One Very Puzzling Craftsman
Roy Underhill, woodworking author and host of public television's The Woodwright's Shop, believes that many people today begin woodworking as a diversion from technology. The switch to creating something by hand provides a satisfaction not found in the computer world. And that's exactly the way it was with Locust Grove, Virginia, craftsman Jerry Syfert.
"I worked for a large company in mainframe computer maintenance, and really enjoyed it because at first I could work with my hands and solve problems," says Jerry. "Then I was promoted into middle management. Suddenly, I had people above me to satisfy and people below me whose work I was responsible for. And I was no longer working with my hands. So, I took up woodworking as a hobby."
With seven children—and grandchildren starting to appear—Jerry built toys. He crafted large-scale trains, doll cradles, rocking horses, trucks, and cars, plus occasional pieces of furniture. He was infatuated. When his company merged with another large firm, Jerry opted to retire into full-time woodworking. "I thought that selling my work at crafts fairs with my wife, Anita, would be fun, and I'd really be working with my hands again," he recalls.
Jerry's toys sold well, but he was discovering that wooden toys were difficult to pack and bulky to move. So he began experimenting with bandsaw boxes made of laminated native and exotic woods in a variety of colors.
The buying public's response was good. But always eager to try something new, Jerry began cutting the inside material of the boxes into simple jigsaw puzzles. He then made them more and more intricate, and their selling price rose with the difficulty level. Today, his puzzles might have as many as 1,200 pieces and sell for $2,000 or more. Yet, he has many lesser-priced puzzles, too.
As he explains, he doesn't make and sell very many of the big ones. "At a crafts fair, people get overwhelmed with all there is to see, so I developed the large, difficult puzzles as a 'hook' to get people into my booth. I set a big attractive piece out front to draw attention, maybe with a little sign telling how many pieces are in it. Usually, I put a large enough price tag on it so I won't lose my hook. But at one fair I put out a big puzzle priced at $1,200 and a lady bought it the first day! It's usually puzzle collectors that buy those."
Although Jerry occasionally parts with one of his large puzzles, the majority of sales are generated from smaller ones priced under $60. "My least expensive four-layer puzzle is $35 in solid maple. Then they go up in increments of $5," he notes. "So I think they're all reasonably priced."
Although much has been published about pricing items to sell, and Jerry's read all of it, he has developed his own theory. "You can read about pricing practices that deal with fixed costs, such as overhead, materials, and all, but I don't do that," he says.
"I design a piece, which is really what I like doing, then figure out how to make it the most efficient way," Jerry continues. "Sometimes that requires changing something because it won't work readily. But when I've got the design down pat, and the process to make it ironed out, I ask myself, "What am I willing to make that for?" Then, I ask, "Would somebody be willing to pay that much for it?" Because if I made a puzzle and thought it should bring $100, but no one would be willing to pay that much, why should I make it?"
Jerry tries to set reasonable prices for his pieces. And there's good reason for it. He sells the puzzles only at crafts fairs. And he only makes those he sells during seven months of the year. From December through April you'll find him and Anita in Florida, where Jerry doesn't have a shop. That makes outlets for his work, such as galleries and gift shops, out of the question. "In Florida, I can't take a phone call from a shop owner asking for some more puzzles right away because I couldn't deliver," he points out.
Design with bands of wood
A quick glance around Jerry's double-car garage shop hints at something missing. Drill press? Nope, there's one. Jointer? Yes, it's an ancient Craftsman. Planer? There it is in the corner.
"I don't have a tablesaw. When I quit making toys and furniture, I sold it," Jerry replies to the questioning look. "I resaw on my bandsaw, then cut the workpieces up with either the mitersaw or bandsaw."
In a few quick steps, Jerry approaches his workbench, the back of it a wall of clamps in various sizes. "I glued up these pieces of padauk and maple to demonstrate how to make different designs with laminated wood," he says, removing the array of clamps from a long block before him. "I removed the glue squeeze out earlier, now I need to square up the block."
Jerry carries the workpiece to his jointer. "First I get one side perfectly flat," he explains, turning on the machine. After a few passes, he places the now-flat side against the fence and feeds the piece through two more times. "Now the block has two flat sides to ride on the planer bed."
The planer spews a colorful mixture of padauk orange and maple tan as Jerry completes the squaring. "Looks like confetti," he quips.
At the mitersaw, the craftsman clamps to the fence a thin stopblock, set for "about half an inch." (After so many years, Jerry actually does little measuring.) Then, he sets the blade at 45°, and saws off a slab of the laminated block, as in the photo below. "This Freud crosscut blade cost me about $140," Jerry says, fingering the piece, 'but it makes such a smooth cut that I don't have to sand. And with all these pieces, the less sanding, the better!"
