Introduction: Making a Customizable Carbon-Fiber Phone Case

Picture of Making a Customizable Carbon-Fiber Phone Case


Have you ever wanted a durable phone case with a design completely left up to you, the owner? Look no further than Carbon-Fiber casing! The newest cellphone cases have to be durable and flexible to survive everyday use. Carbon fiber fits this specific application perfectly thanks to its high strength and light weight, as well as its adaptability to any phone model. It even has the added bonus of style – the natural appearance of the fiber will be seemingly woven around your device in a crisp, black sheath. Before getting started, let’s think about what you’ll be working with as you create your custom case.

Before we get cracking, let's talk about measures that will keep you, your working area, and your loved ones happy. That's right, safety measures!

Preparation and Safety

None of the chemicals you will be working with over the course of the phone case creation are toxic, but personal protective equipment (PPE) is always advised as you work. This includes:

· Vinyl gloves when handling epoxy or carbon fiber.

· Long sleeves and long pants to prevent open skin exposure.

· Goggles or Safety Glasses.

· Dust Mask.

These measures are all to help prevent possible discomfort caused by carbon fiber or plaster dust. Carbon fiber in particular can cause an irritation or itch as small slivers of the weave come loose during the project and stick to your skin. Glasses and masks will likewise keep particles out of your nose, mouth and eyes.

Step 1: Gathering the Materials

Picture of Gathering the Materials


Materials and Tools

The recipe to make a cell phone case will likely have ingredients that you won’t typically find around the house. Here’s what you’ll need:

· Fitting Phone Case

· Plaster of Paris

· Plastic Wrap

· Wax/Parchment Paper

· Carbon Fiber

· Epoxy Resin with Epoxy Cure

To make sure your carbon fiber case fits your phone, it is important to have a phone case made for your model of phone. It will be the initial shape your plaster will take, and eventually what your carbon fiber will take as well!

If you’ve ever made a mold of your hand or foot as you were growing up, you’ve already had experience with plaster. Plaster of Paris, also known as gypsum plaster, can be purchased from any craft or hardware store worth their salt.

The purpose of plastic wrap is two-fold. Its primary purpose is to help line your model phone case as a barrier to the plaster. I used Glad Press’n Seal for this as it provides an easy-to-work-with lining which can be easily removed if you’re not happy with how it looks. Its secondary purpose is to protect whatever surface you are working on from the epoxy and plaster chemicals. Anything that clings and covers will work just fine for this.

Parchment paper will work as an excellent nonstick barrier between your phone mold and your carbon fiber lay-up. You likely already have some of this in your house. Glad produces a suitable paper roll for this as well.

The world of carbon fiber is a large one and the choice of what to use is largely up to you. I used a 3K weave from Fibre Glast, recommended for its high strength and formability. If you are looking for a different property in your phone case, don’t hesitate to shop around.

Epoxy Resin and Epoxy Cure should be acquired as a pair – epoxy will not chemically harden if the wrong combination of products is used. The standard bottle of epoxy resin will often list which epoxy cure should be used alongside it. The Epoxy Resin I used was Fibre Glast 2000. The Epoxy Cure that pairs with it is Fibre Glast 2120.

Other tools used:

· Mixing Cups

· Popsicle Sticks

· Paint Brushes (Foam)

· Scissors

· Tape – Masking, Sealant Putty

· Hammer

· Screwdriver

· Dremel

· Vacuum with Vacuum Bag

Step 2: Making the Mold

Picture of Making the Mold

Preparation and Safety

None of the chemicals you will be working with over the course of the phone case creation are toxic, but personal protective equipment (PPE) is always advised as you work. This includes:

· Vinyl gloves when handling epoxy or carbon fiber.

· Long sleeves and long pants to prevent open skin exposure.

· Goggles or Safety Glasses.

· Dust Mask.

These measures are all to help prevent possible discomfort caused by carbon fiber or plaster dust. Carbon fiber in particular can cause an irritation or itch as small slivers of the weave come loose during the project and stick to your skin. Glasses and masks will likewise keep particles out of your nose, mouth and eyes.

Plaster

It’s not uncommon for your set-up to be more arduous (and a lot less fun) than the actual project. You’ve made it this far! Here comes the action:

1. Prepare your work space. Plastic wrap anything you don’t want getting messy and equip your gloves and glasses.

2. Get your hands on the phone case you likely already have for your phone. This is the basis for our mold. The better it fits your phone, the better the carbon fiber will fit too.

3. Tear a square of the Glad Press’n Seal that is larger than your phone case. A good rule of thumb is to have an inch of excess wrap around the edges of your phone case.

4. Press and Seal the wrap to the interior of your phone case. Take some time on this step! The less wrinkles in your wrap as it adheres to the case, the more precise your mold will be and you’ll have less work to do later. Pay special attention to the corners of the case where the wrap likes to bunch. If you find you have trouble with the wrap, try working the wrap outward from the center of the case.

