Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Sat 17th Jan, 2009

Wooden laptop case cover for 'real'

People following my ongoing saga of building a wooden laptop case cover can finally give a half-hearted cheer, as today I have actually made one. It's real, it clips onto my laptop, it looks just the right colour, it has the right texture and feels great, and I finally feel like I've actually completed what I set out to achieve. And it's 100% wood.

Um, yeah, that should be '100% wood glued to a plastic case'.

OK, So it's cheating. But I worked out almost as soon as I'd made the metal pieces that the front edge - which had to bend round in a gradual 90° curve and then produce two very small but significant 'tangs' that hook into grooves in the top of the screen - wasn't actually going to work because making those tangs was beyond my skill. They certainly weren't going to hold if made out of wood. And while the idea of having a wooden cover that was more completely wood (it still had to have those metal bits in it) was attractive, the idea of it actually attaching to my laptop was even more so.

So I bought a new cover (couldn't find one second hand), sanded it lightly, and then prepared my implements. I first needed to bend the front edge of the veneer into roughly the right shape, as it was quite dry and brittle and would snap if I tried to press it onto the plastic it in that state. My plan was to get a bit of water, wet down that edge, and then press it in the mould I'd already made; that would bend it into the right shape with no breaking whatsoever. So I went to get a bucket of water and a sponge, foolishly still carrying the veneer in my hand.

It was whilst walking through the door between the main work area in the woodcraft guild's shed and the tea room (where the buckets and water are kept) that the gods of woodworking demanded appeasement. A light gust of wind, channeled in the doorway, neatly snapped the veneer in three pieces - one still in my hand, the other two fell to the floor. I stood quite still and very slowly let my frustration subside silently - there were children present - before getting the bucket and learning how to mend the veneer.

Step one: apply masking tape to the veneer (this would have gone on the inside face if it had any recognisably different faces). Step two: apply veneer tape to the other side - this is basically like a long strip of stamp material: wet one side and it becomes a glue, smooth it in place, and when it dries it holds the piece together. Step three: carefully remove the masking tape.

Now to bend the edge. Which requires... water. Which will unstick the veneer tape if used too much. Right. After adding just the right amount of water, I gradually eased the top form of the mould over it, and pressed it into the bottom form. Hooray for small miracles, the tape held and the veneer as a whole bent neatly and without snapping (again).

Next step: apply polyurethane glue. This is like your regular Aquadhere® but stronger, space-filling (it foams up), resistant to solvents, and (spotting a theme here) sets faster in the presence of water. In fact, you have to lightly dampen the wooden surface in order to get it to set well. (And if you get any on you, you have to wait for two weeks with the affected appendages blackened from stuck-on dust while it naturally abrades away.) Fun stuff to work with.

Working quickly, I removed the top form, damped the veneer down, applied glue and spread it around before the veneer could bend too much (due to the fibers swelling up on the wet side), and threw on clamps to every available part of the mould. I could see the glue foaming up in the drops of water left on the Contact® of the mould. Then, and only then, could I relax.

Then it was simply leave it for four or five days and then gently try to prise the glue away from the mould - it hadn't stuck to the Contact®, but had happily stuck to every non-covered surface it could find, and it had found plenty. I also had to cut away the excess wood from around the edges of the cover, as I had left these intact - this was another area where my lack of expertise led to some rough edges. The glue had also foamed through the gaps, in the wood and set itself in a nice, undissolvable coating on the front of the piece. The wood had also shrunk as the glue dried, pulling the cover into a neat arc. This was beginning to resemble my other cover, and a disappointingly familiar wave of hopelessness washed over me.

Still, not far to go, and this was only Tuesday before LCA. With a scalpel I carefully scraped the layer of glue off - in some areas it had simply foamed between the outer scratch-proof layer and the wood, so I could get a blade in there and cut it away. Other areas required very precise cutting to get as much of the impervious layer away while still leaving wood. I also discovered that the veneer glue, being impregnated with water, had combined with the polyurethane glue to set into a scalpel-resistant polymer. There was also excess glue sticking on the other side which had to be cut and scraped away. Then I flexed my sanding muscles sanding the remaining surface clean and removing all visible areas of glue.

Finally, the finishing (heh) touch: some Shellawax, a special blend of waxes, oils, solvents and magic. As I had suspected, as the Shellawax soaked in, the wood fibers expanded again and I was left with a near-straight cover again. Two coats of this, some vigorous scrubbing with 0000 steel wool to heat it up and remove the streaks, and there it was, finally finished.

Yes, there are still flaws - the cracks in the piece where I glued the fragments together, the chunks out of the edges, and a number of other little imperfections which it is my privelege as the maker to not have to tell you about. But it's beautifully smooth yet textured to the touch, water resistant, and looks damn good. I'm not sure whether I'll give a lightning talk on it at LCA because I don't know if I can fit that saga into three minutes, but I'm going to take it and not the previous cover to LCA and just use it.

Torvalds' Trousers, but I hope it lasts :-)

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