Smartphone accessories such as cases are sold for protection and style, and some enterprising makers have experimented with natural materials like wood to complement the metal and glass of their new smartphones. Designer Ben Saks was one of them.
Kerf's signature all wood iPhone X Case
Unsatisfied with existing wood cases, Ben spent an evening in the wood shop of Carnegie Mellon University's architecture school and created a case for his new iPhone 5. Over the course of six months, the original design was extensively revised, tested, and revised again, and word spread from friends and family to the internet. After seeing the demand for a sustainable product made from local and natural materials, Saks founded KerfCase in 2013 and began the process of making cases at scale.
In 2015, KerfCase grew too large to operate without a dedicated space of their own. The company moved to the former Mine Safety Appliances building, a converted factory which houses over 30 artists, startups, and small businesses. With space to grow, Ben acquired a full suite of specialty machines and hired a small team. The design and development of new and exciting ways to make wooden iPhone cases became our company mission, and in 2017 we expanded our lineup to include the brand-new Google Pixel. Along the way we’ve expanded our product offering to include card wallets, pencil cases, and anything that can be made with our tools (hint: a lot).
In early 2020 we moved the KerfCase HQ to Wilmerding PA, a small manufacturing town about 12 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh. Our new facility is in a historic building that was built as a social hall and spent nearly 80 years as a church. We have re-purposed the building into our design, production, and office space.
KerfCase is devoted to joining sustainable materials with advanced technology.
Made from 100% natural wood, by their nature every wooden KerfCase is unique from all others. From the cases themselves to the 100% post-consumer recycled packaging, we obsessively reuse and recycle as much as we can. Avoiding waste isn’t just good business; it’s the right thing to do in our increasingly disposable world.
Our wood is sourced with an emphasis on sustainability. Our partnerships with Urban Tree, which rescues felled trees in the Pittsburgh area, to specialty growers around the United States, provide us with beautiful, local wood that does not rob the planet of oxygen and shade. Our exotic hardwood collection is not sourced from countries that exploit their natural resources or deal in endangered species.
We wouldn’t be able to make the product we do without cutting-edge CNC machinery, but we also get more from our materials and labor, and that helps us keep our footprint small and stay agile.
Each KerfCase is a custom work of art. We keep a small inventory of our most popular cases, but most of our products are made to order and ship within five business days. This helps keep our footprint small, and drastically reduces waste. One of our favorite services is showing customers our raw wood stock and letting them choose the exact piece that becomes their case. We believe it's critical to do our own customer service rather than exporting it, so you can contact us directly if you'd like us to make something special for you!
We believe in hometown manufacturing, and we do not outsource or import products or services from overseas. Production of a single case involves over 30 separate production steps, involving several specialty CNC machines and skilled hand work, resulting in a finished product that is unlike any other. It might be harder, and more expensive, than working with prefab parts from abroad, but it is important to us that the work we sell is done honestly, with our own hands.
At KerfCase, every member of the team is responsible for part of the production process, from processing lumber to hand sanding, in addition to their other responsibilities. This way, everyone at Kerf is involved in the joy of making things, and remembers what our purpose is.
The story of our wood starts in the hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, carpeted in a mixed deciduous forest. KerfCase wood phone cases are designed, machined, finished, and shipped from Pittsburgh, PA. Once the center of American steel production, Pittsburgh has transformed into a technology-centered city nestled in an urban forest. Our forest is comprised of oak, maple, walnut, cherry, ash, sycamore, and many other species of hardwood trees. Every piece of wood has a story, whether it's a piece of reclaimed flooring, or a beautiful burled wood from a local tree which was damaged in a storm.
Urban Tree's sticker drying facility
In order to work with the beautiful wood that surrounds us, we’ve partnered with Urban Tree, a Pittsburgh company with a noble mission. Urban Tree works exclusively with reclaimed wood, converting felled and unwanted lumber into furniture-grade wood. Their process takes 1-3 years and produces beautiful wood, saved from abandonment from our own backyard. Whenever we can, we use reclaimed local hardwood as our primary building block for our products.
Ben Saks - Founder, CEO, Design Leader
KerfCase is the brainchild of Ben Saks, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture in 2008. A designer, artist, and filmmaker, Ben’s experiments at the Carnegie Mellon wood and machine shop, as well as his experience as an instructor at Techshop Pittsburgh, gave him a comprehensive product design instinct that he uses to dream up functional and beautiful handmade objects. Ben has turned KerfCase from a hobby into a growing business with state-of-the-art machinery and a full-time staff, and can’t wait to debut a line of homewares to accompany our phone case business. Ben has long been involved in the small and dedicated F1D ultralight model airplane community, and his documentary Float, chronicling the 2014 F1D championship, will be premiering in 2019.
Jesse Davis - Operations Manager
Jesse brings his inventory wizardry and creative problem-solving to KerfCase's dual wood-shop and commerce business. As our link to the outside world, Jesse is the public face of Kerf and happy to answer any questions you have about our products. Jesse's favorite thing to do is work with customers to make a handpicked special case, so contact us to see our available stock, and be sure to ask about off-the-menu options! Outside of KerfCase Jesse is a songwriter and guitarist; check out his band Bad Custer to hear his work.
Seth Gamson - Product Designer, Production Manager
A self described designer/artist/maker, Seth toes the line between art and design. Seth's artistic capabilities drive our new product design and development, and he also has the making skills to oversee our intricate production process. Between a bachelors in Studio Arts, a masters in Product Design, and fabrication projects of his own, Seth has built familiarities in an array of materials and processes. You can check out more of his work at sethswork.com.
Phil Giammattei - Web Developer
A veteran of Apple and Google, Phil was brought on in 2016 to assist with the growing business operations challenges of KerfCase. When he's not maintaining kerfcase.com, Phil handles strategy, financial planning, advertising, customer service, content and social media marketing, Kerf Select, and all the little things that keep the company humming. You can read his musings on woodworking, running a small business, and technology on our Kerf Blog. When he’s not at work, Phil is likely using Kerf’s many wood scraps to smoke large pieces of meat.