After slicing off several more pieces, Jerry gathers them and places them on an adjacent table. Placing the slices on edge, he proceeds to move them around like dominoes, as in the photo below. "Depending on how you match them up, you can get several different designs. Here are just two possible," he says as he arrives at the configurations. "When I find ones I like, I'll glue them up into box blanks," he adds. "Then, I'll cut them up at the bandsaw as I would a box, but I'll puzzle the inside." (You can see how Jerry puzzles a box in the sequence below.)
Pieces aplenty to play with
For a final finish on the box, Jerry puts on three coats of lacquer with his HVLP sprayer, sanding in between. "But in spraying the box, the top layer of the puzzle gets coated, too," he says. "So you can always identify the top layer's pieces. They always have one shiny side."
Prior to the final finish, though, the puzzlemaker treats the box and the pieces with a sealer coat. "I've used a mixture of two parts linseed to one part turpentine for years," Jerry explains. "The pieces I just drop into a can, then pour in the mixture to cover them. After swishing it around, I pour it off. It primarily serves to rinse off the sawdust. I couldn't spray them with lacquer. I'd blow them all over the shop!"
Understandably, Jerry dares not mix the pieces from one puzzle with those of another in the finishing process. Nor will the pieces from one box blank fit into another one. Seems like it all might become confusing somewhere along in the process.
"Not really," Jerry says. "I keep the pieces for one puzzle in a pile somewhere near the box they go in until everything is coated with finish. Then Anita assembles each finished puzzle in its box." He smiles. "My job is just to cut them out."
A real bear of a puzzle to make one very puzzling craftsman
Since the 1930s, versions of the table-and-chair puzzle have popped up here and there. You even may have owned one. But Jerry likes to tell the tale that sparked the idea for it back in a distant decade: "Many, many years ago there was a family of bears who lived in the woods during the summer and in a cave during the winter. So every spring and every fall they had to pack up their furniture and move it.
"As the bears grew older, this became harder and harder to do. One winter night, a couple of the smarter bears got together and figured out that if they could construct their furniture to fit into one package, it would be a lot easier to move. That's how the now world-renowned table-and-chair puzzle came about."
According to Jerry, the large table and chairs belong to the grandma and grandpa bear. (They are up in years, and live with the "kids.") The next largest table and chair belong to mama bear and papa bear. The smallest table and chair belong to baby bear and the little girl with blond hair who sometimes visits. Fitted together, the puzzle measures 6x3x21⁄2 ".
How to cut up a puzzle
1. Jerry laid up and sawed the maple and padauk for this 25⁄8 "-thick box blank so that the bands meet at 90° angles. But gluing it up required clamping blocks. Nearly all of his puzzles begin as a laminated blank of contrasting wood.
2. To cut the top and bottom off the box blank and to saw out the inside, Jerry installed a 10-teeth-per-inch 3⁄8 " blade on his bandsaw. "I like to keep my puzzle thickness to about 11⁄2 ", "he says. At this stage, Jerry uses a fence to ensure straight cuts. The square of 1⁄8 "- thick acrylic clamped to the ban saw table provides a smooth, slick surface to guide the workpiece.
3. Puzzling the inside of the box calls for a 14-teeth-per-inch 1⁄8 " bandsaw blade. "One of .025" thickness provides more stiffness," Jerry notes, as he begins guiding the wood—now turned on its side—against the blade. Quickly, wavy slices begin falling from the workpiece. "The thinner I saw the slices, of course, the more pieces the puzzle will have. These are about 1⁄2 " thick for a five-layer puzzle." (Note the peg holes in the box at Jerry's left. The lid has matching ones. He'll cut the heads off of two maple wheel axles and glue one in each of the box's holes to hold the lid in place.)
4. The puzzle pieces-to-be now cut into wavy slabs, Jerry once again begins feeding them into the bandsaw blade. "I've learned to keep my waves somewhat uniform, so the wood has a solid foundation as I saw," he says. Out from the blade come long, skeleton-like bands of wood. "Here, I could get as intricate as I want, but the finer the cutouts the weaker the pieces will be. So there's always a compromise to consider with puzzles."
5. Finally, Jerry starts the final step for a wood puzzle. His steady fingers move the wood to and from the blade as he crosscuts the skeletal bands into pieces, which begin to pile up on the table. "Usually, I end up with about 56 or so pieces per layer," he notes. "So this five-layer puzzle will have 280 pieces in all."