Pittsburgh Maker Series: Kerf Case

Honoring the Steel City, the Schoolhouse Fall Collection features art and homewares from several local Pittsburgh makers. For this series, we reached out to some of these makers to ask what drives them to create these beautiful artifacts and learn more about their process. Today, we hear from the skilled woodworkers of Kerf, a woodworking studio in Pittsburgh that uses the modern, computer-assisted woodworking tools to create products with a mix of natural material beauty and precise craftsmanship. The Kerf Studio Pencil Case, which is featured in our Fall Collection, exemplifies these qualities. We caught up with the team at Kerf to ask them about their unique process and approach to woodworking.

Tell us about Kerf! Who are you and what do you specialize in?

"Kerf is a vertically integrated design studio, manufacturer, and retailer. Utilizing natural materials and cutting-edge technology, we make well-designed, practical, and sustainable products. We primarily specialize in technology accessories, with our patented all-wood phone cases being our most popular consumer product."

As part of our Pittsburgh Collection, we’re featuring your Studio Pencil Case. How did this product come about and how do you see it being used?

"As creative professionals, we often use a lot of writing tools. Our office has a motley array of cups and bins for pens, pencils and markers, but we found traveling with an organized assortment of tools challenging. We designed the Studio Case to be an intuitive and elegant way to bring your studio with you, and our Pencil Trays are designed to perfectly fit pencils, ballpoint pens, and the Apple Pencil in a magnetic compartment, carved from a single piece of reclaimed Pennsylvania walnut. Anyone who writes, sketches and loves to travel should carry this with them."

How did your company get started?

"In 2012, founder Ben Saks was the Assistant Director of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture wood shop, and it occurred to him that he could use the tools at his disposal to hand-carve a wood case for his iPhone. It proved to be a nice enough case that he began to get requests from family and friends, and once word spread to the greater internet, there proved to be enough demand for Ben to buy a $40 belt sander and grow his business. Since then, Kerf has moved into a repurposed factory and there’s now a small team devoted to designing, making, and selling phone cases and a bevy of other products around the world."

You seem to work in an extremely precise style of woodworking. What are the challenges and payoffs to this method?

"Wood is a temperamental material, and can warp, expand, or contract based on the environment it’s in. While our CNC machines are extremely precise, the biggest challenge is giving the wood enough leeway for it to do what it wants to, without sacrificing the reliability of the product. Our production process is long, finicky, and requires a lot of skilled labor, but the good news is we don’t see a lot of people copying our processes!"

How do you approach designing a new product? What are the design goals you keep in mind?

"We find design inspiration on a daily basis in all aspects of our lives. Some designs are born out of the materials and tools at our disposal, others are inspired by objects we wish we had. When creating new products, the most important thing to us is that what we’re making is unique, useful, and reflects our values of sustainability and aesthetics."

You have an interesting way of sourcing your raw materials through Urban Tree. Talk about how that partnership came about and why you use reclaimed wood.

"I have known Jason Boone (founder of Urban Tree) for a number of years, and when my business started growing, I needed a better source of wood. The scrap bin in the shop was not cutting it. He has all types of Pennsylvania native hardwoods that are kiln dried and ready to carve up. Most of his wood comes from dead or diseased trees that would have been mulched. A lot of the lumber he has is figured, spalted, or otherwise interesting. We’re glad that we have a local partner for sourcing reclaimed wood because avoiding waste and unnecessary consumption are critical to our mission. If we can take an old barn support beam, or part of a tree that fell down in a storm, and make something out of it, not only are we helping reduce demand for new lumber, we are preserving the history of that wood and reducing waste."

What’s it like to be a maker in Pittsburgh? Is there a strong community vibe or is it defined more by independent artisans?

"It’s an exciting time to be a maker in Pittsburgh. There is an active and vibrant community of artists, makers, and business owners. Kerf is involved with Monmade, a nonprofit devoted to providing producers with better access to elements of business success: markets, capital, workforce, space, guidance, and peers. Ben Saks is on the Board of Directors for Protohaven, a non-profit makerspace dedicated to the mastery of design and fabrication. Every year, we see new businesses crop up selling handmade goods, or supporting those that do, more retail stores that source locally, and more events that bring us together and let us celebrate our shared purpose."