Analog cameras

Camera projects are once again dominant in the studio. Two custom projects lead the way while P.90 production resumes to build out the last of the component sets in inventory. Other designs in the planning or prototyping stage include the P.120 – a 120 degree 6 by 12 cm version of the P.90 design, a simpler design for a 6 by 6 lensless camera, a conceptual framework for a swing lens design similar to the Kodak Panoram or Al-Vista cameras and some kind of entry into the glass plate photography world.

P.120 – 120 degree 6 by 12 cm lensless camera

A camera crossed with a clock called the LastClock is an unusual commissioned project that records an annular image over a 12 hour period. The design solution gathers inspiration from past projects including the Novena Heirloom (by using a variant of the wood composite material), the automatic watch winder (a similar centerless ring and v-pulley drive mechanism) and panoramic camera designs (borrowing the servo driven rotating-slit type shutter mechanism).


The LastClock ring drive system

The goal is to create this image on 8 by 10 film in a conventional film holder. A larger print of the image will then be made for display.
The camera is essentially a slit-scan camera generating an image on a rotating flat plane rather than moving film past a slit or moving a slit past a curved film plane as in conventional rotating and swing-lens panoramic cameras.

LastClock front panel showing shutter housing and motor mounts.

Another project in the studio is known by different names including Minutero, One-Minute camera and street camera. The common thread is a portrait camera with in-camera processing that allows a photographer to create and deliver a finished photo in a short amount of time.

Drilling hinge mortice holes for red window door

More details on both will be forthcoming as they progress.

Sales of camera products will resume shortly with the P.90 cameras first on the list. Sign up for the mailing list or message me if you would like to know about upcoming releases.

Vitreous enamel adventures

Firing glass powder onto metal is an ancient technique commonly known as enameling or, more precisely, vitreous enameling. It is highly durable, beautiful in appearance and pleasing to the touch. I was recently tasked with creating enameled medallions for inlay into stainless steel bar pulls for a new building project. They would be 1 inch squares with a readily identifiable red and white graphic image. A group of 4 pairs of 6 foot tall, 1 1/4 inch diameter, stainless steel door handles providing access through tempered glass doors to the high-spec, inner sanctum of this temple to consumer products.

An acquaintance who had worked in my building, and who now works for an international design firm based in Portland, was the source of this new project. He had been given the job of overseeing the construction of the project and, when given the challenge of getting this particular  task underway, he thought to contact me. I could only claim childhood experience and an ongoing fascination with enameling, but the machining work to inlay the medallions was right up my alley. So I chose to accept the challenge and dive into preparations.

A suitable kiln was required, so I made a search of Craigslist and found an Evenheat Copper – halfway there! A simple modification would make the kiln a bit more suitable to the particular requirements of enamel work. I cut a wide slot into the lower half of the hinged door and made a removable fire brick sub-door to provide quick access for inserting the enameled parts.

Kiln with modification #1

But before the test firings could begin, another unexpected challenge soon emerged. As presented to me, the task seemed to imply the handles would be solid material, since the inlays would be inset perhaps 1/4 inch deep into the face. But when the pulls arrived, it was quickly realized that they were fabricated from tubing – a bit of a “duh” moment for all concerned. Nonetheless, it meant something would have to be done to create the proper cavity for the inlays. I worked out a few possible scenarios and settled on a stainless steel insert consisting of two matching parts that would be inserted through a precut clearance hole in the handle.

Test fitting the stainless steel inserts.

Each part would have two threaded holes with a set screw in one used to press against the back side of the tubing, forcing the inserts against the front wall, while the second hole would contain a screw projecting upwards to facilitate moving the inserts through the hole. Epoxy would be used to adhere the inserts in place augmented by the mechanical force of the set screws left in place. Once cured, the assembly would be machined as if the material was solid.

The completed inlay recess

While that issue was being resolved, I continued launching into the enamel process. Initial samples of copper substrate and enamel supplies from the major supplier, Thompson Enamel, were obtained along with a few additional tools for handling the enamel parts. I knew I was in for some trial and error and I wasn’t disappointed. While I don’t think I discovered every possible way to go wrong, I made very good progress toward achieving that goal. Lot’s of interesting results, but consistency was the real goal. Try, fire, record, repeat – how many times? Pretty soon I was beginning to contemplate using stainless rather than copper for the substrate. I didn’t find much rigorous data to go beyond Thompson’s recommendations pointing to 4oo series stainless. But my other parts and the pulls themselves were 304 and it is cheaper and easier to obtain through my channels, so I decided to take a chance and make the switch. The oxidation issue with copper and the red enamels was beginning to grate on me. Stainless at least had fewer oxidation issues. And I had begun to worry a bit about galvanic issues though the data didn’t fully support that concern.

