Constable: Piecing together retirement no puzzle for Lombard entrepreneur
Many working people struggle to piece together their lives after their careers are over. The pieces of lifelong Lombard resident Tom Cholewa's retirement are laser cut, vibrantly colored, and fit together with perfect precision.
"We didn't invent the jigsaw puzzle, but we took it to the next level," says Cholewa, 67, whose Starz Puzzles company in Elmhurst has been growing exponentially during the pandemic by producing uniquely engineered, museum-quality, water-resistant, wooden jigsaw puzzles. "There's no puzzle company like this in the world."
The blank pieces are cut from quarter-inch-thick panels of premium Colorado hardwood maple, and sanded. Then, a high-tech UV printer applies an exclusive high-quality ink directly onto wood, with no paper or glue. The pieces, including the namesake star-shaped piece designed by Cholewa, are far more complicated than the knobs and holes of typical puzzle pieces.
In the last two months, Starz doubled its sales from all of 2020 and doubled its space, and Cholewa expects to double everything again soon. "We've just been going and going and going," he says.
"The claim to fame in the puzzle business is no two pieces are alike," says Cholewa, who rejects that old way of doing things. His puzzles have lots of pieces that are the exact same shape with different colors. Starz's "never-ending puzzle" features pieces in identical shapes and size, but with different designs and colors, including a black-and-white version. That puzzle can be put together to create patterns in different shapes with no borders, in the same way Lego pieces can be used to build whatever the imagination desires.
"There's no right way to do it," Cholewa says.
"And there's no wrong way to do it," adds his son, Justin Cholewa, 36, a Starz sales representative. "I fidget a lot, so this calms me down."
Tom Cholewa's daughter, Danielle Street, 34, is a creative partner in the company. Tom Cholewa's brother, Ken Cholewa, 68, is the office manager. Ken Cholewa's son, Matthew Cholewa, is 30 years old, nonverbal, on the autism spectrum and a puzzle fan.
"He does so many puzzles," Ken Cholewa says. "He does it without looking at the picture, and he's quick."
Puzzles were a part of Tom Cholewa's life before he launched Starz.
"My wife and I do puzzles all year long," Cholewa says, noting that he and Terri can really bond over a good 2,000-piece puzzle. "The concentration brings us together."
But those typical puzzles, all made from paper images glued onto paperboard, tend to fray and can fall apart if they get wet. After retiring at age 62 from his C & A Marketing Corp., which his daughter now leads, Cholewa started thinking there might be a better way to make puzzles.
"I'm a nonstop person. I watch no TV," says Cholewa, who has run five Boston Marathons and finished the 2013 race before the tragic bombing. Using a large sketchbook, he discovered his drawings weren't doing it for him.
"The engineering was more important than anything," says Cholewa. So he ended up cutting his sketchbook into large puzzle pieces for about three months before he found the shapes he wanted.
The laser cutters in his workshop look as if they are from a James Bond movie, with a tiny bright laser light cutting the intricate shapes in the wood with mesmerizing speed and accuracy.
"Tom and I say we could stand here and watch it all day," says John Dukala, who oversees the process. "He fell asleep here one day watching."
The printer operated by artist Kate Nisbett, 29, of Wheaton, is equally hypnotic, with eight bottles of ink, each costing $1,000, suspended above a machine that doesn't look any more special than a normal printer. In a matter of minutes, the light wood is converted into a lush painting or photograph.
"It looks like artwork," says Cholewa, who gushes every time he talks about the puzzles.
These are not the paper puzzles you can find at resale shops for a few bucks. Prices start at $49 for the 4.75-by-6.25-inch postcard size with 61 pieces and increase depending on the size and shape, with the largest 20.75-by-15.3-inch, 573-piece puzzles selling for $479. Most arrive in heirloom ash boxes and packing sleeves that also are highly engineered. Starz pays royalties to artists whose work is made into puzzles. The company makes puzzles for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Grand Canyon.
Cholewa's growing venture also employs graphic artist Clyde Cavada, and Steve Dahlberg of Lombard handles assembly of the final product.
"When we were little kids, we did puzzles as a family," says Justin Cholewa, who adds that he quickly outgrew the habit. "This reignited the magic, and now I'm a puzzler again."
Starz easily can replace a lost piece, and if you tire of an image, the company can sand away the old and print a new image on the puzzle for half the price. Starz recently launched a new Indica line of cannabis puzzles, which also features wall art, coasters, ornaments, magnets, checker boards and a marijuana puzzle. The latter comes in a thin glass jar with a maple top, which can be used as a "stash jar" once the puzzle is completed.
The company also makes elongated and rectangular puzzles, as well as heart-shaped ones. It can do double-sided puzzles, with different images on each side, which makes the challenge much more difficult.
"We can put anything on a puzzle," Cholewa says, noting their collection of puzzles with a corporate logo, a favorite photo of a pet, sunsets, wedding photos, antique cars, baby announcements and family portraits.
Does he have a puzzle with his own face?
"No," Cholewa says with a sly grin. "It's puzzling."