Why I Love An Imperfect $US70 Wooden iPhone Case

With free iPhone cases abounding, an iffy economy, and a new truck project that’s capable of taking every last dollar I can throw at it, why did I buy a $US70 iPhone case? Because it’s the one I’ve always wanted.

Wood is the best material. It’s second only to leather for how nice it feels in the hand – and even that’s debatable. It is theoretically sustainable, assuaging the tortured consumer soul with eco-positive lubrication. And it’s just pretty.

While I’ve got nothing but respect for Dieter Rams, the legendary designer’s influence over modern electronics has left us with a world of geometric shapes, cold metal and monochromatic plastics. The age of wood panelling in electronics is long gone, wounded by a Braun-influenced Sony in the ’80s and ’90s, then felled with a finishing chop by Apple. If Henry David Thoreau walked into an Apple store this morning, he’d be whimpering under the leaves of his mother’s kitchen table by brunch.

Wood is difficult to mass produce with the sort of uniformity that multi-million unit sellers require – or at least I must presume that is true, since hardly anyone ever bothers selling even an optional wooden variant, leaving an entire material to craftsmen and anachronism fetishists.

Such as Grove, the Portland, Oregon company that makes iPhone cases from Moso bamboo, more often than not a sustainably harvested variety, although sometimes supplies of FSC certified wood is simply not available.

I brought home a plain iPhone 4 case from Grove about a month ago. The company sells laser-engraved cases for just $US20 more, and they’re legitimately lovely, unlike so many other “art” cases, but I thought I might do an original design of my own in the future, so I refrained. Nope, it’s just plain wood with a medium finish for me, excepting the small Grove logo etched into the side.

There’s plenty I can complain about. (So here goes.)

As far as iPhone cases go, it’s fairly bulky. Not extra-built-in-battery bulky, but it adds a good 5mm to each end in length, and perhaps 3mm to the sides and back. That’s to be expected for wood, of course. Part of the reason it isn’t used in modern electronics, especially those that are designed for pockets, is that it isn’t as strong as plastic or steel.

But because the wood used by Grove is fairly light, the extra size of the case actually makes the phone feel lighter in a way. It’s a tactile hallucination, but the lightweight wood around the dense metal-and-glass iPhone looks like it should heavier than it is. It’s a pleasing sensation; the phone still feels “solid” in that way that Apple continues to refine, where their products have the hand-feel less of gadgets and more of artefacts. (Any other company could do the same, if only they cared about engineering and precision and manufacturing tolerances to the same degree.)

Because the wood adds a lip to the phone, many docks and accessories won’t work with the Grove case on. (Your millimileage may vary.) And up top, the Grove case’s depth brings back memories of the iPhone 1′s recessed headphone jack. It’s not as bad as that nearly forgotten misstep, but larger minijack plugs simply won’t plug in without an adaptor. Not a big issue for headphones – most have tremulously remained on a diet since the iPhone 1 scare – but for other audio plugs it can be an annoyance.

Most damningly, the case in stock form has a tendency to… slip off. The Grove case is really two pieces which slip over the top and bottom to meet below the iPhone’s waistline. They’re held on by tension of the wood (which says a lot about the precision of the Grove case itself) and a soft black felt backing. But unlike plastic cases of similar design, the two pieces don’t clip together. They just touch. And after a little less than a week, my Grove case wanted to start letting the relatively heavy iPhone 4 perilously slide out of the top part of the case – the part you hold.

To be clear, this happened first the day after I had had my phone in the pocket of my motorcycle jacket while riding out to the Oregon coast. It’s reasonable to think there was a good bit of vibration. But it’s also reasonable to expect that the vibration only sped up a process that is inherent to the design.

It was easy enough to fix. I folded a small piece of card stock and slipped it in between the felt and the phone. Snug enough to trust again. Let’s ignore that I had to do the same thing to the bottom part of the case in a couple of weeks.

The black metal bezel on the front of the phone has also started to come ever so slightly out of alignment on the left side. I think that might be because I have that little piece of card stock in the back, causing the whole case to curve slightly over time. (Grove offered to replace the felt on my case when I mentioned it to the company’s owner, but I haven’t taken him up on it yet.)

Image: Grove

But You’re Still Suggesting I Buy This?

Here’s the thing: It’s wood. It’s not supposed to be perfect. And as far as the quality of the workmanship goes, I am seriously impressed.

The design itself is smart, with a modern-looking trough to expose the volume controls and a 45-degree bezel around both edges that comes from the workshop with a smooth hand finish. (Much of the sanding and polishing on Grove cases is by hand, although they’re not afraid of sanders either.)

It feels about as thin and precise as a wooden case could be. I can’t ask for more.

Plus it’s wood. Wood that feels better the more I hold my iPhone. Wood that has taken a couple of short falls and looked better as it has weather scuffs and scratches. Wood that’s just pretty to look at, to turn idly in the hand.

There’s no doubt it’s a luxury. But it’s a luxury I’ve been craving for years. Try as I might, I can’t muster much regret – only spare pennies for when Grove releases an iPad version. [Grovemade.com]

Product Finder

Find more great products at