Rather than using my Tormach CNC mill to cut out the parts, I ordered what would become only the first of several batches of 304 square blanks from my local laser fab shop. There were plenty of expected failures, presumably due to expansion rate issues, cleaning procedures or black magic. But eventually a solid candidate for the base white coat materialized from among Thompson’s offerings.

White base coat on 304 stainless

The next step was to find a red that might work on top of the white. But the trick was now to find a means of applying the material so that the clean stripe motif could be created. The white base was applied by the traditional sifting method which works just fine for that purpose. But the detail in the thin stripe needed to be sharp and consistent across all the final parts. So my initial concept was to use a silk screen technique to lay down the stripe. I built an indexing screen fixture using the CNC mill and obtained some photo stencil screen material. Everything but the result was according to plan. The screen produced a pixelated result that was not sufficient to get the result I needed. I was considering weather a finer screen might work when it occurred to me I could convert this setup into an indexed knife guide for cutting airbrush frisket. First I tried a few hand cut masks to see if the procedure was viable and then I made up some brass cutting guides to fit in place of the screen material.

Silk screen fixture without the screen in place

That did the trick and still allowed for re-masking and re-coating the red enamel on the same part. Initially I used a brushable version of the enamel. But there were problems with brush marks and and poor color match. I wanted to look at spraying the material, but that meant that the enamel must be prepared in a different way. Rather than the 80 or 150 mesh granular form I used for the white base, the sprayable form must be finer than 320 mesh. And usually a special medium is used to mix the final sprayable material. Thompson had a very limited supply of red applicable to this process and I tried it for a mask-and-spray version of the procedure. The process was fine, if a little finicky. The color and/or flow to proper sheen was not.

Trial, and mostly, error

By this time I had become aware of a variety of suppliers of enamel and still hadn’t turned up a color candidate that might work. And then I stumbled across a company that deals with a closely associated area of hot glass work (no metal involved). They had a couple of reds that looked right and, on close reading, the material looked to be suitable for glass-on-metal as well. The supplier was actually close by and I went to see them and discuss the project. I came home with some red powdered enamel and airbrush medium and went back to work.

By this time I had become aware of a variety of suppliers of enamel and Next up: putting it all together . . .


Makore heirloom

Creating the Novena Heirloom

The Novena Heirloom is a limited edition custom enclosure system I designed for use with the open-source Novena computer designed by Bunnie Huang and Sean Cross and crowd-funded in cooperation with Portland, OR based Crowd Supply.

An open side view of a Walnut Heirloom computerSeveral prototype concepts were developed for the campaign. Consultations with Bunnie eventually led to dropping an easel design in favor of a more traditional clam shell laptop. The requirement for user access to the internal components argued for a removable keypad and drove the final result. The thrust of the design concept is informed by, and hopefully serves as homage to, the vintage HiFi designs epitomized by Dieter Rams. The final Heirloom design remains substantially true to the original concept prototype.

Composite construction

The Heirloom design was developed with a composite of wood veneer, e-glass cloth, cork and epoxy for the main panels of the enclosure. Influenced by the use of cross-banded wood laminates for my camera designs, I embarked on a series of trials with combinations of materials that led to the fabrication process used for the Heirloom computer. This material proved to have a desirable balance of durability, strength, weight, appearance and environmental impact. An additional benefit deriving from the use of cork, as opposed to wood or other hard material, for the core material, is a significantly improved impact resistance.


rear panel glue up in walnut


The Heirloom construction utilizes wood in the solid timber form along with the composite panels. While the composite material is used for the larger surface areas of the LCD panel, the bottom shell and the rear speaker/switch panel, solid material is used where mechanical attachment is required (the lower hinge mounting points), significant shaping occurs (the top and bottom rails of the LCD panel), or where wider edge trim is required (the stiles along either side of the LCD panel).

After inspecting initial examples of the composite material, Bunnie decided to send off a sample to his associates at MIT for structural testing. One of his blog postings illustrates the results returned from testing.

The Heirloom composite is a layered material whose individual constituents contribute a particular set of desirable properties to the final result. Those materials, in the structural sequence, are:

0.7 mm wood veneer
5.6 oz E-glass cloth
3 mm 20 kg/m3 cork composite core
5.6 oz E-glass cloth
0.7 mm wood veneer

The combination is assembled with a high-modulus epoxy resin using custom molds in either a two-part, solid mold configuration or a vacuum bag clamping system used with a one-part mold. For curved forms, I often use a pneumatically actuated band clamp system or an air pressure clamping machine but neither proved applicable to this set of components.

