Plus A Detailed Comparison of Wentworth and Liberty Puzzles…
This blog, Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Companies, is the second of a three-part series. The first blog gave an overview of modern jigsaw puzzles. The next and final part will show photos of how a puzzle is solved, from the first piece to the last one.
Let’s start with a brief look at why adult jigsaws are so passionately enjoyed by many people, especially when they have extra time at home.
The Many Whys of Puzzling
We will try to answer the question: why do otherwise sensible adults find jigsaw puzzles worth their time? For that matter, why do they find wooden jigsaw puzzles worth the sometimes breathtaking price?
Collectors are an obvious category. There are dedicated collectors of almost everything. And wooden jigsaw puzzles, especially old and scarce ones, are one of these “everythings.” Bob Armstrong, a collector and puzzle restorer in Massachusetts, organizes a Puzzle Parley every two years, usually in the Northeast. It attracts a hundred enthusiasts who collect, design, cut, buy, sell, swap or simply enjoy wooden jigsaw puzzles for a weekend of presentations, discussions and sales. Armstrong also runs a puzzle auction every year. He sells more than a hundred old puzzles, by various jigsaw puzzle companies or makers, to eager collectors.
However, most puzzlers are not serious collectors. They assemble puzzles that they own or borrow for the sheer joy of the activity.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
- It’s fun to create order out of chaos. A pile of random shapes and colors becomes a complete image, perhaps familiar or perhaps brand new. Nola and I get extra pleasure by seeing the image that we are creating. However, some puzzlers prefer not to know, to keep assembling until they discover it.
- Every puzzle presents yet another puzzle: what is the best way to tackle this pile of parts? Sometimes you will sort pieces by related colors; other times by shape, especially in puzzles with recognizable edges; or you might pull out the whimsies, little works of art in their own right, and build around them; sometimes you gather pieces with distinctive connectors.
- Puzzle-assembling pays dividends in visual acuity. A puzzle with blocks of solid color would be boring. Almost always, colors vary in value (lightness), hue, saturation and texture. Matching two pieces with subtle colors requires concentration and develops keen eyesight. (Bright lighting helps, too.)
- Puzzles develop shape recognition. Seeing that one piece exactly connects with one other, when both are randomly rotated, is a skill at which puzzle-workers get better and better.
Yet More Reasons to Puzzle
- Manual dexterity is a plus: turning and positioning a small piece to exactly fit with another keeps your fingers as well as your mind nimble.
- Art appreciation occurs on multiple levels. The puzzle image, of course, which may have attracted you to that particular puzzle. The whimsy figures, each of which is a clever bit of art in its own right, appearing in most wooden puzzles but not in cardboard ones. The cutter’s choice of whimsies as it relates to the puzzle theme. Compound whimsies made of multiple pieces, or whimsies which together form a larger scene. The clever tricks by which the puzzle cutter misleads you, such as straight edges buried within the puzzle, edge pieces which connect only with the help of an additional piece, corners which only appear when you assemble two pieces in just the right way.
- Many feel that working puzzles helps keep the mind alert and helps those with declining mental or physical skills.
- The pleasing snap when you connect one piece to another. And the especially pleasing sensation when you place the very last piece in place to complete the puzzle!
“Personalities” of Jigsaw Puzzle Companies
The world of puzzle makers is not huge, but it’s still big enough that some jigsaw puzzle companies adopt “personalities” to set themselves apart. Here are personal styles that distinguish a few puzzle makers. (The first two companies hand cut, the others laser cut.)
- Stave Puzzles‘ head styles himself The Chief Tormentor. Stave classifies its puzzles as Teasers, Tricks, Tormentors, TroubleMakers, Treats and Tidbits. Their focus seems to be on challenging the puzzle solver.
- Turtle Teasers‘ maker prides himself on including no whimsies except for his own trademark turtle; he also cuts on an evenly spaced grid. These features are intended to make the puzzles more difficult to solve (and they are!).
- Artifact Puzzles, which also sells Ecru Puzzles, features contemporary art work. Their puzzles have not too many pieces, but complex cut designs. They are happy to sell you Mystery puzzles in which no image is supplied. Also, they run a Puzzle Club from which you may rent puzzles.
- Dowdle Folk Art offers work only by artist Eric Dowdle, generally cityscapes or Disney scenes. One surprise is that they sell both cardboard and wooden jigsaw puzzles. Both types feature similar kinds of images.
- Nervous System Puzzles offers computer-generated scenes (such as simulated slices of geodes) or computer-generated cut patterns. The latter include “infinity puzzles” such as a NASA display of the Earth in a puzzle that has no edges – you can take pieces off one side and attach them to the opposite side to create a puzzle that never ends.
- Whimsy Wood Puzzles give you a choice of Standard Cut (a boring grid-like pattern, similar to a cardboard puzzle) or, at a higher price, a Whimsy Cut. They have only a few different Whimsy Cuts (I counted fifteen) and they tell you which one they use on each puzzle.
Two Major Sources: Wentworth and Liberty
Nola and I own a few hundred wooden jigsaw puzzles, both for our own amusement and to lend to family members. A dozen are hand cut by Dr Dick Brown, a retired chemistry teacher now living in North Carolina. Dick used to live in Maine and we especially like his puzzles of Maine scenes using images by the artist R. N. Cohen. Another dozen are old wooden puzzles by various jigsaw puzzle companies.
