Introduction: Awesome Custom Cases (From $20 - $2000)

AN OVERVIEW: This instructable will educate you on the various techniques for creating awesomely customized cases. Each step will walk you through quick & inexpensive choices to thoughtful, more craftsmanlike options. This instructable is suitable for anyone with a budget of twenty dollars to two grand. You need not be rich. You can do amazing stuff with found objects. And you'll be amazed at simple techniques that look expensive but are remarkably cheap to execute.

However, if you're looking for a step-by-step guide on how to make your specific case, this is the wrong tutorial. And before you go looking for that tutorial, let me save you some time: that tutorial doesn't exist. It can't exist. Why? Because you're creating a custom case. Custom. As in one of a kind.

I've completed 15 customized cases and there is one simple truth to customizing a case; no two cases are the same. This will become immediately clear as you work through the steps below. Trust me on this; this is a zen thing.

You'll learn plenty of tips, tricks, hacks and shortcuts for any case design, not just the one used in this tutorial. You'll also learn universal lessons on what not to do. Therefore, use this tutorial as an overall aesthetic guide and philosophy for case customization. Don't use it as an "insert Tab A into Slot B."

While this project uses traditional maker skills (including laser engraving, Photoshop, a variety of web applications, CNC work, leather work, etc.) the most important skill is patience.

INSPIRATION: I was inspired by this fantastic instructable. Check it out before reading mine:

DREADNOUGHT "LICK MY LEATHER" AUDIO KIT: The specific case I'll be using for this instructable is my most recent custom case. I call it the Dreadnought "Lick My Leather" Audio Kit. It's a customization built around an off-the-shelf, inexpensive dreadnought hard case but customized for my professional motion picture audio recording kit. And it meets all my basic requirements:

  • It's highly functional.
  • It's aesthetically pleasing.
  • It's modular.
  • It's upgradeable.
  • It takes into consideration the user's needs.

Most people approach customizing a case as if they're shipping something from Point A to Point B. If that's you, I'm going to drive you bonkers. I'm not a Point A to Point B kinda guy. And in my opinion, a case is more than a transport device. It extends the usefulness of what's inside, it makes the user more efficient and it becomes a moment of joy every single time it is opened. Every. Single. Time.

MY PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY: While I love the DIY movement, I'm often saddened how most DIYers seem to rush through a project. I'm a perfectionist and an artist. I want everything I make to be beautiful, inside and out. I care about the stuff no one can see. I iterate to a point that would drive most humans insane.

You don't have to adhere to my approach. But beware; cutting corners results in crap. The most honest thing I can tell you is that there are no short cuts in life. Period.

WHY YOU ARE HERE: Be honest. No one builds a custom case for utility. That's not the freakin' point. If you want utility, go to Ebay or Amazon and buy a brand new, highly utilitarian organizational bag or case for $50. From Goodwill to garage sales, there are so many ways to get duffel bags, luggage, camera cases and army surplus equipment at affordable prices. You are here because, like me, you want more out of life. You want a moment of majesty. Perhaps, you're a preening peacock and you want to strut your stuff. Nothin' wrong with that. We all deserve to show our tail feathers. Perhaps, you're an OCD freakazoid (like me) and you just aren't satisfied with anything off-the-shelf. That's fine, too. I feel ya.

Whatever the reason, I'm here to show you the way (or, at least my way).

But, if you find yourself reading this and saying "That's too extreme. That's more time than I want to sink into a project like this. Its just a freakin' case, man! I want to use the stuff that goes in it! WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? DON'T YOU HAVE A LIFE?" then you don't get the zen nature of case customization.

Perhaps a shorter answer is "If you have to ask why then this isn't for you." And that's a fact, jack. I want my cases to go to eleven. I like the sound other people make when I open a case and that rush of air escapes past their teeth. I love it when someone says "Jesus, man, I've never seen anything like that." For me, case customization is a combination of Willie Wonka, Steve Jobs & The Who. Hopefully, you agree.

So, follow me into a land of leather, flock, lasers and foam. Here we go...

Step 1: Think, Scribble, Test & Repeat

You already want to punch me in the face. "Let's get to the good stuff!" Trust me; this is how you get to the good stuff.

