Custom Wood iPad Case: An Exercise in Design

Ever since Apple released the first iPad two years ago I’ve been eager to build a custom wooden iPad case for it.

If it were up to me everything in life would be encased or decorated in wood. With my recently acquired vacuum-veneer press I’ve been able to test that theory on skateboards and mousepads. This latest project, however, has been a real design challenge. The contours of the iPad and the perimeter of buttons and outlets have made this an especially difficult project to design and construct.

This latest prototype  – the second of more to come in this design-build process – is a big leap toward success but still a work in progress. It’s made from tiger maple and decorative veneers and is lined with leather. As a protective layer it works great to keep the iPad safe during transit. The wood case is extremely durable and it’s no more than 1/8-in. thick, which means it’s ultralight. The skin-tight fit also allows me to carry it in any orientation without the iPad slipping out.

But there are some improvements still to come. While the iPad case fits the contour of the tablet like a glove, it’s more like an “iPad sleeve” than an “iPad case.” To use the tablet, you have to remove it completely and then find a place to store the case. Not to mention, most iPad cases provide some sort of stand to prop up the device or hold it comfortably while in use. Those are the features I’m hoping to design into the next prototype.

The iPad fits snuggly inside the contoured case.

To remove the iPad from the case, a crescent cutout on the flat side of the iPad case provides a spot to grip and pull the tablet.

For the next prototype, my goal is to fully encase the iPad and make a hinged cover that can be folded back to reveal the working surface of the tablet and prop it up for display. Wish me luck.

UPDATE: A company in Holland has apparently cracked this nut already with the artfully designed Miniot iPad case, I just discovered with a Google search. It’s clear these guys use computer-operated machining tools to manufacture the precision parts. This would be near impossible to match by hand, but impressive nonetheless.


Adventures of the garage-shop veneer press

Sometimes is a breeding ground for grifters and over-priced used products, but every now and then an amazing opportunity comes along. That was the case last weekend when I searched the For Sale section on the hunt for a vacuum veneer press.

There isn’t much to a vacuum veneer press, but a good one with high-quality parts and features can costs a lot of money. It’s comprised of a motorized pump that attaches to a thick plastic bag with a hose.  Turn on the pump and its sucks the air from the bag. Whatever’s inside – typically layers of wood ready for lamination – compresses as the pump pulls all the air from the bag. In woodworking this tool is most-often used to adhere decorative veneer to curved or flat surfaces with glue. The sealed bag holds the veneer tight to the surface of your substrate as the glue dries.

Vacu Press
Craigslist score: VacuPress Hi-Flo vacuum veneer press with rolling table.
The custom made vacuum veneer press table shown here with two skateboard forms inside.

Before I drove off with my new tools I talked with the shop owner for nearly an hour. He gave me a tour of the 30,000-square-foot cabinet shop where he spent the better part of his life creating magnificent furniture and interiors. At one time, he said, there were 40 people working there. He told me about his first big job – a billionaire’s media room in Aspen – which he charged $1.3 million to complete. I heard a story of back in 1974 when he invented the first-ever automated TV-lift; that’s the thing that makes a TV rise and retract from a media cabinet. He charged $500 for it, but it cost him $7,000 to engineer and build. Didn’t matter though because it got him bigger and better jobs and allowed him to acquire more and more tools, like the one I was buying.

The kit that I purchased was the smallest of nine vacuum veneer press kits he was selling off. And those were just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment that would soon be plugged in at someone else’s shop.

It was hard to miss the sadness in the owner’s eyes as he said goodbye to his lifetime of work. But as I talked with him that morning and told him about what I planned to use it for – making decorative skateboards and mousepads with highly figured veneer and marquetry –  I could tell he was a small bit satisfied that at least this tool would live through another interesting adventure.

This weekend I get started putting it to good use with a colorful batch of veneer I recently acquired. Have a look at some of the patterns I assembled for my next batch of projects.



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Battle: Los Angeles, On My Electric-Assisted Bike

LA bikers cruise the Venice Beach boardwalk. Photos/

There are few ideas less believable than commuting to work in Los Angeles on a bicycle. Mention it to your family or coworkers and many respond with wrinkled brows, curled lips, dismissive guffaws, and sometimes even an expletive or two.

Continue reading “Battle: Los Angeles, On My Electric-Assisted Bike”

The Moon Sets Softly on Los Angeles

It's a good thing the 6:55 a.m. bus to the Metro station was late. It gave us time to snap a picture of this purple moon set just after sunrise. Hooray for LA

If you could say one good thing about the less-than-pure air here in Los Angeles, it would be praise for  the colorful  sunsets and sun rises that it produces. We heard somewhere along the way that the purple and reds and oranges are the signs of well-polluted air.

But it’s a fair price to pay for 78-degree sunny days in January while the East Coast is buried in ice and snow. We remember that well. Only the woodstove to be thankful for, and every year for five months to be expected.

Southern California had a few good weeks of rain earlier this month, but when followed up by weeks of warm sunny weather, it only encouraged a new bloom of citrus trees and flowers. The orange and tangerine trees in our neighborhood are bursting. What is the etiquette on picking your neighbor’s fruit trees anyway?

One train stop later, in downtown Los Angeles, while waiting at a bus stop near city hall on 1st Street, the view from a stray plastic lawn chair was of the Los Angeles Police Department. Its downtown digs are right up there on the list with the rest of modern architecture. Meanwhile, we recently read those cops are cutting the city’s graffiti budget by $150 million. At least they can enjoy their time in the office.

Checkerboard No. 003

Checkerboard No. 003Checkerboard No. 003 goes out the door tomorrow after a heroic effort that lasted nearly nine months with continual starts and stops. It was worth the effort, though. And we suspect the proud new owner will appreciate the handmade effort.

The general cause of our delay can be blamed on tools. You can never have enough of them (unless you own this tool chest).  We sure don’t. In fact, we’re missing all of them: A scroll saw to cut the veneer pieces straight and square and fast; and a vacuum press that can promise a good glue bond when laminating the deck.

To get this one done, it was painstakingly constructed by hand: hand planes, handheld knives, a hand-pump vacuum bag, and hand sanding and scraping. As a result, there are a few tool marks and less-than-straight lines, but that’s part of the handmadi-ness of it all. You won’t find another one like it.

Now, time to buy some new tools and get started on No. 004.

checkerboard no. 003