The UK’s only commercial handmade wooden jigsaw manufacturer is celebrating 45 years in business in 2018, and the family who run its Alfreton workshop hope the pieces will fall into place for 45 more.
Just Jigsaws, based off Salcombe Road, was originally known as WJ & J Trowsdale when husband and wife John and Jacqueline Trowsdale started trading in the Luton area in 1973.
They moved operations to Derbyshire in 1989, and today the company is run by their son Tony and his wife Vanessa, and employs seven other staff including Tony’s own son John.
Tony, 57, said: “I’m officially one of the directors, but we don’t really go in for job titles, so I’m everything from the tea-boy upwards. But, more than anything, I see myself as a custodian of the company. It was passed on to me, and I hope to pass it on too.”
John senior left school at 15 and started his career as a photographer with news agency Reuters. In 1953, he found out he could double his wages through a friend who worked in a jigsaw factory.
Tony said: “He worked for someone else for 20 years and became a manager, but then decided to set up on his own because he liked to be making things more than managing.
“Within a week of starting, he had so much work on that my mum had to join the company. He kept making jigsaws until he died two years ago.”
At one point, John even worked on the biggest jigsaw in the world, at more than 30 square feet and 32,000 pieces.
The company has weathered many economic changes in the years since, but Tony says there is nothing puzzling about the company’s success.
He said: “Jigsaws are not as popular a past-time as they once were, but there are still some British firms doing well producing laser-cut cardboard ones, as well as those manufactured overseas.
“With the best will in the world, we can’t always compete on price but I don’t think they get near our quality. My mum instilled quality into the process, and that’s how we built the reputation which has seen us through.
“The biggest challenge we have is coming up with new designs all the time to keep the range fresh.”
Just Jigsaws now primarily serves the education market and sales have slowed as austerity took hold of school budgets, but the company has managed to offset that effect by growing its own exports.
For Tony, who dreamed of becoming a woodwork teacher before joining the firm, the pieces have fit together perfectly.
He said: “We’re respected as a maker of educational tools. Our jigsaws are good for problem-solving, hand-eye coordination, and they stand up to wear and tear.
“We sell around 40 per cent of our production internationally, including the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, France, Germany, South Korea and Japan.
“It’s probably the most rewarding thing about this job, to know that somewhere out there a child is gaining an education from something we’ve made for them.”
Despite strong demand for their work, Tony has never been tempted to move towards more mass production techniques.
He said: “Derbyshire’s been very good to us. I came to look at this factory when it was just foundations, and I knew it was the place for us.”
Every step of the process is carried out in Alfreton, from cutting down the giant sheets of timber to gluing the pictures, sanding the pieces and packaging the finished article, mostly using locally sourced materials and low-waste methods.
The company is so unique that it is even getting its own upcoming profile documentary on CBeebies.
Tony said: “Each jigsaw is a product of hard graft. No two are the same, and we know many are passed down from generation to generation.”
For more details and sales, visit www.justjigsaws.co.uk.