landed on ABC News and in The New York Times Magazine in the 1980s, and were invited to show puzzles at the White House.
So what’s the most difficult puzzle the Chief Tormentor has ever created?
“Olivia the Octopus; it’s a sonofagun,” Richardson said.” And Fred and Ginger. Those are my masterpieces.”