Jigsaw Puzzle Master
For 21 years, Jay Hollis has turned what was once a hobby into an all-encompassing passion—making wooden jigsaw puzzles. And his company, Bogarts Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles, has experienced a global business boom because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He simply can’t create enough wooden puzzles to meet the demand.
This fall, the 73-year-old Wells man was working on a 250-piece wooden puzzle of Red’s Eats, the iconic Maine restaurant in Wiscasset. His customer is from Chicago, and after he visited the Maine eatery last summer, he sent Jay a digital image of it.
It usually takes Jay about an hour to hand cut 25 pieces. It will take him about 10 hours to create the Red’s Eats puzzle before he boxes up the pieces and ships them.
A digital image selected or sent by a customer is printed right on a piece of quarter-inch cherry plywood. A Portsmouth, New Hampshire, company with a flatbed printer does this step—prints the digital image onto the cherry wood. Jay will apply a thin coat of epoxy onto the surface to give it a smooth, glass-like finish.
“I can tell you I’m the only one in the world doing this process,” Jay said. He explained that he uses a specialized saw in his Wells home. The blade is the size of a horse’s hair. In his puzzles, “the cutlines are absolutely invisible,” he pointed out.
On average, it costs $2 per wooden puzzle piece. The Red’s Eats puzzle will cost $500. His rate is lower than the industry average of $6 per piece, he added. He sells his puzzles to customers and puzzle collectors from all over the world—from countries such as Norway, Australia, Great Britain, and China.
Two of his favorite customers were former President George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush. The Bushes loved Jay’s puzzles so much, “they used to send me Christmas cards every year.”
“Barbara Bush had a whole collection of my puzzles,” Jay said. He made puzzles for the Bushes for four years, between 1995 and 1999. Jay also has a collection of letters he received from the former First Lady that she sent from the Bush family estate at nearby Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport. “The African Market” and “Fenway Park” puzzles were among their favorites, Jay said.
In a letter dated March 3, 2015, Barbara Bush wrote:
I am thrilled with my new puzzle from Bogarts. How thoughtful of you and how lucky I was. . . I wrote you on my best note paper! I can’t wait to put the puzzle out. I will pass it on to my children.”
She closed her letter by saying, “Don’t freeze in Maine—We’ll be there soon. Warms—Barbara.”
Jay sells his puzzles online and also works on commissions. He has created wooden puzzles for groups like the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, the Barbados Bureau of Tourism, and the Leukemia Lymphoma Society in White Plains, New York.
Jay has also exhibited his puzzles in many craft venues, such as the Laudholm Craft Fair a few miles up the road and the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., which he attended in 2010. Of the 51,000 applications the Smithsonian reviewed, Jay was among the 110 exhibitors who were accepted. “I went down with 20 puzzles, and I came home with none,” he recalls.
The finishing stage of work is labor-intensive, as are all aspects of his process. When the puzzles are completed, Jay takes them into the basement and sands the backside to get rid of all the burrs. He then uses steel wool to achieve a glass-like finish and applies a coating of tongue oil. He makes an average of 25 to 30 puzzles per year. “I’m not high production.” But, he says, luckily, “At 73, I still have tons of energy.”
His customers can select an image from his website’s gallery or send him an image to create a wooden puzzle for them. They also request whimsies, which Jay describes as fun mini puzzle pieces like lobsters, boats, and starfish if the pieces are for a nautical puzzle. He also does whimsies for wedding portraits.
“The beauty of this business is it literally brings joy to a lot of people’s lives,” Jay said.
Jay also likes to create puzzles for himself that he proudly displays at home. One creation features a lizard centered by four sterling silver lizards. He built a sterling silver plate and laminated it onto a piece of copper to create stars on the wood. As he puts it, “I’m always trying to think outside the box.”
Joy is exactly what Jay was seeking when he first discovered the art of wooden puzzle making in 1999. “Every so often in life you have an out-of-world experience.”
Jay said that he was living in Wayland, Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Lisa, raised their two daughters, when he ran into a woman who asked if they wanted to go to the Christmas show in Concord that weekend. He later saw this elderly woman creating a wooden jigsaw puzzle at the show. Jay and Lisa talked with the woman, “and the next day she became my mentor.”
Pagey Elliot taught Jay everything he needed to know about wooden puzzle making. Pagey started cutting puzzles when she was 75 years old and did it until she passed away at 93. “She is an inspiration to me on a daily basis.”
Jay had spent most of his career as an architect in the Greater Boston area and now that he was inching closer to retirement, he wanted to learn a new skill. “The first puzzle I made was really bad.”
The best advice he got from Pagey was to just keep working at it until you figure it out, “and I finally figured it out,” Jay says.
Making wooden puzzles into works of art provides comfort to Jay, these days especially. It has been just months since his beloved wife Lisa passed away. She died in March, after a long illness. Jay said he could not visit his wife in the hospital because of the pandemic. The couple had been married for 39 years.
“She was a great person,” Jay said. And her encouragement was important to him. “She just loved my puzzles,” he recalls. The takeaway for all of us, he says, is, “You just have to grab every minute you have because life is just too short.”
Jay’s daughter Annie plans to come and visit her father to learn how to make wooden puzzles. Annie and Julie, the couple’s other daughter, both live in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Among other joys and blessings to count, he takes pleasure in the companionship of his dog, Camden, a Portuguese waterdog. Bogarts Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles was named after Bogart, the couple’s first Portuguese waterdog.