WELLS, Maine — As an architect, Jay Hollis revels in his freehand technique pursuing the very demanding craft of puzzle making.
Wielding a saw blade the width of a human hair, he cuts intricate wooden jigsaw puzzles with the mastery of a surgeon.
“I don’t use a template or any device,” said Hollis, deftly feeding colorful slabs of plywood into a fast-moving vertical blade as the music of Arlo Guthrie played in the background. “I feel that doing it by hand exemplifies the craft and makes it important.”
Situated in an unassuming condo in summery Wells, Hollis operates a German precision saw with unerring accuracy. In his hands, picturesque scenes of Maine icons such as Wiscasset’s lobster roll mecca, Red’s Eats, become a hundred interlocking parts in an intricate puzzle. Some people consider them art and order them to frame and hang on the wall, never disassembling them. Others, such as Kennebunkport resident and former first lady Barbara Bush, collect Hollis’ hand-cut puzzles to keep guests occupied.
“I’m very proud that the Bushes have this puzzle and five or six others on Walker’s Point,” said Hollis, whose 1,000-piece Fenway Park puzzle is a top seller that took him 60 hours to complete.
He views each puzzle, sold under his company name, Bogarts Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles, as an artistic challenge. The architect with a clear and orderly approach invented his own techniques. A carefully prepared, mirror-like surface becomes the canvas for high-resolution image transfers.
“With the aid of the computer, many puzzle makers are creating puzzles using laser and water jets. This process minimizes the craft,” he said.
In the 18 years Hollis has personalized and perfected the artistry, he’s turned 500 images into puzzles, a tactile pursuit that peaked in popularity during and after the Great Depression.
“Puzzle making is very, very enjoyable,” said Hollis. “It’s a relaxing activity, almost equivalent to sewing.”
But unlike sewing, there are few places to go to learn puzzle making. Hollis was drawn to this specialized discipline by a chance encounter at a craft show years ago.
“I met a 75-year-old woman making jigsaw puzzles and was completely blown away. She invited me back to her house and became my mentor,” said Hollis, who at age 69 would like to make puzzle creation his full-time employment.
A contrast from mass-produced puzzles seen jumbled in hotel game rooms, or scattered around lakeside cabins, Hollis’ puzzles are freehand cut and individually crafted.
“Very few people are creating jigsaw puzzles on a professional level, let alone hand cutting the puzzles,” said Hollis.
”Both the computer and social media keep way too many people distracted, with little time to sit down at a table and enjoy the fulfillment of assembling a well-made wooden jigsaw puzzle.”
He hopes to change that piece by piece.