1. Tell us a bit about yourself name, location, affiliations, personal stuff.
My name is Lara Braithwaite. I’m a long-time resident of Portland, Oregon who somehow spent twenty years living everywhere else. I returned to Oregon last spring and am enjoying all the friends and family who remember me from way back when. Some of the time I was away earning degrees in anthropology, the rest of it I was following my husband the professor to whatever university had the right job for him. We’ve lived in IA, NC, CA, and even Canada. We have a six year old autistic daughter who wants to be a dentist/astronaut/scuba diver when she grows up. I named my puzzle company after her. My logo is her silhouette.
I am a member of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors. I also created and maintain a Google Group for puzzle makers and collectors. It’s called PUZZLEMENT. There are over 120 members at this time. The puzzle people get together once every year or two for a Puzzle Parley, during which we show off our puzzles, compare notes on materials and techniques, sell our stuff, and — of course — do puzzles.
2. Apart from creating things, what do you do?
I spend a lot of my time with my family. When I have time to myself it is spent doing things that don’t necessarily produce tangible results. Things like Facebook, genealogy, housework, word or logic games, and reading books.
3. Please describe your creative process how, when, materials, etc.
Each of my jigsaw puzzles starts as an image. “Aha!” I say, “this would make a great puzzle!” Usually I like the image because it lends itself to my favorite puzzle-cutting tricks, or maybe I just like it because it’s beautiful. Japanese woodblock prints are my favorites. Good design and color are essential.
The image needs to be mounted onto 1/4″ birch plywood. I do this with a Seal dry-mount press. It’s a scary, frog-eyed, twenty year old machine I bought used on eBay several years ago. I throw a sheet of laminate on top of the image at the same time. Using the dry-mount press is a scary thrill for me. If I leave it in too long I get a burned or melted laminate layer; too short and the laminate doesn’t seal properly. Either way it’s ruined and I have to buy or make a new copy of the image and go through the dry-mount trauma again. I keep the dry mount press out in my workshop.
The cutting workshop is in my unheated, uninsulated garage. When I was working on puzzles last November and December in the freezing temperatures I wore layers of fleece and down, heavy winter boots, fingerless wool gloves, and a ski cap to keep warm. On top of all that I wear a denim apron to keep the sawdust off my clothes.
Once the image is on the wood I can trim away the borders. If the image is suitable, I like to trim away some of the background, too, so the puzzle will have a sculpted edge. I’m very comfortable with my scroll saw – much more so than I am with Old Frog Eyes. I think of the scroll saw as a noisy, dusty sewing machine. I use very small scroll saw blades that are thinner than a typical sewing needle. The whole thing is hooked up to a shop vac that sucks away most of the sawdust as I work. To be safe, I wear a face mask.
For a deluxe puzzle I will next design, plan, and cut the figural pieces selected by the client. If my client is buying the puzzle for Grandma, they might want the message to say “Grandma rocks.” I print this message out in a nice suitable font, trace it onto tracing paper, affix that to the puzzle with a special tape, and follow the lines with the scroll saw. Once that is done I begin cutting everything freehand. If the puzzle is large, I cut it into segments first. Then I carve away one piece at a time until I have a pile of finished puzzle pieces. All of the freehand cutting is just that – freehand. I pay attention to the image and my previous cuts so I can make the puzzle more interlocking or more tricky. It’s a lot of fun to think up ways to confound the person who will solve the puzzle. All of this thinking happens “in the moment” – it’s very spontaneous and requires a lot of concentration.
Each puzzle piece needs to be sanded to remove from it any fuzzy bits, then it gets dusted, then I put it into a screen-bottomed box and vacuum from below the screen to remove any last dust particles. Once that is all finished, the work in the garage is now complete, so I take the puzzle into my workroom to reassemble, sign, package, and label it. I make notes about it in my work log, print out a packing slip and a shipping label. That’s it! For a 3×5 inch puzzle, this may only take half an hour. For a 10×14 inch puzzle we’re talking about most of my workday. My cutting and designing speeds are getting better all the time – I hope to double them in a few months so I can produce more puzzles per day.
