Growing up, Boulder’s Chris Wirth (Law, MBA’97) was inspired by his mother’s antique Falls-brand jigsaw puzzles, which were intricately cut by scroll saw during the Great Depression. He proudly displayed one that featured a hand-drawn map of Mexico.
The puzzles — some of which are now worth $7,000 or more — he realized, delivered a unique social experience when people sat down to do them.
With the idea of puzzles as a social vehicle, Wirth founded Liberty Puzzles in 2005 with friend and business partner Jeff Eldridge.
“Bring people together. That was our goal starting this company,” Wirth said. “Screens are off, bottle of wine is open — I would describe that as our first hook.”
When Liberty Puzzles first came to market, the company presented custom wooden puzzles at a fraction of the price of other boutique puzzle makers, ranging from $50 to $150. The real challenge, Wirth said, was making such a detailed, largely handcrafted product at scale.
“Each one touches 12 or 14 sets of hands going through our process,” Wirth said. “It’s really crafty, and it’s a really difficult product to make. We’re not just cranking out widgets.”
Liberty Puzzles has been a Boulder business from the start, and in the tradition of the classic Falls heirlooms that first piqued Wirth’s interest, all the puzzles feature “whimsy pieces.” Unlike most die-cut puzzle pieces, the pieces are theme-based, and must be hand-drawn before they’re sent digitally to a machine that laser-cuts the pattern out of wood. A puzzle the company currently sells with an image of Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, for example, features whimsy pieces drawn in the shape of Colorado wildlife and pine trees alongside climbers and hikers.
“We have one artist and a new understudy,” Wirth said. “He’s got books and books [of whimsy piece sketches]. He’s got thousands of them.”
Since 2005, Liberty Puzzles has grown to about 125 employees, two of whom are tasked solely with overseeing supply chain interests like shipping lumber from an Oregon mill to Denver.
“Bring people together. That was our goal starting this company.”
While the company grew steadily over its first decade and a half, nobody could have predicted the boom in sales that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring.
“When everyone went into lockdown, the demand just went stratospheric,” Wirth said. “It was overwhelming and really frustrating and a huge challenge for us.”
He said that as people started to search for new, safe ways to have fun while quarantined with their families, they saw a massive surge in orders.
“We had to go on a token system for people to buy just one,” he said. “And they were waiting two months for their token to come up because we could only release 500 tokens a day. So we would make and ship 500 a day.”
Wirth also points to a societal move away from technology-based entertainment as a contributing factor to the company’s success. He said this desire for a return to non-digital, analog ways of having fun wasn’t something he could have ever foreseen.
“Seven or eight years after the first year of the iPhone, there started to be this backlash against technology,” he said. “Well, what’s the perfect antidote to the iPhone? A wooden jigsaw puzzle.”
Liberty Puzzles now has three facilities in total — including its original factory space in Boulder — and produces roughly 600 rotating puzzle images, along with the option for custom puzzles. The company also has a retail storefront on the Pearl Street Mall for anyone wanting to see the puzzles.
Sage Wirth, Chris’ wife and a painter whose watercolors appear on several puzzle options, said supporting local artists by paying them to use their imagery has always been a goal.
“We’ve found that people come to walk the mall, and they want to bring something home from their vacation,” Sage said. “So all the local artists are featured on one wall in the store, and they do really, really well.”
With an annual spike in sales around the holidays, Liberty Puzzles is likely to stay a hyper-seasonal business.
“We ship about 500 boxes a day [in the summer],” he said. “But in December we can fill up three UPS trucks per day. We ship out something like 1,000 units a day in December. It’s just the perfect Christmas gift.”
A special-edition Forever Buffs puzzle is available at libertypuzzles.com.
Photos by Duncan McHenry and courtesy Liberty Puzzles