Wood Species

A set of four wood species was chosen based upon a balance of suitability to the task and the aesthetic properties they would bring to the final product. These are Makore, Walnut, Black Limba and Afrormosia.



I looked initially to locally harvested Western Walnut. A Portland based company mills the material into both timber and veneer form – convenient for a design that uses both. With a figure and color a bit more appealing in my estimation than the more common Eastern Walnut, this material has a stunning character full of depth and color.

A recent project introduced me to the previously unfamiliar Afrormosia, a species similar in appearance to Teak but with it’s own unique color palate and character. It darkens over time to a rich golden brown and has the appropriate qualities to mesh with the feel of the Heirloom design.

A species familiar to me from my wooden camera designs is Makore. It has a beautiful ribbon figure, a rich red tone, and appropriate physical properties.

Black Limba has a strikingly unique appearance with meandering brown stripes running across a yellow-toned background. Luckily, a local supplier had a stock of the timber to go with the veneer sourced from my usual veneer merchant.

Producing an appropriate composite from these veneers required extensive experimentation. Epoxy candidates, admixtures such as cab-o-sil and microspheres, and application techniques were fine-tuned to minimize bleed through while optimizing performance. Three assembly stations provided for cutting material to size, mixing and applying epoxy and molding the material into final shape. The thicker Walnut veneer was dimensioned to thickness (about 0.7 mm) to match the other veneers utilizing a wide belt sander. Normally an asset, the thicker Walnut veneer posed a challenge both in matching dimensions within the process and in attaining the bend radii used for two of the composite panels.


The cork industry has been actively expanding its base of applications in recent years so that cork has come to be used in products that might have otherwise used honeycomb or balsa wood for core material. My experimentation led to a series of trials with readily available cork but eventually required the purchase of a large roll of special 3 mm cork to fabricate the Heirloom components. Long harvested as a sustainable material, cork’s natural properties make it an excellent fit as a composite core material for the Heirloom while contributing to a smaller environmental footprint.


cork cutting station



The LCD panel and main enclosure components are assembled using vacuum bag clamping techniques. After assembling the layers of the panels at the glue station, the assembly is transferred to the molding station where it is put into a seamed bag and sealed up with a roller rod and clamps. Then a special vacuum pump is used to evacuate the bag and allow atmospheric pressure to clamp the layers together while the epoxy binder cures. For many panel applications, this is the simplest and most cost-effective technique. However, in the case of the rear panel that carries the speakers and switches and supports the back of the keyboard, the bend radius is tighter than can reliably be managed with vacuum. Although I have the air pressure laminator that is capable of much higher clamping pressures than the vacuum bag, in this instance it was simplest to create a pair of matched bending forms to laminate the parts. One face of the bending forms has a thin urethane foam surface to insure full and even pressure across the laminate as it accommodates slight variations in the material thickness. The forms are clamped together over the prepared laminations using standard woodworking clamps.


bottom, LCD and rear panel glue up station


In seeking to increase the strength, improve heat dissipation and enhance the aesthetic properties of the Heirloom’s main enclosure, I chose to use an undulating shape across the width of the bottom panel. The slight wave provides a semi-monocoque structure that stiffens the otherwise flat section of the case while providing for a measure of air flow across the bottom of the case. A visual detail discovered only on complete inspection is an added bonus.

 Afrormosia bottom edge


Metal components

With extensive experience designing metal and wood combinations, and inspired the work of German designer Dieter Rams, I chose to incorporate aluminum for the two side plates in the Heirloom design.


side plates


These plates are designed with an integral flange used to bond them to the wavy composite bottom panel of the enclosure. A second flange section supports the rear panel at either side. The left side plate is recessed and perforated to allow the PCB to pass through to a separate fitted port plate that includes openings for each connector on the port array. The port plate also incorporates small slots on the interior surface that support the port end of the PCB board where the original screw holes are inaccessible due to the depth of the side plate. A large facet along the top and bottom edges of each plate reduces mass and improves the visual appeal of the main enclosure.


side plate facet


Internal Layout

Mounting the main and battery PCBs, battery and SSD into the enclosure is slightly complicated by the undulating shape of the enclosure base. I considered installing threaded inserts of varying heights to present a flat upper surface for supporting the PCBs but rather quickly moved on to consider installing a unifying plate in the bottom of the enclosure to accommodate all of the components that would install there. Since Bunnie had incorporated the threaded Peek array into his design for a Novena enclosure, I decided to follow his lead and design an aluminum Peek plate for the Heirloom enclosure.


