Creative Resources for Creative People
'Soft Cheese' - handmade wooden puzzle by Mike and Gill Hayduck from Cornwall

Puzzles with a Difference

by Brenda Ross

If anyone can make a product that is unique, fun, well designed and beautifully made, and offers numerous variations to appeal to all tastes, they must have a winner. Mike and Gill Hayduk have achieved that, with decorative wooden puzzles that can provide a challenge to jigsaw lovers but also offer a piece of artwork for display.

The product evolved, more by chance than deliberate planning. Mike and Gill moved to Cornwall from Gloucestershire in December 1983. It was quite a change. Mike had been a social worker and then worked in his father’s catering business. They exchanged that for a smallholding of 11 acres near Bodmin, with the aim of becoming self-sufficient, keeping cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and chickens, and living in part of the house while using the rest of it and adjacent buildings for holiday lets. It proved more difficult than they had envisaged. Holiday lets were seasonal - it was rare to see someone outside the summer season as people did not take weekend breaks then as they do now - and they had young children to provide for. Mike had begun to work with wood, at first with jobs around the house and then ‘playing around’ with different types of wood that he had been given. He upgraded the wooden sign for their house, using embossed lettering, and was asked to do others in the neighbourhood - the beginnings of a business. Then his young children asked for a jigsaw puzzle. ‘I became intrigued by the ability of wood to take on a different form when cut into small pieces,’ says Mike. He made animal shapes cut into puzzles, which they sold at small local craft events alongside the signs. ‘It meant we came home with some money,’ says Gill. ‘For the signs we only took orders: ‘At the same time I became interested in woodturning,’ says Mike, ‘and the idea of producing puzzles set in turned wooden bowls occurred to me: This was to give his product that unique touch that everyone needs.

The initial designs proved popular at small local shows, where they were seen by an organiser who invited Mike and Gill to a large show. That was the turning point - sales shot up. In 1988 they were assessed by the local authority and awarded the ‘Cornwall Concept’ status for excellence in design and workmanship. They also exhibited at the Royal Cornwall Show for the first time. With the business getting stronger they gave up the holiday lets, not least because they needed the space for the family and business. In 1989 they joined the Cornwall Crafts Association, which had a gallery and outlets through the National Trust and English Heritage. Mike now worked exclusively on producing puzzles and Gill became involved by taking over the finishing, which she has done ever since. The work was being seen by more people, Mike was producing more and more designs and, as well as selling at public events, they also went to trade shows to sell to shops and galleries.

‘We were going off in all directions,’ says Mike, ‘and it became unwieldy. There came a point when we felt we couldn’t continue to sell through the trade. They wanted work at the last minute and want large discounts. I would rather be in the situation where I can make what I want and take it and sell it. So we started cutting back on the trade orders and going to more public shows; by the end of 1995 we had stopped selling to the trade. It was more profitable for us to sell at big public shows in the Home Counties and, if we timed them right, we could get a regular income:

In 2005 they exhibited at 14 shows, including the Royal County of Berkshire Show where they won the award for best exhibitor in the craft marquee. They belong to the Guild of Ten, a co-operative of twelve Cornish craftspeople that has a shop in Truro; and they sell through a shop in Tintagel, The Silver Tree, owned by another member of the Guild. They also sell by mail order and have a very good website showing the 60 plus designs, including new ones and limited editions. Mike enjoys designing the puzzles. ‘I don’t start a design thinking that it will make a good puzzle,’ he says, ‘but that it will make a good design. The design comes first, but it is particularly pleasing if it makes a good puzzle too. The most productive time for designs was in the first few years; some of my best ideas came while milking our cow. It is a relaxing time and you are sitting making a rhythmic action, which seems to stimulate ideas. I aim to bring in new designs each year and mainly design in the winter when business is quieter. I’ve got to have an idea in the back of my mind before I start; I have a book of doodles that I’ve drawn as ideas come to me.

‘Once on television I saw an image of raindrops falling in water, and it gave me an idea for producing this as a puzzle [‘Raindrops’ - four raindrops in different coloured woods falling into a 26-piece background puzzle]. Water is a good form, as raindrops, reflections or waves. Also, people ask if I can do a puzzle on a particular theme, or say they would love a puzzle on a particular subject, and that sets me off on an idea. New designs usually sell well initially.’

