Puzzle Perfect

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He has raced sled dogs in the rugged terrain of Alaska and built log cabins near the upper peninsula of Michigan.

That description sounds like a tag line for the most interesting man in the world.

Brent Ruffner-News-Bulletin photo: Artist Roger Hocking puts together one of his toys at his Sabinal home. Hocking said he picked up the hobby of making toys, such as puzzles, after attending a state fair in Alaska.

But for Roger Hocking, those skills seem to have given him the confidence to try anything and have led to his talents in his retired life — constructing toys and puzzles out of wood. He retired in 2001 from the U.S. Postal Service.

Hocking proves puzzles don’t have to be complicated. In fact, he finds his works to be a relaxing exercise.

“I didn’t even own a saw when I worked at the post office,” Hocking said.

Hocking, a Michigan native, holds an undergraduate and master’s degree in secondary education from Northern Michigan University, and taught high school math in both Michigan and Wisconsin before moving to Alaska.

He moved to New Mexico last September.

The Sabinal resident picked up the hobby after attending the state fair in Fairbanks, Alaska, and was instantly hooked.

“I got my little old scroll saw and started out,” Hocking said. “It’s something I wanted to do, and I kept at it.”

That “something” turned wood into intricate puzzles of images of everything from dogs to horses. The puzzles are made by a technique called intarsia, where inlaid sections of wood are combined together to form an image.

All of the fretwork is cut out of oak plywood using spiral blades.

Brent Ruffner-News-Bulletin photo: The intarsia technique, used in the design of this horse, is where all the pieces are cut from one piece of wood.

The technique, one-board intarsia, is where all the pieces are cut from one piece of pale wood before they are stained.

Each picture is dipped into a linseed soil mixture and dried. The image is coated with polyurethane before being framed.

One example, a horse, is about 11-by-14 inches and can be hung as artwork. Hocking decided to make items, such as Christmas ornaments and stars, to give him “something he could do” after he retired.

His love for using wood to build things started when he “was a lot younger,” when he built four log cabins over the years. He said he built the cabins out of necessity since he lived in remote areas.

In Alaska, he competed in the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled dog race, starting in Fairbanks. Though he didn’t finish the race, having a varied background of experiences has undoubtedly helped him in his wood working.

The artist, a Belen Art League member, jokes that his mistakes “instantly become designer firewood” if a specific work doesn’t turn out quite the way he intended.

He said there is no turning back if he makes a mistake. The same goes for designs he glues onto wood and then uses a scroll saw to cut out.

One design, a train, is made by the saw fitting into individual holes so it can be cut out. The design has little grooves and divots he must cut to specifications without making a mistake.

Some designs require more than 500 cuts to complete. He is especially proud of an image of Christ, a detailed portrait of Jesus with his head down. The image shows Christ with a crown of thorns. He also cut out an image of a Native American man with a feather in his hat.

Brent Ruffner-News-Bulletin photo: A train is one of the images cut out and painted by Roger Hocking, a local woodworker.

“It’s relaxing and frustrating,” Hocking said. “This isn’t like painting. You can’t go back and correct it.”

You can often find the scroll worker in his wood shop working on one project or another.

On a recent day, he took time to paint a green Tyrannosaurus Rex. The piece, a bright green smiling dinosaur, is just one example of his work.

Hocking makes puzzle designs from dinosaurs to a map of the state of New Mexico to zoo animals such as giraffes. Smaller items by the woodworker include toy cars and trucks, which have wooden wheels.

Residents can pick up a toy for $5, and a puzzle for as little as $25.

Hocking showcases his work at markets that allow vendors to come and display their work. He was most recently in Bosque Farms to display his work at the Bosque Farms Community Center.

Hocking said the different colors and shapes of his toys are a hot commodity at shows.

“If I’m at a bazaar, there’s not a kid that goes by that doesn’t want a toy,” Hocking said.

The toys and puzzles are cut from pine and then stained with different colors. The intarsia works are sanded and glued onto a plywood backing.

He admits some works take time, but he gets excited to put things together.

His experience only spans a few years, and he says his progression has been gradual.

“I told myself that I’m going to do this,” Hocking said. “It went very slow at first.”

He said there aren’t a lot of artists in Valencia County who practice his specific niche.

“I want to keep doing what I am doing,” Hocking said. “It’s unique.”


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.