Heirloom laptop in open configuration


At the time I was researching possible passive cooling solutions and a large aluminum surface seemed like it might prove useful in that application. This aluminum plate attaches to the composite via three rows of threaded inserts installed into the composite using a similar approach to that used in both the LCD and Speaker/Switch panels. In each case, a bored hole accepts a threaded brass insert glued in place using either urethane and rubber-toughened cyanoacrylate adhesive.




A series of hole locations in the Peek plate accept standard stainless steel captive standoffs to provide mounting locations for the PCBs and the SSD. The remaining insert locations create the Peek array. Because of the open design, these proved problematical for the standard captive nut installation process so I designed an alternate threaded insert solution that has the added benefit of a larger top surface area for discrete mounting applications.


peek plate with brass threaded insert visible


The battery, fan assembly and a breakout board specific to the Heirloom occupy part of the Peek array leaving a small amount of space for user installations. I designed and CNC fabricated custom brackets for the SSD and battery mounts.


SSD bracket


lower battery bracket


custom interior PCBs


The centripetal fan we used for CPU cooling had unworkable mounting provisions and no ready way to tie into the heat sinks that Bunnie had sourced. So I designed and CNC fabricated an aluminum plate design that replaces a cover on the fan and provides Peek plate mounting locations, a mounting for the heat sink and provision for a possible future heat transfer plenum.


fan top


LCD Panel

The LCD chosen for the Novena project has a relatively large non-imaging surface across the bottom which required a solution to cover that area and provide for cable routing in the panel design. In addition, the hinges needed attachment through a relatively shallow thread capture space while providing long term rigidity for the pivoting action. I decided that an aluminum plate would neatly resolve both issues. The design is hollowed out on the inside surface while providing full depth locations to mount the hinges and mounting screws that attach the hinge plate to the larger LCD panel housing. 


hinge plate inside


The resulting hinge plate is veneered to match the rest of the Heirloom enclosure and has the solid bottom LCD panel rail bonded and mechanically fastened to its lower edge. Hinging the LCD panel to the main enclosure would prove interesting.


veneered hinge plate



A particularly challenging aspect of the Heirloom design process was sourcing hinges suitable to the design concept. There are perhaps four major suppliers of the special torque hinges need to hold a laptop display in any chosen position. The majority of these are designed to be hidden within the molded plastic components of a typical laptop design and are thus not particularly presentable in a design like the Heirloom. Some of these designs also include provision for LCD cable routing which further complicates their appearance. In addition, the means of attachment are usually based on hidden metal components that are used to absorb torque forces exerted on the small-area hinge leaf commonly found in these standard hinges. I was looking for a hinge that would resemble a standard jewelry box hinge. Combining that idea with the small Heirloom production run proved to be a challenging sourcing proposition.


Afrormosia Heirloom back corner


A bit of research finally turned up stock hinges that met the appearance requirement. But the devil-in-the-details proved to be a lack of extant designs whose particular leaf design was suitable. Months passed as discussions with suppliers over semi-custom hinge options transpired. Eventually I was able to arrange a custom order without overly egregious minimum order demands or unit part costs. Following an anxious wait for their arrival, the resulting hinge design happily met all the requirements. After designing and implementing a cable routing solution and CNC fabricating the lower mortises for the hinges, the LCD panel was successfully united with the main enclosure.


The final custom hinge design for the Novena Heirloom laptop computer


A bag of goodies


Because the torque friction of the hinges will not allow the LCD panel to fully close against the lower enclosure, a set of magnets embedded in the wooden frame members of the LCD panel and the aluminum sides of the enclosure provide just enough magnetic attraction to encourage the full closure of the lid.

Heat management

Early discussions with Bunnie led to a shared desire to create a passive cooling solution for the Heirloom case. The open enclosure used in Bunnie’s Novena case design meant that there was little need for an enhanced cooling system. Although the Heirloom is designed to allow for opened application with the keyboard placed in front of the enclosure (which would allow for plentiful cooling air), it will perhaps more frequently be used with the keyboard resting in the enclosure. This creates a closed system with little natural airflow. Testing in this closed configuration confirmed that heating of the CPU could become an issue.


