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A puzzling hobby

By Staff | Apr 4, 2014

John Wittneben works on a circa 1917 wooden puzzle. Photo by Michael Tidemann

John Wittneben is a surveyor in his regular job. It’s an occupation that requires accuracy and the ability to solve puzzles – such as where someone may have buried a surveyor’s pin a hundred years ago or what rock may have stood as a section line marker when Native Americans still roamed Iowa’s tall grass prairies.

It’s no wonder, then, that Wittneben likes assembling jigsaw puzzles.

But several thousand of them?

Wittneben is such a jigsaw puzzle aficionado, in fact, that his team including himself, Mark Geis, Mike Helland and Cynthia Smith has taken first place out of 70 teams at the St. Paul Winter Carnival – five years straight.

Wittneben’s fascination with jigsaw puzzles goes back at least as far as his Cub Scout days. In fact, he still has a photo of himself and his sister, with an assembled jigsaw puzzle.

His father was a night watchman at Morrell’s, so when the kids came home from school they had to be quiet. And what better way to do that than to tiptoe downstairs to the big dining room table in the basement where a jigsaw puzzle perpetually awaited them. Wittneben still has in his storage room a 750-piece Whitman puzzle which was one of the first puzzles he ever really enjoyed putting together. He bought the same puzzle again last year, because he seldom takes apart a puzzle he’s put together.

How many

puzzles are a lot?

To date, he’s assembled several thousand jigsaw puzzles with thousands more to go. His house is filled with them.

Last week Wittneben was assembling a circa 1917 wooden puzzle made by the Pastime Puzzle company in New York. The puzzle includes “whimsies” or “figurals” – specific recognizable shapes that are parts of the puzzle.

Before jigsaw puzzles were machine manufactured, and in the heyday of puzzle making, as many as 115 cutters – all women at Pastime – would be occupied cutting jigsaw puzzles out of plywood. In fact, until 1932, almost all puzzles were made of wood, said Wittneben. Wooden puzzles were manufactured mainly on the East Coast and in the UK.

Puzzles such as the Pastime puzzle would have cost $4 to $10 new – a pretty handsome amount when a dollar a day was considered a good wage. That same puzzle today costs up to $250.

With the advent of machine die cutting in 1932, the price of cardboard jigsaw puzzles plummeted to 10 cents.

Wittneben said there used to be libraries where people could rent puzzles. And if a puzzle came back to the library with missing pieces, no problem. Libraries usually employed a cutter who would make the missing pieces. Today, even if the cutting and painting were flawless on the replacement piece, it’s possible to tell them by the sheen of the pieces, Wittneben said.

Wittneben has over 200 wood puzzles – the most valuable – and over 6,000 cardboard ones, with over 4,000 assembled and stored in his house. “My attic is full of empty boxes,” he admitted.

While wooden puzzles are still manufactured as a specialty item, if you’re thinking of buying one of antique vintage, be ready to pay $40 per 100 pieces. Wittneben generally bids about a third of what he figures a puzzle is worth when he’s shopping on E-Bay. If the puzzle is missing pieces he might buy it quite a bit cheaper. Despite the fact that he’s bought virtually thousands of puzzles, he’s had problems with only a handful.

If he should happen to buy a duplicate puzzle or one that he doesn’t want, Wittneben donates it. “I give boxes and boxes of puzzles to Thrifty’s,” he said.

His largest puzzle is a 6,000-piece world map while his largest unassembled puzzle is 18,000 pieces – actually four 4,500-piece Old World maps. He needed two four-by-eight sheets of plywood to assemble his 6,000 piece puzzle.

So what kind of person is it that likes to assemble puzzles?

“I’ve met very few people that don’t like puzzles,” said Wittneben.

And how long does it take to assemble one?

Well, it depends on how many pieces there are.

Wittneben said a 300-piece puzzle can take an hour or two while a 1,000-piece can take six to 10 hours. The more pieces, the more time. The 6,000-piece puzzle took a month and a half to complete. He admits reticence in tackling the 18,000-piece puzzle, figuring it could take a year.

Wittneben’s first foray into meeting other “puzzlers” was a puzzle parley in Worcester, Mass. It was there that he met Anne Williams, the only person he’s ever known who has as many puzzles as he does. Williams wrote two books on jigsaw puzzles.

As he researches jigsaw puzzles in general, Wittneben learns a lot about their history. The Consolidated Paper Company owned three different puzzle companies, a way to keep the company going as the use of their boxes declined during the Depression.

With jigsaw puzzle prices ranging from a few dollars to a few thousand, one wonders what determines a puzzle’s value.

“What makes it valuable is two people wanting it,” said Wittneben.

Wittneben does have some favorite puzzle scenes he likes to collect, such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, of which he has 40-50 copies. Just last year he was finally able to visit the actual castle. He also enjoys puzzles of early maps – something that perhaps reflects his interest in surveying.

He also has a number of advertising puzzles, such as those made by the Sherwin-Williams paint company. He also has every jigsaw puzzle copied from an M.C. Escher print.

When did

puzzles start?

If you go back far enough, like before 1890, a lot of puzzles were dissected maps used for educational purposes. Wittneben said a McLaughlin Brothers puzzle from the 1880s can go for several hundred dollars.

Wittneben has an 876-piece PAR puzzle (the Rolls Royce of wooden puzzles) he paid $922 for. The puzzle regularly commands a price of $1,200 to $1,500. He got a deal on his because it was missing one piece and another piece had apparently been chewed on by a small dog. The PAR company is still in business, and Wittneben has seen some of their antique puzzles sell for well over $5,000.

And just as there are various types of puzzles – cardboard, wood and three-dimensional – there are different types of puzzle personalities – assemblers, collectors, cutters or makers.

It was at a 2003 puzzle parley where Wittneben met Geis, leader of their current team. They assembled a team and decided to compete in the St. Paul Winter Carnival.

The competition is held at the Landmark Hotel in St. Paul. Each team gets a table and the same 500-piece puzzle. At the signal, they rip open a bag and start putting the puzzle together.

“I resisted doing this for a long time because I do it for relaxation,” Wittneben admitted.

Wittneben went to his first puzzle competition in September 2009 where his team won first at 50 minutes for a 550-piece puzzle (15 minutes ahead of second place). The 2010 Winter Carnival competition followed a few months later where the team took first out of 70 teams. They followed with first-place finishes for five years straight, taking the honors again this year with a time of 1:16.35.

No other team has won first place more than two years in a row.

So what does it take to be competitive in the puzzle world?

Well, Wittneben’s team has a system, with Geis acting as leader. Everyone calls for a certain color, and if a person gets stuck, people switch, since seeing it from a different perspective can help. Sometimes it might seem like the team is running behind, but when they put together the pieces they’ve assembled, the whole puzzle goes together quite rapidly.

“It makes it easy because we’ve divided and conquered,” Wittneben said.

Their team includes Geis, graphic artist; Helland, retired computer analyst; Smith, documentary film producer; and Wittneben, surveyor.

Wittneben and the rest of Team Geis – named obviously after Mark Geis, their leader – are featured in a documentary film, Wicker Kittens, about jigsaw puzzle competition. Mike Schlotz of Duluth, Minn. is editor and Amy Elliot of New York, who has done a number of documentaries, is coeditor. Schlotz’s girlfriend is a member of a Duluth team.

Wittneben is going to Minneapolis to view the documentary at the St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis April 8-9.