The Making of the Novena Heirloom

Adapted from: Makezine: "Electronics that Last" by Kurt Mottweiler

In a time when un-repairable, proprietary hardware has become the norm, the open-source Novena laptop is a truly unique machine. When Crowd Supply’s Josh Lifton and Novena designers Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Sean “xobs” Cross were looking at case designs for the recently built motherboard prototype, they felt it needed a case that was as unique as the hardware it enclosed. They wanted a case that made a statement as clearly as the computer. That desire led them to collaborate with Portland artisan Kurt Mottweiler on a very special enclosure. In a recent blog post, we gave you an overview of the result of that collaboration. Now, we’d like to share with you the details of how Kurt developed and manufactured a case that is truly a work of art.

Since user access to the internals and a removable keyboard were basic requirements, Kurt and bunnie quickly settled on a traditional “clam-shell” form factor. For design sensibility and inspiration, Kurt looked to vintage hifi designs as epitomized by iconic designer, Dieter Rams.

Materials

For materials, Kurt looked to his experience building cameras using cross-banded wood laminates. After a series of trials, he settled on a composite of wood veneer, e-glass cloth, cork, and epoxy. This material provided the best balance of durability, strength, weight, appearance, and environmental impact. Tests at MIT showed the material performed admirably, providing excellent strength, impact resistance, and durability.
Novena case wood species To make it as beautiful as it was practical, Kurt selected several different wood species for the veneer, even though this added some complexity to milling and prep. Once the composite was laminated, the next step was to form it into the gentle waves called for in the design. More than just aesthetics, the waves add structural integrity and rigidity to the case as well as improving heat dissipation. Depending on the component and the bending radii required for a given component, Kurt used a combination of vacuum bag clamping and more traditional bending forms and woodworking clamps.

The composite material was selected for the case bottom and top, while solid wood was used for the hinge plate and LCD surround. In a nod to designer Rams, Kurt selected a brushed aluminum for the case sides. These were CNC milled to spec by Kurt.

Mounting & Assembly

With the material squared away and components manufactured, the next challenge the team faced was mounting and assembling all the components into a functional machine. One particular challenge was locating an appropriate hinge to connect the display/lid to the main enclosure. Laptops need special torque hinges to hold the display in any desired position, and most of these are designed to be concealed in traditional plastic laptop cases. On the Novena, they would be exposed. After a bit of research, Kurt located a hinge that met the design and appearance criteria, but finding one that had the correct leaf design was more challenging. After much discussion with suppliers, Kurt was able to arrange for a semi-custom run of hinges that didn’t have impossible minimum order demands.
Novena cooling system The next big hurdle was heat management. While the “stock” open enclosure had little need for extra cooling, the Heirloom’s integral keyboard tray made it a closed system, and testing showed that it required some method of cooling. Initially, Kurt and bunnie tried several approaches to passive cooling using a heat pipe connected to either the side panels or the Peek mounting plate. None of these proved satisfactory in terms of either cost-effectiveness or adequate heat dispersion, so they moved on to exploring active cooling.

After CNC’ing a few prototypes, the team finally settled on a heat pipe connected to a fan mounted in a custom enclosure and attached to the Peek array. Thermal imaging showed that the heat dissipation from this set-up was more than adequate without needing any additional venting. As an additional advantage, the solution also allows for easy retrofitting of an exhaust plenum should one be required.

That left the hardware switches and the speakers. The switches were fairly straightforward. An early attempt using touch switches with laser engraving proved unreliable and technically challenging. The problem was solved with a set of dome switches and a CNC’d recessed switch base. The switches are recessed into the base and provide a satisfying, tactile “click” in keeping with the aesthetic style of the case.

The speakers were slightly more complex. While the internal mounting was handled easily enough, finding a way to provide sound transmission through the case was more challenging. To keep with the aesthetic style, Kurt wanted to use perforations, but coming up with a drilling patterns proved difficult. That’s when he realized his vintage hifi inspiration could be helpful. Kurt recalled that Dieter Rams had used a round speaker grille layout in several of his designs. After tracking down some examples, Kurt decided to pay homage to the great designer and use his design with only a few small tweaks.

The Final Product: Vintage Elegance & NW Style

The final product has a pleasing vintage aesthetic reminiscent of the golden age of hifi, when design was king and giant, sleek, aluminum-faced, rosewood-sided components formed the centerpiece of many living rooms. By contrast, the wood species provide a nod to quirky Portland and the Pacific NW. Each case has its own unique character. We here at Crowd Supply are in awe. It’s an absolutely stunning piece of craftsmanship that should last many decades, a true heirloom.

For complete details on all aspects of the build, read Kurt's piece in Make