Bunnie using his thermal imager


So I began to research possibilities for a passive cooling system for the Heirloom. Eventually I started a lengthy series of discussions with engineers from cooling systems providers such as Aavid and Enertron regarding the transfer of heat from the CPU to a larger heat sink area via heat pipe technology.

The initial target of inquiry was the significant mass of aluminum present in the side plates, particularly the left side plate closest to the CPU. So I began designing a series of evaporator and condenser plates and creating heat pipe paths between them. The first attempt, with a set of cooling fins (calculated by an engineer) cut into the top or bottom edge of the side plate ultimately proved unsatisfactory due to the short length of cooling surface engagement with the condenser end of the heat pipe and the extensive machine work required to implement the cooling fins.


Using the side plate as an exchanger


With the right side plate deemed too far away from the CPU for a heat pipe solution, a further series of concepts was generated in cooperation with two of the engineers. In each case, a critical requirement would fall short of expectations. The slow pace of this design process, and the potential impact on critical design elements of the remainder of the case, led me to consider only one last option before concluding that some sort of active cooling was going to be required.


rear exchanger


I had just completed the first iteration of the Peek plate design in aluminum and still wondered if this fairly large aluminum surface might itself serve as a heat sink. I drew up yet another concept with a heat pipe path leading to the uncommitted area beneath the SSD. There was plenty of area to get significant length of attachment for the condenser end of the heat pipes. And the arrangement was reminiscent of photos sent me by one of the engineers who referred to it as a “cold plate”. But when presented for review, one of the two engineers indicated that the lack of supply and exhaust air and attendant flow across the plate would make this an unsuitable solution while the other indicated that it did indeed look like a possible option. Faced with this difference of opinion, and with a substantial amount of time invested in what might be a dead-end, I decided to see what Bunnie would think about using an active cooling solution.


cold plate exchanger


I had earlier contacted yet another engineer regarding a new, small form-factor, diaphragm-based cooling technology being developed and he was fairly confident we might find it suitable to the task. It had the advantage of being a simple addition to a standard CPU mounted heat sink, so spatial constraints were minimal. But continued glitches in the production development process for the fan left it off the table for consideration. So after a consultation with Bunnie, he sourced the small centripetal fan that we worked into a solution.

Fan-based heat dissipation

When Bunnie arrived in Portland for a week to work out some of the details of the Heirloom, we had already worked out the general layout for a fan/heat sink/heat pipe assembly. A possible concern was how to route the exhaust air out of the case. We began testing without a solution in place, essentially moving air within the case. The tests indicated that the system was performing as desired even without the custom condenser plate thermally attached to the heat sink or the heat sink properly ducted to the fan. The aluminum side plates of the case seemed to be doing a reasonable job of dissipating the heat with any special accommodation. So I began to work on a solution for getting the fan attached to the peek array and the heat sink. After a couple of quick CNC prototypes in aluminum, a final version did the trick while allowing for retrofitting an exhaust plenum should it prove necessary.


Bunnie installing heat pipes


A black LImba Heirloom showing the interior layout


Bunnie has a cool thermal imaging device for his phone that he used to make this photo of the Heirloom showing the heat distribution. The right side plate and speaker vent indicate escaping heat while the left side speaker vent shows the cooling effect of air drawn into the enclosure.


Thermal image of Heirloom in operation



The Heirloom sound system initially involved sourcing suitable speaker drivers. Space would be limited, so I ordered a selection of driver designs that might be useful given that constraint. Simple testing quickly narrowed the field down to one promising candidate with a tuned port. It was adequately proportioned to find its way into the enclosure design so I set out to incorporate it into the drawings. A composite panel intended for the task occupied the space between the back edge of the keyboard and the hinge rail at the back of the enclosure. All that remained was to allow for sound transmission past that panel surface. I knew that a perforation pattern was my preference so the drawing began. It quickly became apparent that the round shape I wanted provided some challenges to conjuring a visually appealing layout. But at one point I realized that my vintage HiFi inspiration had something to offer.


Dieter array


The brilliant Dieter Rams had used a round speaker grill layout in many of his sound equipment designs. I tracked down some examples and discovered the design was so efficient that I decided to offer homage to this seminal designer and use his design with only slight tweaks. Once I had determined how best to cut the hole pattern in the tricky composite material, I was able to add the necessary switch and threaded insert holes and PCB pin clearances. The drivers are resiliently mounted with a slight gap against the bottom of the panel which allows the grills to serve double duty in system cooling needs. The final result has the vintage touch I was looking for and pleasing soul qualities for a simple sound design.


speaker install


System Switching

I initially thought about using touch switches with actuation locations laser engraved into the rear panel top surface. Initial testing with an off-the-shelf breakout board seemed to indicate it might work, but a custom application board Bunnie designed showed there might be some reliability issues associated with inadequate grounding. With the realization that this approach was technically tricky, it also began to seem that a tactile switching application might be both more reliable and more in keeping aesthetically with the overall concept.


