These Colorado-Made Wooden Puzzles Sell out in a Hurry. Get Yours While You Can
Boulder-based Liberty Puzzles makes the perfect heirloom-quality holiday gift—if you can get your hands on one before they’re gone.
Flashback to March 2020: Remember what you were desperate to get your hands on? Toilet paper, baking supplies, and puzzles—lots and lots of puzzles. The harder they were, the better.
Boulder, Colorado-based Liberty Puzzles, a company that makes heirloom quality puzzles laser-cut from wood, was in the right business.
“When COVID hit, the demand for our product went stratospheric,” says Chris Wirth, the company’s founder and owner. “We had to close for two months. Ever since then, we can’t keep up.”
And the small company, which employs 110 people in the Boulder area, has been riding that wave since. In recent years, its holiday collection has sold out by early December, and the customer service department starts implementing a one-puzzle-per-customer policy for other designs in order to meet the rush.
Wirth was a lawyer in his home state of Colorado when his family inherited dozens of hand-cut wood puzzles from the 1930s. Wirth’s grandmother had a childhood friend from a family in the hand-cut wood puzzle business in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. According to Wirth, wood puzzle popularity peaked during the Depression, when people were looking for inexpensive, all-ages entertainment. Sound familiar?
“We’d take these puzzles on family vacations. On a rainy day in Mexico back in 2003, we were sitting there all day long doing this puzzle, having the best time,” Wirth says. “I said, ‘I bet if I could make these and sell them for $100, that could be a business.'”
At the time, those original vintage puzzles were collectors’ items that were rarely available in antique stores and on eBay, with no contemporary equivalent on the market. Back at home in Colorado, Wirth dug into research, looking for an efficient laser cutter, testing 100 different kinds of plywood, adhesives, and printing techniques. By 2005, Liberty was born. The price range is $75 for a small 200- to 300-piece puzzle to $185 for an extra-large 755-piece Christmas tree.
Even though laser cutters are programmed to cut a single puzzle panel in 45 minutes, that’s the only part of the process that’s truly automated. By the time the puzzle is cut, it’s already gone through four or five sets of hands. By the time it’s cleaned, finished, taken apart, boxed and labeled, it’s touched by 12 sets of hands in the factory. A full-time artist draws “whimsy” pieces, a Liberty signature, in various shapes—animals, dancing people, stars, landmarks—that are based on the image’s theme.
At first, Liberty Puzzles were sold at specialty stores, in catalogs, and museum shops, to appeal to a sophisticated puzzler who appreciates the reproductions of classic paintings (by artists like Botticelli, Vermeer, and Gaugin), vintage maps, and original art commissioned by local painters.
“By 2010, there was a strong backlash against the iPhone. People were looking for non-digital, screen-free entertainment, and it was great for our business. You take out a puzzle, put some music on, maybe open a bottle of wine,” says Wirth, who now sells direct through the Liberty website, and from its storefront on Pearl Street in town. “We haven’t had to do a second of marketing or publicity since. It’s always been a story about trying to keep up with demand.”
Each year, Liberty makes a limited number of custom puzzles from a photo of your choice. Orders typically close by November for custom puzzles, so don’t dawdle if you want one. Liberty’s own beautiful designs are generally available year-round, though, and change seasonally, so keep checking the site to see what’s in stock.
The brand’s unofficial slogan, “Sit long, talk much,” sums up the appeal of a classic wood puzzle. And in case you lose a piece, don’t sweat it. “Take a picture and send it to us. We’ll make you a new one. It happens all the time.”