The whine of a saw greets you the second you open the door, the smell of cut wood fills the nostrils, wood scraps, rags and paint cans line the massive shelves crawling up the cinder block walls. Ken Tomita’s furniture workshop looks, sounds and smells a lot like any other. Except, of course, for the hulking computerized milling machine in the corner – the size of a compact car with suction tubes snaking over the top, a NASA-worthy control panel and two fridge-sized front doors – where some of the world’s most exotic iPhone cases are born.
The veteran bamboo craftsman and his business partner, laser-engraving whiz kid Joe Mansfield, run Grove, a company that produces elaborate, custom-made iPhone cases from bamboo.
“We set out to create the world’s finest iPhone case,” Tomita says, breaking from his typically bashful demeanor. The lack of conspicuous diamonds, alligator leather and gold gilding may put it out of the running for most expensive, but that’s not where Grove hopes to compete. It’s all in the craftsmanship.
Grove’s manufacturing process melds old and new the same contradictory way the cases themselves wrap one of the pinnacles of human engineering with one of the world’s oldest, most primitive building materials. Carved by computerized milling machines accurate to one twenty-fifth of a human hair, yet sanded by hand. Laser-engraved by a machine that costs as much as a Mercedes – but finished with four coats of furniture oil, applied by Tomita’s own mother at her home.
From Grove to Grove
Every Grove case starts life in a bamboo grove – like a forest of oversized grass – before being harvested, processed into slabs in San Francisco, then shipped up the coast to Portland, where Tomita receives four-by-eight-foot loads of it at his furniture workshop in southeast Portland.
A few buzzes of a saw later, the bamboo ends up in blanks ready to be loaded into Tomita’s $48,000 Haas VF-2, a computerized milling machine that will dice four cases out of each piece; first chewing away at the phone-sized void in front, then rounding out the corners and curves on the back. Tomita sets it in motion with the press of a few buttons, but his carefully guarded milling process took over six months to develop.
“Using bamboo is much more difficult than using wood,” Tomita explains. The problem: its grassy structure splinters easily compared to a dense hardwood like maple. After five years of building custom bamboo furniture, Tomita knows the ins and outs of hacking up the tricky material, but his CNC programming still had to be meticulous. “Just to figure out how to make it without breaking it, every single tool path has to be refined to go a certain direction, at a certain speed, a certain depth.”
After cutting each crude case out of the waste material with a saw, it goes to the sanding station, where the bumps and hard edges of the CNC process give way to soft curves. But with only one sixteenth of an inch in thickness, even this step requires careful attention. Every case gets a precise number of laps on the random orbital sander in different spots.
Afterward, Tomita and his crew painstakingly glue an anodized aluminum bezel to the front of the case with the precision of surgeons – quite literally. They use dental tools to affix it and ensure that none of the glue seeps out, which can ruin the final finishing process. A mistake at this point means it’s into the scrap pile. To finish the form, it’s back to the CNC machine, where a special “fourth axis” attachment allows the recesses for the power button, headphone jack and dock connector to be carved away.
Tomita’s mother performs the final finishing – not with a rock hard clear coat, but furniture oil that has to be rubbed on by hand four separate times, with precise drying times between each coat. To Tomita, the extra labor is worth it for the feel. “I don’t like to put natural materials beneath plastic,” he explains. On a practical level, an oiled finished resists scratches and changes over time, while hard finishes – like the one already on the iPhone – smudge and collect scuffs.
After this finishing process, the cases take a trip across town to Mansfield’s laser engraving studio, where each one slides into a jig within a desk-sized laser engraving machine. Customers can choose to have their cases adorned with either the work of Grove’s artists, or custom artwork they upload to the site themselves. Mansfield opens a design in Adobe Illustrator then begins the engraving with a simple print command, just like the one you might use for an desktop inkjet printer. It sends the laser head zooming back and forth above the case in a matter of seconds, pecking the image in with microscopic blasts.
A quick wipe down with water to remove any debris from the laser, and it’s done.