The Dreadnought "Lick My Leather" Audio Kit took three months of thinking, scribbling, testing and repeating before I ever spent a penny or built a thing. Three months. Why? Because you don't know what you want yet. You think you do, but you're wrong. Unless you're omniscient. I'm not and therefore I need rumination time.

The biggest eye opener was using an audio kit on a sound stage in Chicago. There were huge lights everywhere...except where we were setting up our gear. I turned to an assistant and said "Can we get a light over here?" He sighed with annoyance "I know, I know, always enough light for the film set, never enough for setting stuff up."
And that's when I had an epiphany. My kit needs internal lights. I pulled out my pad of paper and scribbled that down. Internal lights. Motion activated. Bright. Rechargeable batteries.

People often think I'm a freak because I stare off into space. I'm thinking. I'm staring at my cludgy kit or I'm watching how someone uses gear. I've been told my jaw hangs open and my eyes defocus. It makes people uncomfortable. Too damn bad. I'm thinking. And when I have a thought worth repeating, I start asking questions.

My favorite question is "What's wrong with your gear?" You need to ask this fifteen different ways because its not how most people think. A close second is "Why'd you do it that way?" Most people just accept that what they use is the best there is and it can't get any better. Push. Be rude. Ask again. Be a TV police detective and get the truth, the whole truth and nothin' but the truth. YOU PUSH, BOY! YOU PUSH!

If you come up with just one killer idea, it will transform your entire custom kit. And it will be the thing that makes you smile every time you open it.

Take audio notes on your phone. Scribble on a napkin. Snap some pictures. Keep a folder with all your juicy observations and fill that puppy up.

How many times do you do this? Until you can't do it anymore. Then, you move on to step two. Dear ol' Da Vinci said "All Art Is Abandoned." Ain't that the truth, Leo?

Step 2: Spill Your Guts

This is probably the hardest step. It requires patience, trust and willpower. Lots of willpower.

Lay out everything that will be placed inside your case. For the Dreadnought, I laid out everything on my hardwood floor. Everything. Every cable, CF card, charger, tiny screw driver and adapter that would need to go in this case. Obviously, I laid out the big stuff, too. Of course, Captain Obvious lays out his microphones, audio recorders, wind screens, phantom power supplies and other weird doodads necessary for a pro audio kit. What takes it to the next level is laying out the little stuff. If you're an airsofter/milsofter, that means all the little stuff to maintain your faux weapons. If you're a musician, think through all your XLR adapters. If you're a gamer, what weird stuff do you always forget but absolutely need once you've brought your rig to someone's house?

The biggest reason I do this step is because of the photo above. I stared at the size comparison of my old audio recorder compared to my new one. The new one is so damn tiny. In fact, until I put my two sound recorders side-by-side I didn't realize what an antique my old digital recorder had become. Two hours after taking this photo I was selling my old Tascam HD-P2 on eBay. I made that kind of a decision with every bit of my gear.

Once you've laid everything out on the floor ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there anything superfluous?
  • What items might become obsolete?
  • What's the approximate square footage for all your gear?
  • How thick is your gear? Seriously, get out a ruler and measure how freakin' tall the tallest piece of gear is.
  • Must the gear be in one case or should it be in several?

Now, rearrange what's left. This time group "like with like." Put all your cables in one area, your batteries in another, your CF cards in a third. When I was twelve, my parents asked me to clean the garage for the first time. Three hours later they came out and exclaimed "THAT'S AMAZING! HOW DID YOU GET EVERYTHING TO BE SO NEAT?" I said "Just put like with like." The phrase stuck, people repeated it to me for years and to this day I find it to be one of the most useful concepts in life. Put like with like.

Now, clean that crap up. Your wife's coming home and she ain't gonna be impressed. What's wrong with you, making a big ol' mess on your floor? Crazy nut job hoard-tastic loonbag! CLEAN! CLEAN!

