Woodcase

A venture into the world of
product design, that’s piqued
interest from record labels
to photographers across
the globe.

Woodcase was a self-initiated product design project, born out of a love for minimal wood products and a curiosity in small-batch manufacturing techniques.

It started in 2010, when I produced a wooden CD case prototype machined from a solid block of Cedar wood. Intended as an experiment, I posted photos of it on my portfolio along with other eclectic work I’d undertaken that year. The photos soon got picked up by handful of design blogs and I quickly started receiving emails asking if they were available for purchase.

With just over 700 produced, limited runs have been sent far and wide, from snowy Vladivostok to the deserts of Colorado.

Curious as to where it could lead, and motivated by the influx of interest, I teamed up with manufacturing specialist Ben Tindale (http://tindale-systems.co.uk/) to hone the design and produce a series of small production runs. After launching a simple brochure website later, orders started to roll in.

Originally, I aimed the product at the music world with special and collector edition album releases in mind. But I’ve found that wedding photographers are the most keen audience.

Produced in a variety of soft and hard woods, the cases are book matched and slide fit to allow for variances in the timber.

With a raised spindle, we kept the CD's surface clear of the wood to prevent scratching during transit.




CNC milling & tool paths
Almost 80% of the production is done by our CNC milling machine. The path which the router blade took through the wood (illustrated on the diagram on the left) was constantly being refined, depending on the hardness of the wood and the speed we needed to run production at.

Although the CNC times had been reduced, every unit still had to be hand finished with varying grades of sandpaper. This was the part of the process that we didn't want to be speed up. After all, this was the stage the customer was paying for and also gave us an opportunity to examine each case properly.




Woods: Ash, Walnut and Oak.

Early on we conducted numerous experiments to find the best timber to use. Soft woods such as Pine were prone to splintering and warping during the hot milling stage. Very hard woods, such as oak, had a habit of taking much longer to process (both by machine and by hand). We also noticed router blades wore significantly faster with Oak, which we'd have to take into consideration for much larger production runs.

Ash gave the best results. It had the tight grain of hard wood, which meant it felt solid and pleasing to hold and was much easier to finish by hand compared to other hard woods.


Warping: why it failed.

After several months of producing small batches and shipping them off to various customers around the world, we started to receive units back which had developed a slight warp. We looked at our production technique and blamed the speed at which we were running the milling cycle. Perhaps our times were too fast and aggressive and put the woods under unnecessary strain. But units were still returned even when we used a gentler cycle. Disappointed customers are unfortunate to deal with, but could at least be solved. Several refunds later, we ceased production and were determined to find the problem.

One of the biggest issues was shipping the cases to various locations around the world, with vastly differing climates. For a product produced in a small workshop in temperate Britain, the cases aren’t durable enough to withstand the climate shock of parcel warehouses and being left on the doorstep by the postman in a desert.

Ben and I often revisit the problem and feel one option lies in the path left by iPhone case manufacturers, machining from warp-resistant block-laminate bamboo. Although a potential solution, it would ruin the unique selling point of the product, which is something made from one solid piece of wood, with no glue or fasteners involved.