So, what do I mean when I say 'hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzle'?
Way back in the 1500's a German craftsman came up with a way of making very fine blades. Soon after the basic hand saw for the blades was invented. They're the big U shaped ones that are still around today, now known as coping saws or fret saws. In the 1860's they were mechanized and the Scroll Saw was born. The early ones were generally foot powered and fret work – the fine, delicate wood cutting – was a surprisingly popular hobby.
Jigsaw puzzles started in the 1760's when mapmakers would put their maps on wood and cut out all the shapes. 'Regular' jigsaw puzzles got going in the early 1900's. The early puzzles had pieces that didn't interlock, making assembly a bit trickier. The interlocking puzzle piece was introduced around 1908. The invention of the die-cut cardboard puzzle brought low prices and mass production. Puzzles absolutely exploded as a hobby.
By the time the Great Depression rolled around puzzles were well established as a hobby and, just as now, demand exploded with everyone out of work and depressed. In New York City it was common for average people – clerks, secretaries, pretty much anyone – to sit home in the evenings making puzzles that they would go sell on the weekend to make enough money to cover their rent for the next week. Then, as now, people were willing to save up and spend a bit more for quality.
With all of that out of the way, these days almost all of the puzzles out there are mass produced, die-cut cardboard. The manufacturer works out a puzzle design and makes a set of steel dies that will punch the shapes out of a sheet of cardboard. Then it's just a matter of putting an image on the cardboard and stamping it into a puzzle.
A few manufacturers continued to make wooden puzzles as a premium quality item but more and more they bacame the product of craftsmen.
These days there's an automated way to make wooden puzzles – laser cutters. As with the die-cut puzzle the artist lays out the pattern of the pieces. The image is put on one side of the wood (generally either 1/16” or 1/8” thick) and then it's placed face-down in the cutter. The laser burns through the wood, making the puzzle and leaving well-defined black lines on the back. Because of this the laser cutters tend to go wild with 'figurals' or 'whimsies' – specially shaped pieces, generally related to the puzzle image. I've seen a laser-cut puzzle about golf that has several scenes layed out on the back. Sometimes the laser cut puzzles actually look better from the back. If you do one, make sure you do it on something like a sheet of cardboard so when you're done you can flip it over to see the back.
For a more detailed look at the history of jigsaw puzzles - including such trivia as the influence of Abraham Lincoln's beard - see Dan Seed's book 'Puzzled'. It's best bought through Janusian Press but I also found it on Amazon by searching for Dan Seed.
My puzzles are the old-fashioned hand cut style. I sit at my scroll saw and cut one piece at a time until I'm done. I don't do near as many figurals as the laser cutters. For one thing, they make the puzzle easier to solve. And boy do they mess up the grid of a Grid style puzzle! Figurals are really the only thing I lay out. I use a special very-low tack tape to let me draw the figure out in advance. After I'm done the tape comes off of the puzzle without damaging anything.
See the 'Process' section for more info.