Once you're done cleaning up, load those pictures into a folder on your desktop and make them your desktop wallpaper and your screen saver. That's right; you're going to stare at this stuff for the next three months of your life. Why? Because your conscious mind cannot solve the puzzle you've created. Only your subconscious can.
You want to pick out a case? Not yet. You want to know what software to use to start layin' stuff out? Not yet. You want to do something productive? Not yet. You want to be creative? NOT YET. You want to feel forward momentum? NOT YET! NOT YET! NOT YET!

Its not time yet. Take a shower, mow the lawn, play a video game, do your regular day job, do anything else but work on the case. ANYTHING ELSE. And do anything else for a very, very long time. Just let that desktop wallpaper and your screen saver do their magic.

You may think you're not working but you're wrong. Ye Ol' Subconscious (S.C. to his friends) is hard at work. Its getting annoyed at the shapes it sees. S.C. is figuring out how to rearrange the puzzle you've displayed before it. S.C. is noticing details, comparing sizes and correlating functionality. And S.C. will tell you when you're ready for the next step. You'll be taking a shower or dropping your kids off at the pool when suddenly your conscious brain screams at you "OH MY GAWD!!!!! IF YOU PUT THE THING NEXT TO THE THING IT WILL SAVE YOU TWENTY FREAKIN' SECONDS OF SET UP TIME!!!! IF YOU ROTATE IT JUST A TEENIE WEENIE BIT THE SECOND THING WILL ALREADY BE LINED UP WITH THE FIRST THING!!! THE THING AND THE THING WITH THE THING!!!! YOU ARE SUCH A GENIUS!!!!"

Once that happens, you're ready for Step Three...

Step 3: Layin' It Out (First Draft)

It's time to lay out the interior of your case...even though you haven't yet bought a case. That may strike you as odd, but remember, Ol' S.C. has been rearranging pieces for a few months. The first thing you need to do is satisfy S.C's growing urge to have a clean, organized version of all yer junk.

In olden times, I did this with pen and paper. Then with Photoshop. Two years ago, I discovered And while their UI sucks, it is a massive leap forward over anything prior. I set up an account in minutes and began playing around with their (horribly nineties) interface. Despite the flaws, I could generate shapes in seconds. Its 3D viewer let me select cases (Don't do it! Not yet! Just pick a square, dammit!) as well as pre-made cut-outs for a variety of custom items. I was a kid in a candy store!

Some tips in using My Case Builder:

  • Establish a naming convention immediately. Think through a name for templates, for top level layers, mid level layers and bottom level layers. Use multiple digits (I start with 001 for my first layer or draft) to avoid having 10 come before 1.
  • Make sure you have a template that has ALL your cut-outs in it. And, anytime you create a new cut-out, create it in this template first. If you create some cut-outs in one file and then different ones in another, you can't merge them in the UI. You'll be forced to email their staff and several days may pass before you can resume work on your layout.
  • You can always move a cut-out off the grid.
  • Save often.
  • Turn off the high-res "toggle switch" on the 3D render dialog box. It's just not worth the wasted time. Its slooooow.
  • The more objects you have, the slower the 3D render will take. I find that anything above 40 objects starts to take several minutes and often freezes.
  • Use finger pulls on everything. Trust my experience, you need to get your stuff out of your custom foam as easily as you put it in.
  • While it isn't obviously advertised, you can get hand-cut-outs on the sides of each "master layer", you can add flocking (in red, black or blue) and you can add a corrugated plastic bottom. I was originally cynical because the name is so cheesy, but it's an attractive product and polishes your designs. Just add it to the special note section or email their staff before you order something.
  • Don't be afraid to group objects and lock them in place. You're only one mouseclick away from unlocking and ungrouping them, then regrouping them and locking them again. Do this, because the UI is cludgy and you can move stuff without meaning to.
  • Use this software even if you intend to buy your own sprayfoam from a hardware store. This software will save you time and help you do a far, far better job than you would otherwise. If you happen to have advanced 3D modeling skills and already know 3DS Max or Maya, well bully for you. Freakin' show off. Even then, you may find this is faster because My Case Builder, despite its flaws, is specifically designed for CNC'ing foam for custom case inserts.
  • Don't be afraid to call them and ask to do crazy stuff. The main secretary is rude as hell but the rest of the staff members are incredible.

