Durham ‘scroller’ finds answers in wooden puzzles

In an old dairy barn in rural Durham, Orville Richert crafts wooden puzzles, dimensional art and fretwork in a small shop room with a wood-burning stove.

“Every scroller has to have a wood-burning stove because it keeps all your secrets,” Richert said with a chuckle. “When you make a mistake, you burn it, and it keeps all the secrets.”

Richert calls himself a scroller. Starting about four years, he began working with various scroll saws to create his wooden treasures for all ages.

Married to wife Delores, his companion for the past 531/2 years, Richert lives on the same homestead where he was born 75 years ago.

“I never went to high school,” Richert said. “Some parents thought it was unnecessary. I just got to the eighth grade.”

When Orville and Delores were married, they moved another house onto the 160-acre family farmstead and raised two boys and two girls.

Today, the family numbers have increased with the addition of eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Richert’s past occupations include dairy farming, welding and raising Shetland ponies.

“And then about 131/2 years before I retired, I was a full-time maintenance assistant at Salem Hospital in Hillsboro,” Richert said.

Woody Beltz-husband of one of Richert’s former teachers-gets credit for inspiring the young Richert to work with wood.

“He was a farmer,” Richert said.

“In the fall, he didn’t have anything to do on Fridays. And during the last period, he’d come to school. We’d saw things out with a coping saw using orange crates, apple crates and cigar boxes. We tried to make corner shelves and things like that.”

Today, Richert makes puzzles, dimensional art and fretwork to sell at craft fairs.

“We sell mostly puzzles,” Richert said. “We use it as a supplemental income.”

The couple packs up their wares and sells them in fairs at places such as Elbing, Saline County and the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

But Richert will also sell pieces out of his home.

“We do appreciate visitors,” he said. “All we ask is that they call us before they come.” He can be reached at 620-732-3132.

“All of this is art,” Richert said. “The puzzles are just one segment of it. Then there’s fretwork, where you actually do pictures, and that’s primarily wall hangings.”

Instead of a traditional puzzle, that remains flat on a surface when completed, Richert’s puzzles are made to stand upright.

The dimensional art looks like a puzzle and also stands upright, but the pieces are crafted tightly enough to be pushed to the back or front to create a picture in relief.

His wood working depends on a good scroll saw. After investigating several brands of saws, Richert purchased one at an auction about five years ago.

“That really kindled a fire,” Richert said.

In the short time since he purchased that first saw, manufacturers have improved their products and added new features.

Richert experimented with some of the newer variable-speed saws until two months ago, when he finally found one that fits his needs.

“It’s a bigger one, and I can do just about anything that needs to be done,” Richert said.

“It’s a Delta scroll saw, and then I also have another one I call my little saw that’s a Delta, too. The new one has a 241/2-inch throat, and my little one only has a 16-inch throat. But I’m going to keep both of them.”

Other equipment includes a combination belt and disc sander, band saw, table saw and compound-miter saw.

Richert is experimenting with Baltic birch from Russia but has traditionally used plywood for his craft.

“I use the best grade of plywood available,” he said. “And I’m buying the birch in the lighter thicknesses. I do all my wall hangings out of it.”

All of his puzzles are made with 3/4-inch plywood and finished with a sealer.

Over the years, Richert has made 78 different puzzle varieties.

“I’m kind of proud of where all my work is,” Richert said. “One piece is in Guatemala, a bunch are in three provinces of Canada, and other pieces are in 22 states.”

His puzzles can be simple and uncomplicated for young hands. Cut into four or five separate pieces, two styles of teddy-bear puzzles each contain a bright-red heart cut out in the center of the bear.

“I have a full line of farm animal puzzles, a line of zoo animals and wildlife-moose, elk and coyotes-you name it. And chickens, I don’t know how many kinds of chickens I have made in different sizes and different colors.”

One of his best-selling puzzles is Noah’s Ark made with 19 pieces and about 13 inches in length.

Two other popular puzzles are a litter of six puppies, all intertwined in a pile, and a mother cat with three kittens.

“She’s holding one of the kittens down with her paw, and the other two are playing on her back,” Richert said.

His dimensional art is made with a wedge cut created by a 3 1/2-degree tilt on his scroll saw.

“You set your saw table at an angle, form a wedge, and then you can push (the pieces in) till their tight and won’t fall out,” Richert said.

To create a piece of fretwork, Richert draws a design on a piece of wood, cuts out the negative space with his scroll saw and leaves the remaining image.

“One fretwork that’s getting kind of popular is the apple,” Richert said. “By the time I get all the fretwork cut out of it, it says, ‘Here’s an apple for my favorite teacher.'”

And Delores will get another piece of fretwork art when Richert has time to complete it.

“I want to start a Noah’s Ark wall hanging,” he said. “That’s drilling 168 holes-that’s how many pieces I’m going to have to cut out of it. It will probably take me about seven hours.”

Normally, his projects take from as little as five minutes to three hours to complete, depending on the number of pieces in the pattern.

“I’ve got a puzzle pattern with 218 pieces,” Richert said.

“In those 218 pieces are 27 different cats. I have to do that sometime when my wife isn’t home because she might lay me on my side, put a marble in my ear and find out it goes straight through.”

And where do all the designs come from to fashion his wood-working art?

“Some of them I make up myself from pictures, and then others I have (pattern) books,” Richert said.

“Some of these puzzles have so many pieces that I use a temporary glue, spray the back of the wood, stick the design on, saw it out and peel it off.”

Prices for his pieces vary from $2.50 to $17.

Noahs Ark and the Last Supper are $17 each, Richert said.

His wood-working is more than just supplemental income. It’s also a pleasurable activity in his retirement years.

“I could live by it,” he said. “It’s relaxing to me, and I feel like when I get a nice piece cut out, it’s creative. And we love to go to the craft shows.”

One show in Moundridge was particularly special, Richert said.

As he and Delores were setting up their table, a mother and daughter across the aisle were also arranging their booth.

“The daughter had a little boy, Cody, who was 5,” Richert said. “And when he noticed I had puzzles, I had a friend for life.

The child asked Richert how he amassed so many puzzles.

“I said, ‘Well, I take a block of wood, draw a picture on it, saw it out, paint it, and I’ve got a puzzle.’

“He looks me square in the eye and he says, ‘I’m so proud of you.'”

Cody went home with a free cat puzzle that day, and Richert went home with a smile and a heart-warming memory.

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