With the interest in the Ashes cricket series last summer, his design ‘Bowled’ sold well, showing a ball knocking off the bales against a puzzle background. Some of his designs feature illusions, such as ‘Unbridled’ (horses), or ‘Cats’, where the design of the most obvious animal(s) produces the shape of another animal within the background. Other designs show a nice touch of humour, such as ‘What the Butler Saw’, a bedroom scene glimpsed through a keyhole, and ‘Waiter’, based on the fly in the soup joke.

Birds and animals feature strongly, all beautifully designed and given character and sometimes a touch of humour, such as ‘Sly’, a fox seen emerging from grass, and ‘Which Way’, a line of bewildered penguins. There are also designs reflecting various leisure interests, such as golf, sailing or jazz.

Each puzzle is immaculately made, and supplied boxed with a small leaflet detailing the woods used and how to care for the puzzle, and including a drawing showing the solution for the most intricate puzzles. Mike likes to make some of the puzzles more challenging: ‘Most people start a puzzle with the edge pieces. So I will make one piece that comes almost to a point at the edge of the puzzle, so it does not look like an edge piece.’

Some puzzles are set in small trays and to make these Mike uses a router, but he prefers making bowls because he likes turning wood. In 1993 he developed this into making cups, the contents of which form puzzles, as in ‘Cafe Crème’, which has a swirl of cream and a spoon among the jigsaw puzzle coffee, and ‘Tea and Biscuits’, in which not only the tea within the cup is made up of jigsaw pieces, but also the sandwich biscuit and jammy dodger resting in the saucer.

Mike uses 40 different types of wood, of which 10 are used most regularly, to get different colours and textures for his designs. He buys offcuts from a timber importer, and other people’s waste wood. He uses all natural colours of the wood (with the exception of scorching to depict a slice of toast for his ‘Egg on Toast’ design). ‘Sycamore is good,’ he says, ‘because the colour can go from white to grey. American walnut is good to use for contrast; it is darker than English walnut. Purpleheart gives a purplish red colour that contrasts well with browns, and amarillo gives yellow. Lacewood is useful for dragons and snakes because the grain of the wood resembles the skin of these creatures:

His design ‘Falling Leaves’ uses a different wood for each of nine leaves, shown in relief in a puzzle background. This bowl, like some other designs, has its own matching stand and some of the smaller bowls are made with a flat edge on one side so that they can be displayed standing up. One of Mike’s earliest designs, ‘Fishbowl’, has always been a good seller. The whole puzzle consists of fish, 17 of them curved round one another to fill the bowl, using three woods to give contrasting colours. In 1990 the design featured in the August edition of Ideal Home magazine, and still sells well. The building Mike uses as his workshop was inherited from the previous owner of the house. Mike collected the machinery gradually, as the business and his designs grew. ‘I started with bits and pieces of machinery. When I decided what I wanted to do, I found a machine to do it. Fortunately I bought a good quality, expensive fretsaw at the start. This allows me to work very accurately, which I need for the puzzles I produce now.’

When he first started making puzzles, Mike used to draw-the jigsaw shapes on the wood before cutting, but now he cuts them all freehand. Gill does the final sanding, and oils and polishes the pieces, the puzzles with Danish oil and the bowls and trays with beeswax. Odd-shaped offcuts left over from Mike’s work are turned into small puzzles, mainly animals, with Gill cutting the outline shapes on the fretsaw, and Mike cutting the jigsaw pieces within them. Some of the small puzzles have another design twist, that came about by accident. ‘I was using a blunt blade,’ says Mike, ‘and it cut the jigsaw pieces at an angle. I found the pieces only moved one way and I thought I could make use of that: The result is small puzzles, such as a lizard, which come apart if picked up at one end, but remain together if picked up at the other end. Prices of the puzzles cover a wide range, from £20 for a heartshaped puzzle in a tray, around £60 for ‘Fishbowl’, just over £100 for ‘Tea and Biscuits’, up to a few hundred pounds for intricate designs in limited editions. But these are no ordinary puzzles; they are skilful pieces of woodwork made by someone with a flair for design, and an audience that is interested to see what subject he comes up with next.

Mike and Gill Hayduk
T: 01208 831318
www.decorativepuzzles.co.uk

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