Novena Heriloom switches


I had a sample set of dome switches from Snaptron so I selected a design with appropriate properties and had Bunnie work up the PCB to support them. The actuators needed to be flush with the top surface of the rear panel. I designed and CNC fabricated a recessed switch base and an actuator with the specified pin design at the bottom to properly interact with the dome switch and a larger smooth button shape at the top. The resulting combination nicely integrates with the rest of the Heirloom design and provides a satisfying audible and tactile click when pressed. Additional on-board switches are accessible upon lifting away the keyboard.


dome switches



Finally, the addition of a magnetic sensing circuit into the speaker support PCB serves to allow the user a choice of lid closing actions in response to the corresponding magnet mounted in the aluminum hinge plate.


The Novena computer is designed for experimentation and includes a variety of access points to the hardware system. Numerous pinouts, switches, an FPGA port and a pair of USB ports are all available within the enclosure of the Heirloom model. The Heirloom laptop had to have provision for easily accessing the internal space. To meet this requirement, the Heirloom design makes use of a small footprint ThinkPad keyboard with a form factor fairly ideal to the task.

To create the Heirloom design I chose to cradle this keyboard between a rabbet in the solid wood front rail and a curved lip along the front of the rear panel that carries the speakers and switches. A secondary goal was to leave the rear keyboard feet in the lower position when placed on the enclosure. The lowered feet aid in returning the keyboard to its cradled position.

An opened view of a Black Limba version of the Heirloom.

An interesting feature of the ThinkPad is a subtly curved front edge where a user’s palm would rest while typing. I took advantage of this detail by matching and continuing the curve along the front rail to create a comfortable ergonomic element for the Heirloom design.

A final element of the keypad integration is a single finger slot at the front rail which allows for the easy removal of the keypad and offers a second avenue for airflow within the interior of the enclosure. Some love this keyboard, others decidedly don’t. I may consider fabricating a wooden replacement enclosure for the ThinkPad keyboard at some point. But that’s for another day . . .


It is common for laptop computer designs to include adhesive-backed elastomer feet applied to a cast-in recess on the plastic or aluminum enclosure. Due to particular details of the design I chose to find another means of incorporating feet into the Heirloom design. After considering a variety of concepts, I settled on a system which utilizes a small, relatively high durometer (a measure of hardness) urethane ball. It is inserted with a modest press fit into a hole in which a set screw has previously been installed, thus providing a means of adjustment. The balls are relatively easy to replace for wear and make a minimal visual impression in the overall design. The relatively high load exerted on the small footprint of the set of four balls seems to insure a good grip on most typical working surfaces.





I endeavored to make the Heirloom design as effective as possible given the large scale of the challenge and the small scale of production. It in no way directly addresses issues of consumer-grade design or production. Each of these computers is essentially a one-off, custom project. I believe the Heirloom accomplishes most of the goals set for the project and should serve users well both as an unusual, useful tool and as a unique, if very small, part of computer design history.

Special thanks to:

Bunnie Huang – genius hacker
Sean Cross – co-genius hacker
Josh Lifton and the whole crew at
Darrell Rossman (now at CrowdSupply)
Zane Grey (shop forebird)
Lisa Cenotto – the only one.

Kurt Mottweiler
Portland, Oregon 2016


Heirloom bottom edge

Heirloom computers ship into the wild

4 varieties of Heirloom

The Heirloom project utilized four species of wood in the production of laptop computers. In order left-to-right here are Makore, Oregon Black Walnut, Black Limba and Afrormosia. Each completed computer incorporates one or two of these species in its construction. Before each group of completed Heirloom computers ships, they are photographically documented.


Open view of Walnut Heirloom

This example is in Oregon Walnut. This particular variety of walnut grows along the west coast of the US and is known for its striking coloration in a slightly more neutral color palette than its other Walnut family cousin from the eastern US. It is very popular among local furniture designers.


View across a walnut rear speaker panel

Each Heirloom incorporates a removable rear panel that supports the rear edge of the keyboard and includes the speakers and system switches.