5. Form the wrap into and around buttons, camera slots, etc. so they are defined in your mold.

6. Following the instructions on your plaster container, mix plaster in a cup until you’ve reached an appropriate fluid thickness. It should feel like smooth pancake batter.

7. Pour plaster into lined phone case. The plaster should reach the underside of the case’s natural lip. Make sure plaster flows into and around buttons, dents, and holes naturally part of the case.

8. Smooth out the plaster with a Popsicle stick. If your plaster is the right consistency, it shouldn’t fight being formed.

9. Allow to dry. Most plasters will start to set just ten minutes after mixing but you should give the mold at least twenty-four hours to dry before moving on.

After drying, the mold and plastic lining should come out of the case without much resistance. Don’t be afraid to use some force to remove the mold – treat it as if you were removing a typical phone from its casing. Breaking the plaster mold at this point will send you right back to square one. Use a Popsicle stick or some other edge to sand off any odd bumps and to straighten edges. The nicer your mold looks, the nicer your phone looks!

Step 3: Creating a Carbon Fiber Lay-Up

Picture of Creating a Carbon Fiber Lay-Up

Method

Now it’s time to start working with some materials you most likely have never touched before. Carbon Fiber must be cut and applied around the plaster mold you made of the original phone case. Let’s start there.

1. Just as you did with the Glad Press’n Seal, you’ll be cutting a rectangle of carbon fiber with an excess of an inch around each edge of the phone.

2. Unlike the Press’n Seal, preemptively tape the dimensions of this rectangle with masking tape. When you cut the carbon fiber, the tape will prevent much of the weave from unraveling.

3. Cut out your taped rectangle. Cutting down the center of the laid tape will be the easiest and give you cleaner edges.

4. Using parchment paper or whatever other nonstick baking paper you have at hand, cut an equally sized and shaped rectangle to match your carbon fiber.

The molding of the carbon fiber to your plaster can be the trickiest part of the lay-up. Go into this process with the mindset of folding a Christmas present. You want your edges to be defined and clean, very few wrinkles, and well-fitted with little excess. You can dry-run your folding with a piece of printer paper to see what format works best with your phone. The following is the process that worked for me:

1. Take your taped carbon fiber rectangle and flip it tape-side down on your work surface.

2. Place your rectangle of parchment paper on top of the carbon fiber – place your plaster mold screen-side up at the center of these two sheets. Grab your roll of masking tape and keep it close.

3. Fold the long sides of your rectangle up and over your plaster mold. The taped edges of the carbon fiber should be parallel to each other along the screen side of your mold like a pair of Twix bars. If your sheets were cut correctly, there should be some plaster still showing down the middle.

4. Tape these folds to the plaster, leaving some of the plaster visible. Make sure the tape only sticks to the plaster and the pre-laid tape on the carbon fiber. Taping the carbon fiber further can damage the weave.

5. Carefully fold the short end of your phone case over the end of the plaster mold. Depending on the phone case, this can be relatively easy or tricky. Keep thinking Christmas present. If you're not sure how to fold a Christmas present, check out YouTube for some great techniques. Make sure you can still see plaster in the center of the lay-up! This will be important when you need to remove your mold.

6. Pay special attention to your corners! They can be the unruliest sections of the case.

7. A trapezoidal fold should now be ready for taping to the screen-side of your phone. Follow the same taping rules as before. Tape should only meet tape or plaster.

8. Complete steps 5 and 6 for the other end of your phone case.

9. By now your carbon fiber should be tightly taped to your plaster mold, with a sheet of parchment paper sandwiched between the two.

Step 4: Setting Up the Vacuum

Picture of Setting Up the Vacuum

Before the Epoxy

Set up the vacuum bag and pump for your phone to cure in later. We do this step now so you aren't on a tight schedule after mixing your epoxy. The vacuum rig works in two parts, the pump and the bag. They are typically sold together but can be acquired separately. The bag is made from a plastic roll with two open ends. Think of a covered slide at a playground.

1. When it has been epoxied, the phone case must be fully enclosed in the vacuum bag sheathe. This bag must also hold your vacuum pump aperture.

2. Depending on your vacuum pump, you will insert the tubing into a side of the bagging or cut a hole in through the top. Mine was pumped through the top of the bag. Just make a note of where the pump will have to be inserted.

3. Cut a portion of the bag of a size to accommodate both phone case and vacuum pump. Set aside for later.

There was a lot of set-up, but now you finally get to break open the epoxy.

