y interest in woodworking has a lot to do with wood itself, which offers a stunning variety of colors, different cutting and shaping abilities, and a wide range of tactile qualities. In the beginning of my career I explored these properties by making lap dulcimers and guitars, incorporating a good amount of inlay. With holiday gift-making being a tradition of mine, I once made a stand-up serpent puzzle for my nephew. It was the start of a new career and what I sometimes consider an obsession.
My earliest puzzles were only nicely colored and figured slabs of wood, cut into somewhat undefined pieces and then framed. Currently I am incorporating my inlay skills in a style similar to intarsia, creating three-dimensional architectural puzzles, abstracts, and landscapes like the one shown on page 108. (The inlay work, along with the cutting of the puzzle pieces, is done on a scroll saw with a jewelers blade.) All of my woods are hand-picked for consistency of grain, color, and figure. These qualities lead me as a designer into creating the individual piece.
There are a few properties that I always keep in mind when making what 1 consider to be a good puzzle. First, the design needs to be visually pleasing. Then comes the challenge. The complexity of the puzzle can range from the simple to the mind – boggling. In all my pieces I use a standard-shaped puzzle piece with a well-defined lobe and socket on each side to lock it to the others, a process that carries through the whole puzzle. After years of freehand cutting, this is a process that has become second nature, and I find this part of my work to be very meditative.
Layering adds a unique touch to my puzzles. It not only creates depth for the design but also increases the puzzle s difficulty. Because the woods are kept in their natural colors, it enables me to finish the pieces on both sides, making solving the puzzle even harder. Finishing is also an important part of my puzzles, as they are meant to be handled, giving them a tactile as well as a visual appeal.
Each puzzle is made to be played, creating both entertainment and intellectual challenge. I take pleasure in knowing that through the years I have been able to combine both elements in each piece. My goal as a woodworker is to present my puzzles as enjoyable, playable works of art of heirloom quality. My recommendation to you is to practice your woodworking techniques and enjoy the pleasures that the process of creating and the use of the finished piece gives back to you.
Steve Malavolta is a self-taught woodworker who has been designing brain-twisting, hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles since 1977. He also makes letter openers and sculptural lighting fixtures at Different Grains, his Albuquerque, New Mexico studio.