WHO: Puzzle master Emily Seidel, 29, from the Houston suburb of Cypress.

WHAT: One of the biggest jigsaw puzzles you’ve ever seen.

WHY IT’S SO GREAT: The only thing worse than losing a puzzle piece is losing a puzzle piece for a 40,000-piece puzzle. That’s what happened to Emily Seidel sometime in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns left her with ample free time to devote to her longtime hobby. But while many folks’ pandemic pastimes would be short-lived—admit it, your sourdough starter is languishing in your freezer—Seidel stuck with it. Nearly four years later, she finished the massive Ravensburger Disney Moments puzzle earlier this month (and found the missing piece).

Seidel grew up around puzzles. Her grandparents in Buffalo, New York, always kept a half-finished jigsaw scene on their table. When they came to visit her home in Cypress, just northwest of Houston, the whole family would join in. But Seidel had a particular knack for it, and she loved receiving any kind of puzzle, from a standard jigsaw to a 3D Winterfell castle, as birthday and Christmas gifts.

Best Thing in Texas: A Houston Woman Finished a 40,000-Piece Puzzle
Emily Seidel with the completed puzzle.Courtesy of Emily Seidel

Although she stopped puzzling in high school, Seidel picked the pieces back up in 2018. “I think it might be the only thing in my life that doesn’t constantly take up space in my brain,” she said. “I can sit and work on it and focus on it, and then when I walk away, it’s not following me.” 

Unlike most puzzlers, who rely on the reference photo on the box to complete the image, Seidel always puts together the puzzle without looking at the picture. “My favorite part of every single one of those scenes was when I first break open the bag,” she said. “I just start flipping them over and randomly find pieces that fit.” 

With her renewed passion, Seidel started going through puzzles so quickly that she even borrowed one from her boss. A standard 1,000-piece puzzle now takes her between a couple of hours to a couple of days to finish. The biggest puzzle she’d completed before taking on the 40,000-piece challenge was a mere 5,000 pieces and took her about a month to finish. 

“I realized if I keep up at this pace, I’m going to go broke,” Seidel said. “So if I can just find a really big one, then I won’t have to buy another one for a long time.” She picked a Ravensburger product billed as the world’s biggest Disney puzzle, with 40,320 pieces depicting ten classic movie scenes, and started in February 2020. (It retails for $729.99, which is pretty steep for a puzzle—but a worthy investment, considering the thousands of hours of enjoyment it brought her.)

She worked on the puzzle in her bedroom most nights, transferring the slowly forming images from her bed to her desk daily. The Fantasia scene was the most difficult, requiring many months of work. Seidel’s favorite scene, from Beauty and the Beast, only took about a month; she put in the last piece fifteen minutes past midnight after thirty days of working on it. As life went on around her, the puzzle’s constant presence was reassuring, and she was in no hurry. “It’s really refreshing to sort of relax and not have to stress about finishing it,” Seidel said. “No matter what, it’s a project that can be completed. Even if it takes a long time, at some point all the pieces are going to fit together.” 

In order to help her store the massive scenes, Seidel’s dad cut out pieces of cardboard to stack them on top of one another. Once she finished the puzzle, Seidel put the segments together in her parents’ living room. Even with all the furniture cleared out, the puzzle barely fit: it’s more than twenty feet long by six feet wide.

Seidel now has her eye on an even bigger puzzle, but after three years of neglecting smaller ones that she received as birthday and Christmas gifts, she plans to work through those first. Storing the enormous puzzle presents a challenge, though she’s decided to hang the Beauty and the Beast scene on her wall. She’s offered the nine other scenes to friends, family, and even local radio listeners in hopes that she won’t have to tear apart thousands of pieces and hours of work. And that missing piece? It was on her dresser—the result of her cat scampering across the puzzle.