The final piece of the jigsaw

Fiendish traps are the hallmark of Wentworth's puzzles, begun as a family concern.
Nearly 20 years ago, John and Matilda Matthews began to devise new uses for traditional stone buildings at Pinkney Park, their home and 350-acre farm on the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire borders.

Their first move was to convert into a workshop a model Victorian dairy - doubtless the ultimate in milk production circa 1890, but far too small for modern agricultural machinery. As Mr Matthews remarked, "the largest vehicle it could accommodate was a wheelbarrow".

Their initial aim was to create 17 jobs - as many as the farm had provided when Matilda's father bought it after the Second World War. They achieved this quite quickly, and the pace of recruitment accelerated in 1992 when they decided to ditch dairy farming and turn all the conventional cowsheds into workshops.

Their second project was to house the same number of workers as there had been cows in the dairy herd - and this they managed two years ago. Today they have 13 units employing 78 people, a shining example of what the countryside needs: good jobs in a truly rural location. Many of the workers come and go by bicycle from the nearby village of Sherston. The only annoyance is the fact that at rush hour, long-distance commuters tear along the lane, using it as a cross-country short-cut between Cirencester and the M4.

There are several one- and two-man bands operating in the workshops, with skills ranging from saddlery to software. The largest unit is Wiltshire Tracklements, a family firm that employs 25 people making mustards, sauces and relishes. The least expected, and most fascinating, is the Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Company, which makes puzzles of fiendish ingenuity.

A faint but agreeable smell of burning hangs about the firm's premises, giving a clue to the secret of its success: the pieces are cut by laser in a unique process invented by the founder and director, Kevin Wentworth Preston.

Mr Preston was an accountant by trade, but he had long been aware that a celebrated maker of jigsaw puzzles had lived in Cherington, another small village a few miles away, before and after the war.

He estimates that Enid Stocken must have cut 25,000 jigsaws with her own fretsaw, working in her garage. She put her three children through school on the proceeds, and she started a jigsaw club, with the result that every well-to-do household in the neighbourhood had at least one of her teasers.

In 1990, when Mr Preston returned from working in America, his mother was ill in a nursing home, and longing for puzzles to do, but unable to find good wooden ones. After chasing around, he discovered that Mrs Stocken's son Peter was still making puzzles in Darlington, but that they were now expensive collectors' items.

He was therefore determined to devise a method of cutting more cheaply, and, after much experimentation and many refinements, came up with his present laser jig. He has not been able to patent the process, so prefers to keep the details shrouded in mystery.

"Lasers are not really the point," he says. "Everyone has them now. Savile Row tailors cut suits with them. But most people who use lasers are thinking accuracy. The trick here, which makes this operation viable, is the speed."

He designs the puzzles, creating fiendish traps such as pieces with straight lines and right-angle corners that look like outside edges, but are not, and real corners made up of two pieces that do not look like corners at all. He also includes bits with pictorial shapes, in which Mrs Stocken used to specialise, calling them "whimsies". Thus a picture of a ship at sea may include pieces shaped like a lifeboat, a sea-horse, a dolphin, a submarine, an anchor and so on.

The early stages of production are suitably rustic. Sheets of birch plywood, cut to size, are delivered to a carpenter across the road. He sands one side and passes them on to Erica Rainey, the gamekeeper's wife, who puts a water-based stain on the back. After two days' cooking in a dehumidifier the boards are ready to receive the pictures, which are then glued on.

After this they go under the fiery knife - and it is riveting to watch the cherry-red beam of the laser twisting and turning as it snakes round the prescribed outlines on the board, cutting a 250-piece puzzle in less than three minutes, and turning out nearly 300 a day.

Early in his research Mr Preston came across the "horrible statistic" that 64 per cent of all jigsaws are sold at Christmas. He had to extend the buying season, and he cracked the problem with his speedy process.

One big advantage is that the company can produce individual puzzles to order: send in a photograph of your house or loved ones, and back comes a purple cloth bag full of wooden pieces, inside a stylish green box.

Last year the firm made more than 2,500 one-off jigsaws, at prices from pounds 14.99 to pounds 24.99, and sold its regular puzzles in 15 countries. How many residents of former cowsheds can claim to serve customers as far afield as the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Metropolitan Museum in New York?

Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Co (01666 840033)