ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — It’s a favorite winter past-time with a bit of a twist.

People love to do puzzles, but have you ever wondered how they’re made?

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“My family has always been obsessed with puzzles,” said Candace Nelson. “This dude was not into puzzles. He was a gamer.”

By that, Nelson means her husband, Tony, was into board games. Checkers, chess, and Risk. He even invented a game that’s a take-off of cribbage.

“I think the Midwest in general has a real table-top environment,” Tony Nelson said. “It’s a thing where you can actually get together and communicate with your friends and family while doing something.”

What connected Tony to the puzzle world was a moment of chance. About 15 years ago he and Candace were working on a jigsaw puzzle when he got an idea.

“’Wouldn’t it be more fun if we discovered something new? Like a balloon in the sky or something?’ And Candace went nuts and she said, ‘I love that idea,'” said Tony.

Sort of like a puzzle within a puzzle. What you see on the box ends up being slightly different than the puzzle you build, making a 500-piece puzzle even more challenging. Tony and Candace call it “The Twist.”

They built six Twist puzzles that first year and now they have more than 90. And if the images look familiar, there’s a reason for that. They team up with Minnesota artists like Michael Birawer, Mark Herman and Adam Turman who in turn, provide the Minnesota landmarks, landscapes and legends, that Tony and Candace turn into puzzles.

(credit: CBS)

One of their favorite artists to work with is Cindy Lindgren.

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“It didn’t take much convincing to get me to give it a try,” Cindy said.

She specializes in winter cabin and Scandinavian scenes. The evolution of a puzzle begins with a Lindgren sketch, which she then scans it into her computer. Then, she and the Nelson’s collaborate to add certain twists to the final piece before the puzzle is printed, cut and boxed.

“On the cover there’s the red Adirondack and on the inside the red Adirondack has a cup of coffee on the arm,” said Lindgren while pointing at one of her puzzles.

The cool thing for the Nelsons and the artists is that the twists are used every year at the St. Paul Winter Carnival puzzle competition.

“The winning time for the winter carnival is 31 minutes on a 500-piece puzzle with four people. That’s crazy,” Candace said.

Crazy is how Candace and Tony might describe their transformation from puzzle hobbyists to puzzle makers. Thanks to the artists they work with, everything just sort of fits together.

“It’s good for the brain, and it’s also good for your morale. When you put a piece in you get a little hit of dopamine each time you do that,” Tony said. “When you figure it out you have that little victory feeling.”

Tony and Candace say their most challenging puzzle contains about 50 different Minnesota twists.

Many of the proceeds from the puzzle competitions they run go to good causes such as Autism Society of Minnesota, Second Harvest Heartland and 4H.

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For more information on how they make these puzzles and where you can find them, click here.

John Lauritsen