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Worcester’s Bob Armstrong Crafts Unique Art from Restored Puzzles

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

 

Picture courtesy of Bob Armstrong

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy the challenge of putting together a good jigsaw puzzle. After all, it can be a joyous activity for the individual and the whole family, children and adults alike. But few have fallen in love with puzzles and puzzle-making in quite the same way Worcester's Bob Armstrong has. He has found a unique hobby in his retirement, namely collecting, restoring, and selling old examples of one of the world's favorite crafts. It has now become a family-wide passion.

For Bob, this passion is the actualization of a life-long fascination. From an early age, he was surrounded by this popular artistic medium. He was raised in Springfield where he was brought up assembling family wood jigsaw puzzles. After getting married to Hildegard Nixdorf, a women with a similar interest in puzzles, he recovered the old family heirlooms, and they became the basis for his family's growing interest in the activity. The interest was powerful, leading them in the 1970s to actually commission two different puzzle-makers to cut a number new ones for their enjoyment.

Meanwhile, Bob had a demanding career he had to maintain. He had moved to Worcester in 1964 to work as lawyer in a private law firm, after working for the Federal Government for some time. By 1968 he had moved on to work in the legal department at Paul Revere Life Insurance Company where would spend the rest of his working life. But as so many discover in their retirement, one's career is not one's entire life.

"Finally, I decided to develop puzzle interest into a retirement hobby in 1990 and retired in 1995 to pursue my love of puzzles full-time, first cutting new puzzles then restoring the old ones, building a collection, putting on displays and talks about puzzles, writing articles, organizing meetings, and developing a website which would attract similarly interested people and answer their question re puzzles," says Bob.

You may ask: why jigsaw puzzles of all things? Several things make them special for Armstrong. He loves the "challenge of the assembly, the images used, the craftsmanship of the better cut puzzles, and the history of jigsaw puzzles," he says.

As we all know, any image or subject matter can be used to create a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps this is what makes puzzles so interesting to so many. In a way, one can become an artist himself in taking the initiative to recreate the work of others. A few types interest Armstrong in particular.

"I like to restore, collect, display and talk about several puzzle "niches", he remarks, such as "scenes from opera, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens; or scenes depicting "Gibson girls" engaged in sporting, adventuresome activities; or puzzles cut by Arteno and a few select other makers; and unusually well cut but damaged older puzzles."

Picture courtesy of Bob Armstrong

Armstrong took the initiative to start this second-career in the early 90's when he realized retirement was imminent. He and his youngest son Conrad set up a puzzle-cutting workshop in their basement. While Conrad became a natural at it (you can see a number of Conrad's very own creations on Bob Armstrong's website), Bob struggled to cut a decent one. But he soon met Anne Williams, one of America's leading puzzle historians, who encouraged him to look at and collect old puzzles. In the midst of this, he discovered many of the old puzzles had suffered various degrees of damage and wear over the years. He began attempting to fix them up in his workshop, and soon found he greatly enjoyed the experience.

"'Bringing back' (restoring) a great old puzzle to its former glory is very satisfying," says Bob.

The work of restoring jigsaw puzzles is very tedious and at the same isn't very lucrative, and that's perhaps why virtually no one else does it according to Bob, but as for him he can safely say he's having the most fun he's ever had in his life.

Bob thoroughly explains the arduous process of restoring old wooden jigsaw puzzles on his website.

"My restoration of a wooden jigsaw puzzle begins with making replacements for the puzzle pieces missing or badly damaged. This involves delicate tracing of the outline, precision cutting with a scroll saw under a magnifier and careful reconstruction of the artwork with water colored pencils. But I do not stop there. I also reglue any broken pieces and knobs loose in the box. And then for missing knobs and paper I rebuild the knob with Plastic Wood and reglue the missing paper, touching them up at the end to fit into the surrounding area. My restoration of cardboard puzzles is more limited; I make replacement pieces for them only when feasible."

Picture courtesy of Bob Armstrong

If one wants to find a deeper interest within the interest, Armstrong has a particular fascination in puzzles depicting scenes from the works of Charles Dickens. In fact one of his most prized puzzle possessions is work called "Full of the Dickens", a 2' x 5' interlocking hand cut puzzle of 16 coaching scenes from Dickens' novels. It was an honor he received for all the work he has done within the world of puzzle-making and collecting.

For his trouble he sells approximately 150 restored puzzles each year to various collectors around the world. He has also spoken at countless lectures across the United States, produced puzzle-related exhibits in areas as far away as Russia, written a number of articles on the subject, and organized or co-chaired eleven meetings for puzzle cutters and collectors.

In addition, Bob is an officer and board member for the Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors (AGPC). He and his wife, as well as his aforementioned son, are also members of ArtsWorcester.

To learn more about Bob Armstrong and to see countless examples of his work and collection, as well as that of his son, please visit www.oldpuzzles.com

 

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