The speaker hole pattern is modeled after the design created buy the legendary German designer Dieter Rams whose work is acknowledged to have influenced many of Apple’s computer designs.

The custom dome switch design was created after an earlier touch switch application proved to be unsatisfactory. The brass actuators provide a satisfying tactile and audible response that feels in character with the Heirloom design.


Afrormosia HeirloomAfrormosia was used exclusively in this example of the Heirloom design.


Afrormosia Heirloom from the rear

This species has a golden tone that gradually darkens to a beautiful warm brown color over time. It has a very unique figure and grain pattern somewhat reminiscent of Teak.


Open view of Black Limba Heirloom

Black Limba has a contrasting figure of dark brown over a lighter golden yellow. This example is entirely made from this species.


Inner view of Black Limba Heirloom

With keyboard removed, this Black Limba Heirloom shows the interior layout that includes the custom CPU cooling system mounted to the built-in Peek array that allows for user configuration of the available space within the enclosure.

Some other examples of the Heirloom make use of two species in each case. More on that in as the remainder of the Heirloom laptops get photographed and shipped.



Makore heirloom

Novena Heirloom – First Complete Example

The first Novena Heirloom computer has been assembled and is headed to its new home with Sean Cross (xobs), co-developer of the hardware/firmware Novena project the inhabits the Heirloom enclosure. He will be running further tests on the system to insure all is well before we ship the remainder of the Heirloom computers.

Heirloom laptop in open configuration

This example is made from Makore, a species I have used in previous camera designs. This particular example has quite a bit of ribbon figure that shows up particularly well in sharp light.

XOBs Heirloom 1200 4

The first photo in this sequence shows the laptop in the hardware access mode with the bluetooth keyboard out front and the rear panel moved to the vertical position which provides access to the FPGA port. It is oriented to continue effective use of the speakers and control switches.

XOBs Heirloom 1200 2

This next image shows the Novena Heirloom motherboard and battery control board.

XOBs Heirloom 1200 3

The third image includes a view of the SSD, the system cooling fan, the battery, the open peek array area and the speaker/switch/breakout board that includes two inward facing usb ports and a header for access to the Novena Heirloom system pinouts.

XOBs Heirloom 1 (1)

The last image illustrates the Novena Heirloom in its conventional laptop operating mode. The aluminum port plate and characteristic wavy bottom shape are clearly visible. Other examples from the edition will include various combinations of Western Walnut, Afrormosia and Black Limba.

peek plate with brass threaded insert visible

Novena Heirloom – Threaded inserts

The composite material developed for the enclosure and LCD panels of the Heirloom is very strong and light in weight, and has excellent impact resistance and interesting thermal and acoustic properties. But it cannot hold threaded fasteners the way something like a plywood construction might. So I looked a variety of threaded insert designs and worked out a process for installing them.

Threaded brass insert
Threaded brass insert

There are a variety of styles of threaded inserts for different applications, none of which exactly match this one. But after a bit of consideration and a few trials, a particular type of threaded insert designed for molding into molded plastic parts proved to be the best candidate.

Coupling used to set up insert milling operation on CNC mill
Coupling used to set up insert milling operation on CNC mill

This style of threaded insert has a knurled exterior surface. The Heirloom installation entailed the milling of stopped holes into the composite that are slightly undersized for the insert outside diameter. The inserts are then coated with one-part urethane adhesive and gently pressed into the composite, snapping past the veneer/fabric layers and into the cork below. Because of the aggressive texture of the knurled, threaded insert and the relatively high porosity of the cork, the urethane’s natural foam-and-expand action permeates both surfaces and produces a very successful bond.

Loose and installed threaded inserts
Loose and installed threaded inserts

In the case of the peek plate mounting in the bottom of the enclosure, the withdrawal strength requirement is not particularly high. Because there are a relatively high number of threaded inserts being used to mount a pretty rigid panel, the completed assembly is quite strong.

A similar use of these brass threaded inserts is on the rear panel assembly that carries the speakers and the PCBs for both the speaker connection and the switch mechanism. The only difference between the two applications is that the threaded inserts are flush-mounted on the rear panel and installed slightly proud to serve a secondary function as stand-offs in the case of the peek panel.



Part 2 will describe the aluminum threaded inserts seen mounted in the black peek plate at the top of the post.

Novena Heirloom – Laptop feet

In the original design phase for the Heirloom, I had considered what kind of feet might make sense with the curved bottom panel design. I looked at many of the standard designs in use on current laptops. I investigated how the laptop feet of my MacBook Pro are constructed. But nothing was really appropriate.

