A venture into the world of product design, that’s piqued interest from record labels to photographers across the globe.
Started in 2010, Woodcase was a self-initiated product design project, born out of a love for minimal wood products and a curiosity for small-batch manufacturing techniques. After posting photos of a prototype machined solid cedar wood CD case on my portfolio, a handful of design blogs picked them up and I quickly received emails asking if they were available for purchase. Curious as to where this could lead, and motivated by the influx of interest, I teamed up with manufacturing specialist Ben Tindale.
As a team, we needed to hone the design of the case and produce a series of small production runs to test the market. The target market we had in mind was musicians with special and collectors' edition album releases being the core. Our focus with the product was to precision-machine batches in an array of interesting and practical woods, but hand finish each case – not only as a method of quality control, but so as to add value to the product.
With just over 700 produced, we have sent limited runs far and wide, from snowy Vladivostok to the deserts of Colorado. We soon realised our market was not the music industry, but in fact professionals who deliver high value work on CDs, for example wedding photographers or architects. This market not only has the budget for such items, but truly understands the value of the packaging, and in many instances had been on the lookout for ways of adding value to the physical transactions of their business.
Variances and protection
Produced in a variety of soft and hard woods, the cases are book matched and slide fit to allow for variations in the timber. With a raised spindle, we kept the CD's surface clear of the wood to prevent any scratching during transit.
CNC milling & tool paths
Almost 80% of production is done by our CNC milling machine. The path which the router blade takes through the wood (illustrated by the diagram on the left) is constantly being refined, depending on the hardness of the wood, and the speed at which we to run production
Although the CNC time has been reduced, every unit still has to be hand-finished with varying grades of sandpaper. This is the part of the process we have no desire to speed up. After all, it's the stage the customer pays for as it allows us the opportunity to carefully examine each case properly.
Trying different woods
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 had to take into consideration for much larger production runs.
Ash gave the best results. It has the tight grain of hard wood, which means it feels solid and pleasant to the touch, and is also much easier to finish by hand than other hard woods.
Warping: why it failed
After several months of producing small batches and shipping them off to customers around the world, we started to receive units back which had developed a slight warp. We looked at our production technique and initially blamed the speed at which we were running the milling cycle. Perhaps our times were too fast and aggressive and this put the woods under unnecessary strain. But even when we moved to a gentler cycle, units were still returned. Nobody wants disappointed customers, and several refunds later we ceased production, determined to resolve the problem.
One of the biggest issues was shipping the cases to international locations with vastly different climates.
Being a product produced in a small workshop in temperate Britain, the cases aren’t durable enough to withstand the climate shock of parcel warehouses or being left on the doorstep by the postman in a desert.
Ben and I often revisit the problem, and wonder if one possible solution lies in following the example set by iPhone case manufacturers who have machined from warp-resistant block-laminate bamboo. Although it is 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.