A Look at Wood in Computer Design as Apple's Macintosh Turns 30
Click on the image to open
Click on the image to open
Click on the image to open
Click on the image to open
Click on the image to open

Wooden computers may seem like a strange concept to some. The idea may even invoke an image of a contraption with hand cranks, exposed gears, and steam pipes. But fine woodworking has actually played quite an important role in the home computer revolution, especially with its influence on the Apple 1.

Sure, the Apple 1 computer was engineered by Steve Wozniak and put into production by Steve Jobs, but what would it have been without its iconic custom cabinetry?

When the computer first went on sale at the Byte Shop, the store owner sought out a local cabinet maker to craft custom housing for the bare circuitry. The result is what we see when we visit the Smithsonian today: a polished Koa wood box, rounded at the edges, with cutouts for the keyboard buttons, and panels that can be removed for circuit repairs.

It’s clear there was a lot of thought and effort put into the design, which is why I am so surprised at the difficulty in tracking down the woodworker responsible for making the home computer a single, self-contained unit rather than a bundle of wires and circuit boards.

It’s also understandable why later models favored metal, plastic, and glass. The materials were cheaper, lighter, and easier to work with than 3/4” pieces of Hawaiian hardwood. But they undoubtedly lacked the warmth and beauty of natural wood grain.

With modern production technology like laser cutters and CNC routers, which have a rate of precision within three thousandths of an inch, wood can be shaped and machined just as easily as plastic can be set in a mold.

And so, many designers have started to reintroduce wood into computer design. The machines that so many people rely on to work, socialize, and write important comments on YouTube videos, are starting to take on the beauty and feel of a musical instrument or an heirloom furniture piece.

Several designers have started crafting wood and bamboo cases for smartphones and tablets, and there are even wooden USB drives that allow users to upload information into a nice chunk of mahogany or live-edge juniper. My personal favorite is the wooden USB stick by oooms, which looks like a branch growing directly out of the computer.

The computer mouse, too—which began as a 2X4 block that was hollowed out, sanded, stained, and finished—is once again available in wood.

And even keyboards and keys themselves are available in maple and walnut. The French company Oree, designer of the Oree board, describes working on its wireless keyboard as a “Warm, tactile experience.”

Personally. I cannot wait to upgrade my own workspace. The idea of working with a wooden keyboard or mouse somehow seems like a direct connection to the innovators, designers, and woodworkers who stayed up late in their garages to change the world by building interesting things.

And as for Woz and Jobs’ silent partner—with the Apple 1 going for upwards of $60,000—I hope his contribution was recognized well enough to allow him to retire early in a nice house where the Koa trees grow.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.