A Hallmark employee finds his worklife to be rather loopy.
If you dumped the contents of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table, many people would see the mass as a jumble of parts that must be linked together before they have meaning.
John Robrock sees them differently, each a whole on its own, each an individual piece of art.
During the past 31 years, Robrock has completed thousands of those pieces of art, hunched over a piece of tracing paper, his hand smoothly dipping and rising, his pencil leaving a trail of whorls and lobes. At Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo., Robrock's unassuming cubicle is the genesis of puzzles that entertain and confound puzzle lovers all over the world.
As the only puzzle artist for Hallmark's Springbok Edition puzzles, Robrock's handiwork is appreciated piece by piece, each one different, thanks to his human touch.
"There are enough people out there who buy a puzzle once a week, and they will recognize the same pieces if we duplicated the same puzzle over and over," Robrock said recently at the card and gift manufacturer's Kansas City complex.
"We keep enough designs out there so they won't be doing the same one over and over."
In a world of automation, it's the Robrock touch that makes the puzzle-designing process slower, but more personal. All Springbok puzzles are interlocking (you can pick it up by a corner and the finished puzzle won't crumble to pieces) and Robrock likes to add unusual-shaped pieces, from a cowboy boot to Mickey Mouse ears. The challenge is to avoid repetition in a job that is nothing but repetition.
"You don't want them to be too perfect," he said. "It's a puzzle, after all."
Robrock's puzzling career began several years after he joined Hallmark in 1965. He started as a "scrapper" on the night shift, separating cut materials from scrap paper after the sheets came out of the die-cut press. He then ran a foil press, stamping materials with shiny foil. After that, he operated a camera, photographing text that would later be the message in greeting cards.
In 1967, all that changed, when Hallmark bought Springbok Editions from Katherine Lewin, a New York artist who specialized in reproducing famous works of art as puzzles. The company's catalog included Jackson Pollock's "Convergence," which Springbok advertised as the "world's most difficult jigsaw puzzle."
Hallmark executives looked within the company to train puzzle designers, and Robrock said he was enlisted by default.
"As soon as everybody saw these drawings they would have to complete, they lost interest," he said. "I guess I didn't get up fast enough. But I started doing it, and I like it. It's like a lot of jobs; you really got to love it. I've had lots of fun with it."
It's tedious work, and a 500-piece puzzle can take up to 60 hours. Most Springbok puzzles are 500, 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 pieces. All designs are shipped to the Lawrence Hallmark plant, where huge die-cut presses cut the cardboard pieces. All Springbok puzzles are made at the Lawrence plant, which distributes about 800,000 puzzles annually across the world, said human resources manager Bill Glover.
Robrock starts with a plain piece of paper, working on one-quarter of the puzzle at a time. Although the pieces aren't measured exactly, he makes them about 1 inch long and tries to keep approximately the same number in each quadrant, give or take 10 pieces.
Robrock makes the job look deceptively easy, sketching a few pieces with little prompting. Robrock said his curves are more fluid from left to right, so he flips the tracing paper over and retraces the curve, and repeats the process to make the upstrokes and downstrokes consistent.
"I have a steady hand, but it's still work. Anything that takes 40 or 50 hours to produce is work," he said. "You have to be careful and watch what you're doing."
If he's not careful, Robrock could end up with 100 pieces in one section and 125 pieces in another, making the puzzle lopsided in the number of pieces, a flaw that could translate into trouble in the manufacturing process. The pressure used in the cutting process is applied evenly to the puzzle surface, so some pieces might not be properly cut if there are too many pieces in one area.
It's a craft with a lot of rules, demanding a sort of uniform randomness. Angles can't be too small and the base of the lobes (the part that sticks out, connecting one piece to another) can't be too close together, or the machines that cut the pieces will tear them.
"I don't want to start in this corner and find that when I get to the other corner I need more room," he said. "I want all the pieces to be different, but basically the same size. I don't want something to really stick out, where they will find it easier."
An eraser is his constant work companion, and even after the hand-drawn image is scanned onto a computer screen, Robrock is still reworking a piece here, a piece there. After he's satisfied, he'll send the scanned piece on, where a massive, computer-aided laser cuts the shapes onto a wood frame. The frame is used as a template for Hallmark employees who thread a razor-sharp piece of rule into the slot made by the laser. A 2,000-piece puzzle can use up to 5,000 inches of the metal strip of rule, Robrock said.
A rubber pad is then worked into the frame, to give the cardboard puzzle pieces a cushion to push them from the form after they're cut. The wood frame is then shipped to Lawrence, and locked into a press.
A length of cardboard, to which the puzzle design is laminated, is then pressed against the razor sharp rule. If a piece of the rule breaks or is crimped, it might be sal
See Puzzleman, page xD
vaged, but Robrock said a complete overhaul is impossible because the rule is firmly held by the rubber.
Each die -- there are between 30 and 40 available for production at any given time at the Lawrence plant -- wears out after several hundred thousand uses, because the rules become duller with the weight of the press. If a piece of the rule sticks and doesn't cut the entire piece, puzzle enthusiasts will still get the number of pieces promised on the box. Robrock draws each puzzle with extra pieces (a 500-piece puzzle actually has 506 pieces) to make up for possible manufacturing glitches.
Life imitates puzzles
Hours of poring over a grid of puzzle pieces can be distracting when it's time to go home.
"I can get away from it, but every once in a while, I'll be driving down the street and I'll see a sign or the way the tree is growing, and I'll relate to it with a puzzle piece," Robrock said.
Even so, he doesn't mind puzzles on the brain, and puts together each one he designs, just to test how it works.
"I enjoy puzzles, in the TV room on a card table," he said. "You get up and maybe do 7 pieces in the morning, and then you leave it alone to go to work.
"When you get home, you've got to mow and do this or that, but you think, 'I'll just put one more piece in.' Well, you pick that one up and get it in, but then you're looking for the next piece."
Robrock doesn't need to know what picture will go with the puzzle he's designing, unless he's working on a children's puzzle that must fit into a particular frame. Fortunately for Robrock, all he has to deal with are abstract shapes.
"It's kind of a funny deal. I'm not really a drafter. If somebody would come up and ask me to paint a picture of a horse, it would probably look like an 11-year-old kid did it," Robrock said. "I can draw these loops, though. I've got just enough mechanical ability to do it."
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.