Putting pension together is no puzzle for the Lombard entrepreneur

Many working people struggle to gather their lives after their careers are over. The pieces of lifelong Lombard resident Tom Cholewa’s retirement are laser-cut, brightly colored and fit with perfect precision.

“We did not invent the puzzle, but we took it to the next level,” said Cholewa, 67, whose Starz puzzle The company in Elmhurst has grown exponentially during the pandemic by producing uniquely designed, water-repellent museum-quality wooden puzzles. “There is no puzzle company like this in the world.”

The empty 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 to the wood without paper or glue. The pieces, including the namesake star-shaped piece designed by Cholewa, are far more complicated than the knobs and holes in typical puzzle pieces.

In the last two months, Starz has doubled its sales from the whole of 2020 and doubled its space, and Cholewa expects to double everything again soon. “We just went and went and went,” he says.

“The claim of fame in the puzzle industry is that no two pieces are alike,” says Cholewa, who rejects the old way of doing things. His puzzle has lots of pieces that have exactly the same shape with different colors. Starz’s “infinite puzzle” has pieces in identical shapes and sizes, but with different designs and colors, including a black and white version. That puzzle can be put together to create patterns in different shapes without borders, just as Lego pieces can be used to build whatever the imagination wants.



Founder Tom Cholewa, left, and his son Justin Cholewa review some of the early drawings used to make prototype puzzle pieces for the Starz Puzzles company in Elmhurst.

Founder Tom Cholewa, left, and his son Justin Cholewa review some of the early drawings used to make prototype puzzle pieces for the Starz Puzzles company in Elmhurst.
– Brian Hill | Staff photographer

“There’s no real way to do that,” Cholewa says.

“And there’s no wrong way to do it,” adds his son, Justin Cholewa, 36, a Starz sales rep. “I mess a lot, so it calms me down.”

Tom Cholewa’s daughter, Danielle Street, 34, is a creative partner in the business. 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,” says Ken Cholewa. “He does it without looking at the picture, and he’s fast.”

Riddles were a part of Tom Cholewa’s life before he launched Starz.

“My wife and I do puzzles all year round,” Cholewa says, noting that he and Terri can really tie together over a good 2,000 pieces of puzzle. “Concentration brings us together.”

But the typical riddles, all made of paper pictures glued to cardboard, tend to fray and can fall apart if they get wet. After retiring at age 62 from his C&A Marketing Corp., now run by his daughter, Cholewa began to think there might be a better way to make puzzles.



This "infinite" Puzzles with pieces of identical shape and size can be assembled in any pattern without borders.

This “infinite” puzzle with pieces of identical shape and size can be assembled in any pattern without borders.
– Brian Hill | Staff photographer

“I’m a non-stop person. I do not watch any television,” said Cholewa, who has run five Boston Marathons and finished the 2013 race before the tragic bombing. Using a large sketchbook, he discovered that his drawings did not do it for him.

“Engineering was more important than anything else,” Cholewa says. So he ended up cutting his sketchbook into large puzzle pieces for about three months before finding the shapes he wanted.

The laser cutters in his workshop look as if they are from a James Bond movie, with a small sharp laser light that cuts the intricate shapes in the wood with fascinating 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 and watched.”



A laser controlled by a computer program cuts puzzle pieces from a quarter inch thick piece of maple to Starz Puzzles in Elmhurst.

A laser controlled by a computer program cuts puzzle pieces from a quarter inch thick piece of maple to Starz Puzzles in Elmhurst.
– Brian Hill | Staff photographer

The printer, powered by artist Kate Nisbett, 29, of Wheaton, is just as hypnotic, with eight bottles of ink, each costing $ 1,000, hung over a machine that looks no more special than a normal printer. In a matter of minutes, the light wood is transformed into a lush painting or photograph.

“It looks like a work of art,” says Cholewa, who showers every time he talks about the riddles.

These are not paper puzzles you can find in thrift stores for a few dollars. Prices start at $ 49 for the postcard size 4.75 x 6.25 inches with 61 pieces and increase depending on the size and shape, with the largest 20.75 x 15.3 inches, 573 pieces selling for $ 479. Most arrive in heirloom box boxes and packing cases that are also highly constructed. 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.



Starz Puzzles owner Tom Cholewa pays royalties to artists, saying his wooden puzzles are works of art.

Starz Puzzles owner Tom Cholewa pays royalties to artists, saying his wooden puzzles are works of art.
– Brian Hill | Staff photographer

Cholewa’s growing venture also employs graphic designer Clyde Cavada, and Steve Dahlberg of Lombard is in charge of assembling the final product.

“When we were little kids, we made puzzles as a family,” says Justin Cholewa, who adds that he quickly grew out of the habit. “This revived the magic, and now I’m a puzzle man again.”

Starz can easily replace a lost piece, and if you get tired of a picture, the company can grind away the old one and print a new picture on the puzzle for half price. Starz recently launched a new one Indicates line of cannabis puzzle, which also features wall art, glass pieces, ornaments, magnets, checkerboard and a marijuana puzzle. The latter comes in a thin glass jar with a maple top, which can be used as a “stash jar” when the puzzle is finished.

The company also makes elongated and rectangular puzzles, as well as heart-shaped. It can make double-sided puzzles, with different pictures on each side, making the challenge much more difficult.



Starz Puzzles of Elmhurst recently launched its Indica series of puzzles, wall art, coasters, checkerboard sets and more, all with a marijuana theme.

Starz Puzzles of Elmhurst recently launched its Indica series of puzzles, wall art, coasters, checkerboard sets and more, all with a marijuana theme.
– Brian Hill | Staff photographer

“We can put everything on a puzzle,” Cholewa says, noting their collection of puzzles with a company logo, a favorite picture of a pet, sunsets, wedding pictures, antique cars, baby ads and family portraits.

Does he have a puzzle with his own face?

“No,” Cholewa says with a cunning laugh. “It’s enigmatic.”

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