Transcripts

The Art of Making Puzzles in Maryland

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:49:24
So you know how Kathleen Donahue says she's trying to reach out to local puzzle makers and carry more of their stuff in her Capitol Hill store? Well, Kathleen, we just might have a lead for you.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:49:34
There's a guy in Montgomery County, Maryland, who spends days, sometimes months, working on his own puzzle creations. And you could say they're more or less a work of art. Courtney Collins swung by his workshop and brings us this story.

MR. THOM SPENCER

13:49:48
This a real sharp blade so...

MS. COURTNEY COLLINS

13:49:53
Now that Thom Spencer is retired, he can spend hours designing and cutting wooden puzzles. He got into puzzle making about a decade ago, while he was still working for the National Institutes of Health. He says the humble origins of the puzzle's popularity drew him in.

SPENCER

13:50:08
During the Depression, puzzles became very popular because it was a cheap way to have entertainment. You couldn't afford to go to the movies, but you could sit at home with the family and put together a puzzle.

COLLINS

13:50:19
But Spencer didn't want to make just any puzzles or follow a preset pattern. Instead, he determined that each puzzle should be a creative experiment.

SPENCER

13:50:28
I'm always thinking art, art, art, not puzzle, art. I want it to be art first, then puzzle.

COLLINS

13:50:33
And when you look around Spencer's workshop at his home in Montgomery Village, Maryland, evidence of his artistic philosophy is everywhere. He works out of his garage and his puzzles cover every surface. Each one is different.

COLLINS

13:50:46
Some are brightly colored patterns with interlocking pieces. Some are three-dimensional like a parrot sitting on a perch or a dragonfly with wings made of puzzle pieces. Some are magnetic and some are textured. Others are still in the design phase and sit on his drawing table half-finished.

SPENCER

13:51:03
See, normally I don't use patterns...

COLLINS

13:51:05
Spencer uses a scroll saw to cut each puzzle piece by hand. He special orders the blades from Wisconsin, but says putting the highest effort possible into each puzzle is worth the trouble.

SPENCER

13:51:16
There are puzzles where I'll handle each piece five or six times and you sand it and you paint it and then you put the finish on it. You know, there's a lot of work that goes into some puzzles.

COLLINS

13:51:27
Spencer says his mother, who was an incredible artist, is his primary, creative influence.

SPENCER

13:51:32
She would try different things. She would take a piece of paper and scrape off different colored crayons, fold the piece of paper in half, put a cloth over it and then iron it. She would look at it for a few minutes and then she would take ink and make a drawing out of it. I said, well, that's really cool.

COLLINS

13:51:47
You can tell Spencer inherited this love of experimentation when he rattles off a list of what he's used to top off puzzles.

SPENCER

13:51:55
Let's see, wooden knobs, Sesame seeds, red beans and rice, sand, sawdust, coffee, stones, marbles, sprinkles like you put on cupcakes, even little tiny glass beads.

COLLINS

13:52:07
Spencer says some puzzles take months of trial and error to complete. He'll put 24 hours of hard labor into others. Sometimes he has three puzzles going at once. But while the process of design, cutting and finish require a lot of precision work, Spencer says many of his puzzles start very simply.

SPENCER

13:52:26
I'll sit at the computer and while I'm sitting doing other things, I'll have a pen in my hand and I just doodle. And actually, all three of these originated as a doodle.

COLLINS

13:52:36
Spencer gives some of his puzzles away and sells others online or to acquaintances. If you look at his website, you'll see some puzzles listed for $15 and other for $350. But money isn't the motivation for Spencer's work. He's made about $700 in puzzles sales this year and that's fine by him. He's content being a one-of-a-kind puzzle designer in this part of the country.

SPENCER

13:52:59
Far as I know, I am kind of the only one in the D.C. metro area.

COLLINS

13:53:03
For Spencer, puzzle making fulfills a lifelong desire to be an artist, something he felt he hadn't earned earlier in life.

SPENCER

13:53:11
I think deep down inside I always wanted to be an artist and I was frustrated because my mother was an artist, had this wonderful ability to draw and my son inherited that in sort of the why'd the art skip my generation, you know?

COLLINS

13:53:29
But as soon as Spencer fires up the scroll saw or picks up a paint brush, it becomes obvious that art, the kind of art that you put together slowly and deliberately, piece by piece, is exactly what he's making. I'm Courtney Collins.

SHEIR

13:53:44
You can see examples of Thom Spencer's work, including the 3-D dragonfly and some of his textured and magnetic puzzles on our website, metroconnection.org.
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