Specialty puzzle uses laser-cut techniques to offer one-of-a-kind offerings

  • Each Zen Art & Design puzzle is made from laser-cut wood. This is a local scene done for the Greenfield Savings Bank. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Zen Art and Design owner Will Carswell, right, talks with production supervisor Jim Rohan in the South Deerfield offices. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Each Zen Art & Design laser-cut wooden puzzle has signature pieces specific to the puzzle like the dragonfly figure in this one. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Each Zen Art and Design laser-cut wooden puzzle has signature pieces specific to the image like the horse figures in this one and comes in an elegant black box. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Zen Art & Design owner Will Carswell with one of his laser-cut wooden puzzles in his South Deerfield office. Carswell remembers fondly the days when his father brought home jigsaw puzzles and the whole family would do them together. Decades later, he chose puzzle making as his profession. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Each wooden Zen Art and Design puzzle is laser-cut and then cleaned and inspected, taken apart and packaged. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Each wooden Zen Art and Design puzzle is laser-cut and then cleaned and inspected. April 2, 2018 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Each wooden Zen Art and Design puzzle is laser-cut. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/6/2018 11:12:41 PM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Growing up, Northampton resident Will Carswell’s father, Robert Carswell — a treasury official who served under three presidents — was often away on business traveling from Washington, D.C., to Boston and New York.

When his father was home, wooden jigsaw puzzles brought the family together around one table. Decades later, Will Carswell, owner of Zen Art & Design on Whately Road, has made puzzle making a profession.

“A lot of it is about bringing families and friends together,” Carswell said, standing in the front office of his Whately Road facility. In a warehouse room behind him, a half-dozen employees worked around three laser cutters, which sliced unique designs through photographs dry-mounted onto eco-friendly natural birch slabs (harvested in the United States). Hundred of boxed puzzles weighed down shelving in one corner. The aroma of seared wood was rich in the air.

On the box of each Zen Art & Design puzzle is space for those who complete the puzzle to sign their name and write a short note — something his family did as a way to connect family and friends through the puzzle.

“It gets passed from generation to generation,” Carswell said. “Its a pastime.”

The history of artisanal jigsaw puzzles dates back to the 1700s, Carswell explained. Handcutting jigsaw puzzles requires meticulous skill and attention to detail. As such, puzzles were traditionally enjoyed by upperclass families. Cardboard puzzles came about during the Great Depression as a means of cheap entertainment.

“You can count the things that got us through the Great Depression — (cardboard puzzles) were one of them,” Carswell said. These days, the cardboard puzzle industry is dominated by conglomerate businesses, and the wooden jigsaw puzzle market is comparatively incredibly small. Carswell wants to change that.

A precise process

Carswell handcut his first wooden jigsaw puzzle when he was 8 years old, as a gift for his family.

“I’m 47 now. That was the worst puzzle ever. I made it with a band saw. You can’t make a puzzle with a bandsaw,” Carswell remembered. About 18 years ago, Carswell started Berkshire Puzzle Company, selling specialty puzzles cut with a scroll-saw, which makes finer curved cuts than a band saw can. But costs were too high for the business to become sustainable. The market was niche, in part because each puzzle sold for thousands of dollars.

Responding to requests for cheaper puzzles from customers of Berkshire Puzzle Company, Caswell sought to combine traditional artisanal techniques with modern technology. Over a few years, he tested many different cutting techniques, including water jets, and eventually discovered a technique (with proprietary technology) to effectively cut with lasers. Zen Art & Design opened through Kickstarter about four years ago.

“I’ve developed proprietary technology that makes it look hand cut. It’s completely clean,” Carswell said. “It’s part of our secret.”

Each puzzle, which costs between about $16 and $85, is designed digitally and machine-cut with lasers, which allows designs to be more precise than those cut with a scroll-saw.

Included in each puzzle, which vary in difficulty depending on the number of pieces and intricacies of design, are a few specialty pieces — for example, a horse in a ranch scene, or a starfish in a beach puzzle. Some puzzles also include false straight and corner pieces (that actually go in the middle) for a greater challenge.

“You’ve gotta change your thinking a little bit,” said Jaya Boerman, director of operations for Zen Art & Design, noting that he fields phone calls each week from puzzled customers who think they have too many end pieces. Since he came on board, Boerman said the business “has exploded beyond (Carswell’s) imagination.”

Although Zen Art & Design isn’t profitable, it’s growing at a comfortable rate — from 20 puzzle designs to at least 100 today.

Last February, puzzle production moved from Carswell’s Hadley basement to the Whately Road facility. Carswell’s puzzles are sold across the United States in specialty shops, museums, garden stores, craft fairs and a variety of other retail outlets.

In the past, Zen Art & Design has produced custom puzzles for large organizations like the Smithsonian, and locally for Greenfield Savings Bank, which is currently giving away puzzles of local photographs as a special offer included with some services.

Sustainable business practices

Becoming a sustainable business both economically and environmentally is a main mission for Carswell, who has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a master’s in sustainable development management from School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt.

For now, Carswell is focusing on “progress, not perfection,” and donates puzzles to help nonprofits fundraise when he can.

“I want them to be available to kids in this digital age,” Carswell said. Eventually, he’d like to be able to donate money and give puzzles in bulk to schools, nonprofit organizations, and hospitals. “The cognitive benefits of putting together a jigsaw puzzle has been widely studied.”

Recently, Carswell’s mother, Mary Carswell, has been in the hospital. During visits, Will Carswell said, they make his puzzles — bringing his mother together with fiance Rhi Smith and children Asher, 11, and Finn, 10, together around one table.

“You’re sitting there for months, and it’s something you can do over and over,” Carswell said.

For more information on Zen Art & Design or to purchase a puzzle, visit: www.zenartdesign.com. Locally, Carswell’s puzzles are sold at a few stores including World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield.

You can reach Andy Castillo at: acastillo@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo


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