133: Phone Case Inlay

Since fall of last year, I’ve been a member of #teampixel. That is, I purchased a Pixel 2 XL, mostly to replace my aging Moto X, but really because folks like DxOMark and MKBHD hyped me up about its capabilities as a camera. I might’ve been a little disappointed in the screen quality, but the rest of the P2XL experience has been excellent, and the camera deserves the hype. In fact, this phone camera has all but replaced my Sony HX-1 zoom camera. All of the product photography I’ve done since November has been on the Pixel 2, and that includes all of the photography for this project!

The Moment lens case for the Pixel 2 XL.

The canvas can be peeled off with a little effort.

I went a little crazy for a moment, and invested in a Moment phone case that allows for attachable lenses—telephoto, wide, macro—to make up for the lack of optical zoom. Moment offers two cases, identical save for a portion of the back that either features a grippy rubberized canvas texture or an American Wood grain.

Unfortunately, canvas was the only option available when I ordered. The case worked great, but over the canvas started fraying around the edges and I started picking at it absentmindedly. This made the problem worse, but it also made me realize that I could just peel the whole thing off and replace it. Ooh, laser project time!

Bird’s eye maple, cherry, maple, and walnut laminates.

I still had a handful of sheets of “wood thins,” thin laminates with a pre-applied adhesive, and I knew I had enough types of wood to do an inlay pattern. Early on, I brainstormed about mandalas and geometric patterns, trying to think of good ways to show off how precise and detailed you can get with laser-cut inlays. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized I needed a design that I’d actually want on my daily-use mobile device. I’m nothing if not a slavish fan of retro gaming iconography, so you can guess where this goes next.


The design in four parts, each representing one type of wood.

I measured the canvas sticker—2.65″ by 4″—and carved out one of my favorite images from the Super Nintendo: Samus Aran’s logo from Super Metroid. I took the colorful logo as shown in the video above and reduced it to four shades, each reasonably-well represented by one of the four wood grains I would be using. The negative space would be filled with walnut, while the logo would be comprised of cherry, maple, and bird’s eye maple, the latter two of which are barely discernible at these sizes. That would end up causing the contrast to suffer just a little bit. Each piece was designed to perfectly nest inside each other, and I offset the path by .0035″ to account for kerf to make sure that the wood pieces would fit just as snugly together.

The cardstock prototype fit perfectly.

I wanted to do a test cut first, though, just for the main piece. You’re always told to measure twice, but I also like to cut twice if I can afford to, and 100 lb cardstock paper would work just fine as a cheap laminate surrogate. I even fired a tiny 5% beam at the surface to mark where the logo would go, just for kicks. The measurements all matched up to the case just right.

Laying out the pieces on a scrap of brushed aluminum as they were being cut.

For the two types of wood used in the S design, I made sure to leave the individual pieces lined up exactly as they would be in the finished piece, not doing any nesting of the shapes to save space. This was in order to let any natural wood grain variation flow across the total use of that grain. It’s a subtle difference, especially at this size, but it makes a difference. The two cherry pieces were far enough apart from each other that there was no need to worry about that, so I used less than a square inch of that material in the end. The smallest pieces, however, were the tiny “bolt” designs in each segment of the circle. They were meant to be in the same walnut color as the background, but the pieces were so small that I lost all but one of them into the laser’s honeycomb downdraft table. I could have cut 30 more without much effort and salvaged enough to finish the design, but for the moment I opted to leave them empty, exposing the black plastic underneath. I still may go back and add those walnut bolts.

Cutting out the bird’s eye maple. So many leftover logo bits!

The pieces fit just as tightly together as I could have hoped, and once I pressed them together it was almost as if they were one piece of laminate. I was impressed enough by how well they stuck together that I decided to take off the adhesive backing with the pieces still assembled and apply it to the case as one giant piece. This was a dumb idea, which I followed up with an even dumber idea, when I opted to remove the largest walnut piece’s backing first. This left me with a giant sticky surface that I couldn’t touch to keep it in place while removing other pieces of the backing paper because it meant risking pulling the whole thing apart trying to remove my finger. The going was so rough for that moment that I couldn’t get any pictures—fingers from both hands trying to keep fingers from the other from tearing the inlay apart. Thankfully, a pair of tweezers and an awl saved me from myself. Next time, I’m going to set down the background first and carefully lay down the pieces from the outside in. No almost-catastrophic shortcuts.

A detail shot of the finished inlay.

The finished inlay pattern fit exceptionally well, especially considering how I almost mucked the whole project up taking off the backing paper. All the measurements were spot on, as confirmed by the paper prototype, and the material is just a tiny bit thinner than the original black canvas, which means the unsealed inlay is a little less likely to be ripped off during use before I can figure out a good way to seal it. As expected, the wood contrast is weak in a few spots, and the light coating of pre-applied finish on the walnut gives it a little more of a plastic sheen than I’d like. But hey, in the end I got a wood grain back like I wanted, and got to geek out a bit about Metroid to boot!

The galaxy is at peace. Take a look at some more photos from the project below, all shot on the Pixel 2 XL!

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