Stewart Coffin: Paddle-maker Turned Puzzle-maker

If you Google my name, you will find me listed as a designer and maker of geometric puzzles. Actually, I prefer to call my woodcraft “AP-ART, the sculptural art that comes apart,” as the word “puzzle” can sound too much like jigsaw puzzles.

Stewart Coffin showing off one of his wood puzzles

Fifty years ago, you might have found me listed as a maker of canoe and kayak paddles. My paddles were much in demand, especially by racers. They were big and strong, and rarely if ever broke. I also made fiberglass kayaks, being a pioneer in that business.

Stewart Coffin's star-shaped puzzle
This six-piece Star puzzle is shown here in three contrasting woods: canarywood, walnut and yellowheart.

What brought that otherwise successful venture to an end was being sickened by the noxious chemicals. I have a background in engineering and a family background in art. So while casting around for a more healthy line of work, I hit upon designing unusual geometrical puzzles that I could then license for manufacture. But after a year of that with not much success, in 1971 I decided to set up a woodworking shop and make them myself.

Stewart Coffin's Scorpius puzzle
The Scorpius puzzle is made up of 24 triangular sticks joined in fours to make six interlocking parts.

At the start, most of my sales were at craft shows. Oh how I long for those memorable days, involving my wife, Jane, and our three children. But all that changed in 1978 when my work was mentioned in Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American, and I soon had more business than I could handle. I never spent a cent on advertising.

Stewart Coffin's Jupiter puzzle
The popular Jupiter puzzle consists of 60 pieces joined in fives to make 12 interlocking parts

I have produced three books about my work, and the most recent, “Geometric Puzzle Design,” is still in print. There have also been many magazine articles. In 2018, I put together and self-published “AP-ART, a Compendium of Geometric Puzzles.” For short, I just call it my “Compendium.” Copiously illustrated, it can be found on my website:

Stewart Coffin's Locked Nest puzzle
The Locked Nest puzzle has 12 hexagonal sticks and 12 dowels, six of which are joined together in elbows.

Last year, I discontinued woodworking. Not because of my age (now 92) but because my partner Valerie and I acquired a farmhouse in Massachusetts, built in 1789 on three acres of land. We are enjoying returning it to productivity. And after all, with 600-plus puzzle designs created over the span of 50 years, and uncounted thousands made and sold, isn’t that enough?

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