Step 5: Mixing and Applying Epoxy

Picture of Mixing and Applying Epoxy

The epoxy will provide much of the strength you’d expect in a phone case. However, it is the most chemically delicate part of the entire project. Mixing the epoxy resin and cure at the correct ratio is critical for the best hardening. For the epoxy resin/cure combo I’ve mentioned in the materials section, you’ll mix three parts 2000 Epoxy Resin to one part 2120 Epoxy Cure. For example, if you poured 60 milliliters of resin into a cup, you would add 20 milliliters of cure. Add your cure slowly to the resin while stirring gently with a Popsicle stick so as to avoid bubbles forming. If bubbles do form, it’s not the end of the world, just press them out as you stir, removing as many as you can. This particular batch of epoxy should be usable for the next two hours.

Making sure to wear gloves and goggles, use a foam paint brush to dab epoxy into the carbon fiber lay-up. Be generous as you dab! The carbon fiber will not reach its strongest point unless it has completely absorbed the epoxy. Edges and corners should receive special attention as they can be easily missed. The back-side (camera-side) of the case should take a majority of your epoxy. Get the lay-up thoroughly soaked, but not to the point that it is dripping. Also take caution as to not get any epoxy on the plaster mold – this will make it harder to remove later.

It’s starting to look like a real phone case at this point, right?

Step 6: Drying Your Case

Picture of Drying Your Case

Curing

Now your case has to be vacuumed – and not in the traditional carpet sense.

1. While the epoxy is still setting, place the phone case and mold within the previously created vacuum bag rig.

2. Insert your vacuum pump.

3. Seal bag shut with sealant putty tape with attention to preventing wrinkles or folds from folding allowing the seal. Wrinkles will ruin the vacuum, allowing air in and out of the bag.

4. Turn on your vacuum. Keep an ear open for whistling or leaking air – this means there is a fault in the bag seals that must be corrected. You will notice the air vacating the space if everything is working as intended.

5. You mixed a two-hour epoxy, so your vacuum must hold for two hours for the epoxy to settle. If you are satisfied with the tight cling of bag to fiber to mold, let it rest.

*Epoxy doesn’t stick to plastic, so don’t fret that you won’t be able to remove your case from the tight vacuum. It won’t stick to the parchment lining you’ve laid between mold and case either!

Step 7: Removing Plaster Mold

Picture of Removing Plaster Mold

At this point your case should be looking very slick. But there’s a lot of excess carbon fiber on the screen-side of the case, not to mention that thick plaster mold occupying the space where your phone should be. Grab your hammer and screwdriver and get ready for some fun.

1. On a covered surface, place your carbon fiber case and mold screen side up. Depending on how thoroughly you taped your fiber to keep it wrapped tight, you should see some plaster peeking out in the center of the casing.

2. Dig your screwdriver into the showing plaster.

3. Strike it with your hammer as if you were Michelangelo sculpting the statue of David.

4. Cracks should appear in your mold and you can begin to remove bits and piece of plaster through the center of the un-taped, un-fibered case.

5. If your mold refuses to budge, continue striking with hammer. No need to be gentle; the plaster should absorb all the force and your case will be just fine.

6. Once all plaster is removed, the parchment paper remains. Remove this to the best of your ability. Mine got folded into some of the excess casing and couldn’t be removed until later.

7. Wipe down the interior and exterior of the case free of plaster dust with a damp paper towel.

Step 8: Adding Holes

Picture of Adding Holes

Time to break out another power tool. A dremel with a cutting edge can be used to remove the majority of excess fiber on the screen side of your case. It can be equipped with hole cutters to provide holes for cameras, charging ports, microphones, and the like. It can also be equipped with a sander to take the edge off any sharp epoxy/fiber corners. These holes and edges will vary by case model. Simply put, you’re mimicking the original case at this point and cutting similar holes. Indents and holes indicating these ports and holes should be apparent if your mold and lay-up were perfect. If they aren’t, don’t worry! This is your custom phone case – cut as you want, where you best see fit. After cutting, clean with soap and water to remove fiber, paper, and plaster dust. Dry thoroughly with pressurized air if readily available or with paper towels if not readily available.

Step 9: Make It Shine

Picture of Make It Shine

To make the phone case shine, reapplying a coating of the Epoxy we made in the lay-up step will provide luster after all the sanding and hole cutting we may have done.

1. Follow instructions on bottle, mixing three-parts resin to one-part cure.

2. As before, add your cure slowly to the resin while stirring gently with a Popsicle stick so as to avoid bubbles forming. This is especially important during your coating layer as bubbles will make the finish on your case look like alligator scales!

3. By this point you are a pro with the foam paint brush. Apply the epoxy evenly to the clean, dry cellphone case. Don’t use the same paintbrush from the last epoxy application!

4. Apply efficiently and sparingly, this epoxy can sneakily dry on you. You also don't want there to be excess epoxy, as it will make your case excessively thick and epoxy-heavy.

5. Leave case to dry. Set up parchment paper or plastic wrap to avoid unwanted sticking!

After your finish is finished, your phone case should be smooth and shiny. In the event that it’s not as smooth as you like, feel free to use sandpaper or something similar to buff out the edges or excess epoxy. You've done it! Enjoy your unique case!

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