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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Fri 18th Jan, 2008

Broken by design?

One of my less desirable habits is to leave things to the last minute. The more critical the result, or the more complex the procedure, the more I seem to prevaricate. The psychological reasoning seems to be that if I fail afterward I can always say, "well, I didn't really put any effort into it," as an explanation of why it failed. This leads to a reputation of failure and minimal effort I am keen to avoid.

This is why, with two weeks to get ready after I came back from visiting my family in Brisbane for a two-week sojourn in Melbourne doing a Red Hat training course and attending LCA, that I left my packing until 10PM the night before I was due to leave first thing in the morning. Thus I left my USB sound output, vital to the mixing I want to do at LCA, behind in my frenetic and near-random scooting around the house collecting ephemera.

This is also why, during the same period, with the promise I made to have a finished, good-looking version of my wooden laptop case cover for LCA 2008, I left the actual glueing up until two days before I was due to leave.

I had learnt a few things from the previous test run:

The initial results were good - the bits were all in the right place, the outer veneer bent perfectly without cracking along the vital top edge, and there was easily enough of the Tasmanian Oak backing to do the third 'live' run.

Then the problems started. The first problem was that it was slightly damp, it was the day before I left, and I wanted it to dry out. I left it sitting in the shade outside against a post. When I returned it had bent thirty degrees on that corner. I wet the outer surfaces again and pressed it in a rigged-up frame made of oven grilles and a heavy pot, since I still wanted it to dry out. Even now it retains a set of unusual and possibly uncorrectable bends which make it non-planar when not attached to the laptop.

The second problem is that the front metal piece is slightly further down than it should be - it overlaps the middle ply rather than being beside it. This means that the connection to the laptop top is going to be a bit more of a strain than it should be and is a side-effect of glueing up the whole thing in one go (because the glue isn't tacky when I'm putting it together and therefore the parts in the middle have less friction applied than the parts on the edge). I hope that this will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but there's no obvious benefit to being one millimeter too short over one millimeter too long so it remains to be seen whether this will actually make the whole thing unusable.

So in my non-copious spare time between now and this Sunday I shall attempt to get some fine sandpaper and some good clear wood sealer and paint it up. If I can find some clever instructions for flattening laminated wood that don't require a week to implement then so much the better. And next time I may consider glueing up the back and middle before adding the front, and using a glue which actually binds to metal. Which may require Kate to be taking photos if the glue can't also be cleaned up with a wet rag (since I spread the glue with my fingers).

But I really wish I had given myself more time.

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Thu 22nd Nov, 2007

Deadline: LCA2008

I recently received a piece of good news in my wooden laptop case cover project. The stumbling block had been trying to get the thin veneer of burl bent into the right shape to go around the lip of the front edge, when it was obviously too uneven in grain to be able to bend easily like the prototype (Tasmanian Oak, grain along the curve) did. I had considered steam bending the wood but that required a steaming rig, which I of course put off creating.

I was discussing it today at the ACT Woodcraft Guild, because they're building (of all things) a forge and wood steaming area in a separate shed. To my delight, I found out that with veneer, the thinness of the wood allows you to simply soak it in water and (gently) press it into the mould to form the required bend. Once dry, it should then hold its shape pretty well. This method is also used by cabinetmakers to flatten a piece of veneer that has gone wavy over time (wood warps as it dries out).

So, my aim now is to have a finished laptop cover by LCA, in just over two months time. And, preferably, to then find the right venue for a lightning talk on the process...

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