Denver woodworker Kagen Schaefer drew mazes as a kindergartner to stump his dad. He was building 3-D puzzles out of cardboard by the time he was 11.
This summer, commissioned by a New York film director, the 33-year-old former Colorado College math major is finishing a one-of-a-kind musical wooden desk. Its secrets can be unlocked only by those who can solve its puzzles.
The desk, crafted from ebony, Bastogne walnut and pink ivory, has eight square drawers that act like bellows on a pipe organ. When a drawer is pushed in, it emits a tone. Play the right tune of 12 notes, and a secret drawer is unlocked.
Clues to the correct tune are held in a musical score that's hidden in pieces within the desk. The journey begins with a concealed button for a secret panel. That opens to reveal a puzzle of sliding tiles which, when arranged in the right pattern, allow another drawer to open.
All told, the desk contains more than 20 puzzles. It took about four years to design and build, Schaefer said, and cost about as much as a luxury car.
"The person who wanted me to build this for him, his only question was to ask if it was inspiring. `Are you inspired?'" said the soft-spoken Schaefer. "It wasn't until I came across this idea that it seemed that I was."
The desk works with air.
Each draft from a drawer getting pushed in not only plays a note on a pipe organ in the back but also moves an array of switches into different positions, Schaefer explained. The "switchboard" resets itself on every wrong note, but if the correct tune is played, the final puff of air travels through the board to unlock the secret drawer.
Schaefer and his production assistant are also building a series of round "lotus tables" that Schaefer designed. They have six drawers, plus a series of sliding rings inset on top. Inside the first drawer is a pattern. If the rings on top of the table are rotated to match that pattern, the next drawer opens, revealing the pattern to unlock the next drawer, and so on.
"It really turns into a treasure hunt of patterns," Schaefer said.
His work has won awards at puzzle competitions and worldwide attention through the International Puzzle Party, a forum of 3-D puzzle fans.
No electronics are involved.
"It's fascinating to take a material like wood and push the limits of it and to have it accomplish unexpected things," Schaefer said. "It's almost a feat of magic."
Catherine Tsai can be reached at http://twitter.com/ctsai_denver