Foot installation job set up in the milling vise.
Foot installation job set up in the milling vise.

When I looked to resolve the issue recently, it became apparent that the metal side plates were the logical place to mount the laptop feet. But the available surfaces are quite small. I pondered the dilemma for a few days while attending to other issues.

heirloom feet CAD view
Aluminum side plate with proposed foot

I ordered a batch of 3/16″ balls in various materials to investigate the prospects. The Viton balls of about 70A durometer seemed to be appropriate. I then worked out a depth and diameter of hole that would hold the ball securely in place while providing just enough projection to properly engage with the desktop surface. I milled each hole with a smaller hole drilled beyond the cavity for a set screw just in case I decided an adjustment mechanism was called for. The feet are easily user replaceable and visually unobtrusive in a way that seems to work well with the overall design of the Heirloom.


Rear panel with hinge and speaker grill

Novena Heirloom – Finishing the woodwork

As the last round of work continues on the Heirloom laptops, I finally managed to push one example ahead towards final assembly by finishing the woodwork and assembling a bottom enclosure. I chose one made from Makore, a wood species I used extensively in the last production run of P.90 cameras. It is a beautiful, often highly-figured material with a warm tone.

Hinged back corner @ port side
Hinged back corner @ port side with carbon fiber bottom rail pin.

Unlike those cameras, the Heirloom laptops have been made with a significant contribution from CNC fabrication. But what they do share with that well-rehearsed wooden camera production routine is a large amount of detailed handwork, continuous process troubleshooting and development, and their own share of what writer David Pye called “the workmanship of risk”.

Front corner with LCD and aluminum side plate
LCD front corner shaping responding to aluminum side plates.

Although the development of digital fabrication processes have made some of his arguments less relevant, what he intended with this phrase was to contrast a process in which the final result was continuously at risk to it’s counterpart, “the workmanship of certainty”, in which a machine-based process spits out identical copies of a product. Paring to the mark with a chisel versus the continuous, repetitive cutting action of a purpose-made produciton machine. The skill of the human maker continuously refining hand/eye coordination required to perform a task compared to the embedded precision of machine that (hopefully) repeats the precision built into its mechanisms by it’s human creators.

Front corner of LCD panel
Finger jointed front rail of the LCD panel

The Novena Heirloom brings these two means together in a hybrid that contrasts the relative repeatable precision of its aluminum side plates, peek plates, and a handful of other metal parts with the uncertainties of organic materials (wood and cork) assembled at one-off production levels with a significantly higher range of tolerance. It makes for interesting work and an equally interesting product, but does come at the cost of  a large amount of time spent sorting out all the issues that arise.

Front view at keypad lift slot
Front view with keypad lift slot visible beneath the LCD panel.

Now that the final stretch is under way, finishing the woodwork is a big part of the daily routine. Much of it has to be done prior to final assembly of the bottom panels with the aluminum side plates. But as is always the case, the point where the wood comes to life is an exiting and gratifying glimpse into the final result. The trial fitting shown in these photographs provides a hint of that experience.




Novena Heirloom – Fitting keypads

A unique feature of the Heirloom computer is the removable, bluetooth keypad that allows access to integrated features of the computer PCB including the FPGA port.

The Heirloom design supports the keypad between a removable rear panel and a rabbet, or groove, along the the front rail of the computer. Fitting keypads during construction requires a measuring and cutting procedure described here.

Rabbet cutter at the vacuum table
Rabbet cutter at the vacuum table

Because the keypad is tapered from front to back, the cut made in the front rail rabbet has a sloped bottom surface. An end mill was ground to match the keypad taper. It is used to cut the rabbet on the CNC milling machine.

Custom ground rabbet cutter
Custom ground rabbet cutter

Each rear panel is made from the wood composite designed for the Heirloom and, due to slight variations from things like veneer thickness, sanding, and mold-shape springback, has to be individually fitted in a table saw operation.

finding the rear panel edge
Finding the datum along the rear panel edge

After the rear panel is fitted, a measurement is taken on the CNC mill with an electronic edge finder. This measurement is used to locate the front edge of the rabbet to be cut in the wooden front rail.

Once the rabbet is cut in the front rail, the remainder of the front rail is shaped by hand to correspond to the gentle rollover at the front edge of the keypad. This detail creates a comfortable palm rest at the front edge of the keypad.

After fitting keypads to each of the Heirloom computers, it is time to move on to pre-finishing the wood composite panels in preparation for assembling the enclosures.

Finishing work on base panels
Finishing work on base panels