4. What led you to start creating your art/craft?
I encountered my first contemporary wooden jigsaw puzzles for adults in the mid-90’s. I was smitten. Puzzles have always been a favorite hobby of mine, but these were SO luxurious with their heavy wood pieces and that “click!” they make when they are plunked into place…I had to have some. I bought a few. I couldn’t afford to buy more – the Big Boys charge almost $7 per puzzle piece and I didn’t know about any of the smaller puzzle makers yet – so I collected a few vintage wooden puzzles from the 1930’s and 40’s. I began thinking about making my own, since I didn’t care much for the faded, outmoded images or the musty attic smell of the vintage puzzles.
It took a while to convince my husband that I was serious about making puzzles. He’d seen me obsess about and then burn out on painting, drawing, ceramics, photography, genealogy, knitting, and more. (My collection of art supplies uses more space than my wardrobe.) Taking up puzzle making was going to require an expensive scroll saw, so I set out to prove to him and to myself that I could and would use it frequently. First I took a class at the local woodworking store. Then I bought an inexpensive and inferior saw to get the hang of cutting puzzles. I hated that scroll saw from the beginning, but I had to cut about fifty puzzles on it before I had the money saved up to buy a better model. Eventually friends and family started requesting puzzles from me. I operated as Pisces Puzzles for a couple years, then changed my name to Bella Puzzles in 2009 when I opened my Etsy shop.
5. How did you decide what medium you wanted to work with?
I arrived at woodworking through trial and error. As I said, I’ve tried a lot of mediums already. Woodworking is just the latest in a long line of interests. I’m sure I’ll continue with it for a long time. It’s the first medium about which I can say that. Anybody want to buy some really nice paintbrushes and blank canvases?
6. What aspect of creating your art/craft do you find the most enjoyable?
I like re-assembling the puzzles! Each puzzle is better than the last, or so it seems to me.
7. If you had to choose one other medium in which to display your “creativity”, what would that be and why?
My husband would prefer that I not answer this question. Please see my comments about art supplies and the quantities thereof.
8. What handmade possession do you most cherish?
A quilt made for me by my good friend Ibby Jenkins. I have several pieces of Chinese furniture that were handmade a couple hundred years ago. I suppose they are also very dear to me, although I can’t say that I know the persons who made them.
9. List five of your favorite books, movies, songs/musical groups, and web sites besides Etsy.
10. What are your favorite features on Etsy? What new features would you like to see?
I like the Shop Local tool.
11. How do you organize your business? Such as finances, keeping track of supplies and marketing etc?
I wish I could say that I have this figured out already, but I don’t. I am wading through several books on these subjects. I search the Etsy forums for ideas, too.
12. How well is your shop doing? How long has it been open? Number of sales? Number of visits?
I opened my Etsy shop last fall. I’d like to get more new customers. I have a few regulars who knew about me before the Etsy shop opened. They have continued to support my shop – enough so that I had a very busy holiday season.
13. What do you think you’re doing right for getting the sales you have? Or what tips do you have for other Etsy sellers?
Most of my Etsy shop time is spent creating clear, precise listings. Once in a while I concentrate on taking a few hundred photographs and then weeding through them for a few great ones that work well online. Etsy is SO visual. The time spent on photos is probably the most important.
14. How do you promote your work, on and off-line?
I have a Facebook fan page. I haven’t done much more than that. I’m listed on PUZZLEMENT among the puzzle makers. Most people who are serious about collecting contemporary wooden jigsaw puzzles find that group eventually.
I give out business cards here and there, and I share them generously with family members who might be willing to “talk me up” to their friends. I think my father is my best source of advertisement. I’ve done a couple local craft sales events, and I have mentioned to every friend and family member what I do.
Lately I’ve spent a lot of time editing my listings to improve their appearance in Google searches. I think that’s helped a lot.
15. In ten years I’d like to be…
…queen of a small puzzle empire in Portland, Oregon. I’d like to have some employees helping me cut the puzzles – or at least someone to help with the shop listings, photography, bookkeeping, and shipping details. I hope to visit my daughter’s underwater dentistry on Mars once in a while.
16. Where else on the net can we find you and your goods? Twitter, blog, Flikr account, any others?
She gets a lot of business from custom work. If you’d like to commission her visit her shop and convo her.