New Jersey native finds solace in giant jigsaw puzzles

'The average person might be in a mental institution halfway through'
Jan. 31, 2014 @ 08:06 AM

The thought of fitting together 24,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces into one giant mosaic would be daunting to most. But not for 63-year-old Wayne Douglas, who spent nearly 500 hours and six months hunkered over a large table at the Satie and J.E. Broyhill Caldwell Senior Center.

The completed puzzle, called "LIFE - The Great Challenge," measures 5 feet by 14 feet and now hangs on a wall in the center's activity room. As recently as 2011 the puzzle was named by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest commercially sold jigsaw puzzle. It has since been eclipsed by a 32,000-piece puzzle called "Retrospect," which is next on Douglas' to-do list.

The New Jersey transplant moved to the area in 2012. Looking for a place to hang his hat for a few hours each day, the retired biochemist inquired about the senior center. When he showed up to the center for the first time, he says it wasn't the pool table or the women that struck his fancy. It was the puzzle table, where visitors idled the day away. For Douglas, a self-professed pragmatist, a jigsaw puzzle seemed the right fit. In the past two years, he estimates he's finished about 100 puzzles.

"If you're old like me, and don't have a job and nothing else to do, you can put a lot of puzzles together," Douglas said.

But he soon bored of the smaller puzzles, which took just a few days to complete. He looked for something more challenging and found the Holy Grail of puzzles on the Internet. He ordered the 24,000-piece puzzle in January 2013.

"The average person might be in a mental institution halfway through a 24,000-piece puzzle," he said matter-of-factly.

The pieces of the puzzle were shipped in four bags, 6,000 pieces in each. He opened the first bag, dumped it on the table and immediately separated the pieces by color. But the pieces look almost identical, so like most puzzle enthusiasts, he started with the edge pieces, if there were any. He kept his eye open for any pieces still connected.

"I can use any help I can get," he said.

Section by section, the puzzle slowly came together. In July, it was completed. He carefully transferred the puzzle to a foam board and sprayed a finish on the surface.

"You don't know how hard it's going to be until you get into it," he said.

For the smaller puzzles, he has help from another center regular, Mary Miller. But on the larger puzzles, Douglas is on his own.

"Mary gets very nervous when it gets up to 1,500 pieces," Douglas said. "At that point, we become jigsaw-puzzle-incompatible."

The completed works are sold to the public, and the money goes to support the center. Folks are encouraged to drop in Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to see the finished puzzles in the center's lobby. Once a home is found for his most recent masterpiece, Douglas will begin work on "Retrospect." As with the last puzzle, he will be flying solo. But that's just fine with him.

"It's just the way my brain works," he said.