Woodcarver gives puzzles new dimension


Gerald Fritz knows how to turn $100 into $1,000 in a matter of seconds.

He's not a magician or an investment banker. While honing his skills as a wood carver, the Arnold resident created a three-dimensional puzzle that transforms a wooden $100 bill into a $1,000 bill with a flip of a few pieces.

He also has crafted three-dimensional wooden puzzles in the shapes of crabs, fish, golf clubs, pyramids, the Naval Academy goat and terrapins. Each is carved, oiled and buffed in his Ulmstead Estate home.

For Mr. Fritz, a retired Navy commander, woodworking is more than a hobby.

Since he developed Fritz Crafts in March, the 49-year-old carver has taken his handsome conversation pieces into craft shows, gift shops and a Severna Park-based gift company.

He estimated that he has made $2,000 to $3,000 on his part-time venture, turning out wooden gift boxes, unusual guitar stands, and two-tone wooden plaques of boats and military warfare specialty badges.

"I just enjoy carving," he said. "It makes me feel good."

His lifelong hobby also has him pondering retirement from his job as a senior engineer at Vredenburg, a Crystal City, Va.-based professional support services company.

Mr. Fritz said he would be happy turning "my avocation into my vocation" and that if his carvings continue to sell as they have been, he might be able to do that.

Rita Thompson, principal owner of Exclusives Ltd. in Severna Park, said that since May, she has sold about 170 of Mr. Fritz's items, including about 30 inlaid plaques. The company sells specialty gifts for corporate customers, and she said she expects to sell even more carvings from Mr. Fritz this year.

"The people who have his products have been very, very happy," said Ms. Thompson. "I know they'll be repeat orders."

Ms. Thompson and Mr. Fritz are working together to find methods to mass produce and market his golf club puzzles, which hide a golf ball inside.

She pointed out that when Mr. Fritz came on board last year, many of the companies she works with had already given their annual award banquets. This year, Mr. Fritz will catch that season from the beginning, and Ms. Thompson said she expects the gift boxes and golf clubs to be the top sellers.

"My clients have purchased mostly plaques, but that is only because we haven't showed them boxes until recently. I think the boxes will take over," Ms. Thompson said.

She said he also is adapting some of his ideas for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

"I think he has tremendous creative abilities, and he's developing them rapidly," she said.

"I'm in awe of the fact that he has such talent," she said.

Mr. Fritz has devoted a great deal of time polishing the craft he learned from his father, but the idea for his plaques and three-dimensional puzzles came last year when he was flipping through a magazine.

"I saw a little snake in a puzzle book. The whole snake was a puzzle, and I wondered how they could do that," he said.

He soon began developing ideas for three-dimensional puzzles in the forms of animals, starting with his old mascot, the Navy goat.

Prices range from $33 for the crab puzzle made of light-colored butternut wood to $125 for the guitar stand or the golf club, which is made with wood inlays and also comes with a felt-covered golf green to stand on.

One of his favorite pieces is a reproduction of a plaque that hangs in his grandfather's house.

It reads: "The wood I chop will warm me twice."

For Mr. Fritz, the plaque is not only a gentle recollection of childhood days spent at his grandparents' cabin in Reading, Pa., but also a credo that he remembers when he spends hours over a piece of wood.

"It just says your hard work will pay off," he said.

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