However, most of our puzzles are made by Wentworth and Liberty. It doesn’t bother us that these puzzles are not hand cut the old-fashioned way. In fact, as a “pioneer in lasers” I’m happy to see that the laser, “a solution seeking a problem,” has yielded not only useful applications but also diverting amusements.
Puzzle makers form a small club of talented designers and craftspeople. However, they also compete with one another and are jealously proud of their own work. Moreover, jigsaw puzzle companies are unique and not at all like one another. Therefore, I hesitate to offer comparisons which may offend these dedicated and hard-working artisans. (But I will! And I hereby apologize to them in advance.)
Because I have sampled so much of the oeuvre of Liberty and Wentworth, I feel qualified to compare these two jigsaw puzzle companies for you. Of course, the comparison reflects my and Nola’s personal tastes and might not match your assessment:
- Liberty uses thicker wood (5.2 mm compared with 3.0 mm); for this reason, their pieces snap together more exactly and more satisfyingly.
- Liberty offers a larger number of images on their website from which to choose: approximately 500, versus 200 for Wentworth.
- Liberty puts extra effort into creating fresh, innovative cutting patterns. They do a great job and as a result, their puzzles are generally more rewarding to assemble.
- Liberty will replace a lost or broken piece for free! When working a large puzzle (more than 500 pieces) we sometimes can’t find the last one or two pieces. Usually a sweep under the sofa will discover it. But in the rare instance that it is totally lost, Liberty comes to the rescue graciously and without charging us for our carelessness.
- Liberty uses a large number of charming whimsies, both simple and compound. We sometimes see the same whimsy in more than one puzzle. Despite this, I believe that every Liberty puzzle has a distinct cut design. Sometimes the entire pattern of cut is sweepingly different, and even when a traditional type of cut is used, the cut pattern seems to be unique to each puzzle. In contrast, other laser cut jigsaw puzzle companies, including Wentworth, are willing to use the same or a similar cut pattern more than once. On one particular occasion I saw that Wentworth took the cut pattern of one puzzle, flipped it left-to-right and changed a few whimsies to produce a new pattern; they then cut a puzzle with a different image using that new pattern.
- Although Liberty does not seem to run sales, they offer a Puzzle Club that gives discounted prices and free shipping to its members.
- Almost every puzzle image offered by Wentworth is available in multiple puzzle sizes. You can buy a tiny puzzle of 40 pieces, a standard one of 250 pieces, a big one with 500 pieces, or puzzles of almost overwhelming size: 750, 1000 or 1500 pieces. Thus, although Wentworth may show you fewer images, they have a larger number of different puzzles for sale.
- Wentworth offers piece counts both smaller and larger than Liberty. Whereas two-thirds of Liberty’s puzzles are in their “large” size category, which mostly range from 500 to 750 pieces, it’s easy to find Wentworth options that are both smaller and larger than that.
- Because the pieces are thinner, it’s very easy to disassemble a Wentworth puzzle when you’re ready to put it away: the pieces practically fall apart when you shake them.
- Inside its box Wentworth provides a drawstring bag to hold the puzzle pieces, which is a nice touch.
- Wentworth runs modest sales now and then, such as free shipping for orders above a minimum size.
- Wentworth helps support local clubs in UK which share puzzles, and which lend them out to the elderly.
How Liberty and Wentworth Are Similar
Nola and I think highly of both companies. Their differences pale before their similarities:
- Both are utterly reliable well-established companies with a strong commitment to customer service.
- The two companies charge similar prices.
- Both size their puzzles at about 2 pieces per square inch. Thus a typical piece is roughly ¾” square. (They also sell puzzles with larger pieces, numbering 0.7 to 1 per square inch. These are good for young children and for adults with limited vision or dexterity.)
- The companies each have a very large range of puzzles from which to choose.
- Both have pretty prompt delivery, even during the pandemic when their products are in great demand. (FYI, for us in Michigan, we receive puzzles from UK about as quickly as from Colorado.)
- Both allow you to visit their factory, although it may be necessary to make an appointment.
- All their puzzles include whimsies chosen to fit the theme of the puzzle. Both jigsaw puzzle companies use enhanced, complex and appropriate whimsies. Liberty seems to employ more interactive whimsies (several whimsies which form a scene) than does Wentworth.
- Both companies make fully interlocked puzzles. That is, once the puzzle is assembled you may if you wish move one piece and the entire puzzle will move, without leaving orphan pieces behind.
- Within each puzzle, connections between pieces are unique. You can almost always tell when you have mated the right two pieces together, just from the feeling when they join.
This completes our psychoanalysis of jigsaw personalities, the features that distinguish various wooden jigsaw puzzle companies. We have given special attention to Wentworth and Liberty, two major makers of laser cut puzzles. The previous blog in this series was an overview of all modern jigsaw puzzles. The following final installment offers a special treat: a photo essay showing the complete assembly of a Liberty wooden jigsaw puzzle.
Credits: Three images by Art Chester.