Your first layout is going to be boring. That's fine. You're not ready for sexy time. You need patience. All you want to do is to explore "putting like with like." And "like with like" isn't as easy as it sounds. Do you want to put all batteries together in one area? Or should batteries sit next to the component that needs them? How many extras are you going to need? Do you put the camera next to the quick-release or is it already mounted on the plate?

Do not rush past these questions. The more time you spend patiently decoding the hidden puzzle before you, the better the final product will be. Take breaks. But, don't give up until every single freakin' piece of gear is accounted for. Perhaps, you've decide some stuff needs to be in a ziplock bag. That's fine. Do that. Then, create the space for it. Perhaps, you're thinking an altoids tin or a circular spice container would hold your adapters nicely. Great. Do that. Then, create a space for them. Keep going and don't stop until every single damn thing is on your monolothic (and boring) first draft. Now, save that puppy because its time for...

Step 4: Tetris

I'm not joking. Download any version of this Soviet-era masterpiece and play, man, play. Because, as you arrange those pieces you're learning how to lay out your own case better, tighter and cooler. After I finish the first draft of my case, I usually play Tetris for about 30 minutes. If you're new to the game (really? Is that even possible?) then you may need more practice.

And you'll repeat this step often. Never has a video game been so effective at unlocking the secrets of a practical skill. Moses may have came down from Mt. Sinai with Ten Commandments, but tucked between his butt cheeks was a Gameboy loaded with the Soviet-era version of Tetris.

Step 5: Pick a Case...Any Case

Its time to start thinking about cases. Spend time on eBay, Amazon and Google Images. Look at weird stuff. Go to Costco or Walmart and feel something in your hand.

There is a trick to this. It's going to freak you out but you have to trust me on this. Its the biggest secret of all. Deliberately pick a case that is about 20% too small. That's right. Too small. You aren't going to buy it yet. All you're going to do is take the interior dimensions and translate them into And with that just-so-slightly-too-small case, its time to refine your design. Tetris style.

I often go beyond the 20% rule. I'm telling you 20% because you're new at this. With the Dreadnought "Lick My Leather" Audio Kit, I pushed myself to 50%. I wanted to see just how much stuff I could fit in a single guitar case, keeping it super-organized, ergonomic, easy-to-use (I think I just said the same thing three times!) and still well protected. When I hit a tough spot, I played some Tetris. I was often amazed at how much better I could design a section of the case by just playing some Tetris, doing a draft, playing some Tetris and then redrafting from scratch.

Remember, you must work with interior dimensions only. Amazon often lists the external dimensions. WalMart's website lacks the key data you need. I bought the Dreadnought at, despite their information also being scant. The first time I did this, I screwed up so badly I ended up beating the case against my driveway and shredding it like the printer scene in Office Space. I learned the hard way; between poor measurements and that deceitful foam-in-a-can, I ruined a perfectly good guitar case. You need to measure the interior three times and you need to be under within 1/16th of an inch for a loose fit and 1/32nd for a tight fit. If you are over in any way, even 1/32nd of an inch, whatever you've designed will not fit and you'll be going medieval on some poor inanimate case just like I did.

So, what kind of case do you want? That's a great question. I avoided using a Dreadnought at first because I loathe hipsters and it felt so hipsterish to me. "Oh, look, lets put audio gear in a guitar case! Its so unexpected! I'm so precious! Now, let's go to a restaurant with plywood furniture and really bad service while a guy named Chaz talks incessantly while twirling his handlebar moustache!" That's not me. First and foremost, I want a case to be functional.

However, I had a sticky problem in Tetrising all my audio gear: I wanted to fit a boom pole inside the case. I own an expensive carbon fiber boom pole and its been stolen in the past. I've traveled on airlines with an older boom pole; they always ended up damaged. If the boom pole was inside the case, it would be more secure. I also loved the idea of having only one case to carry all my audio equipment. And as luck would have it, the interior of a Dreadnought was 1/8th of an inch longer than my fully collapsed 24' boom pole.

In this case, function justified the hipster-form I was repelled by. A dreadnought was logical. It was rational. It even had interior cradles to hold the boom pole in place! Suh-weet!

I rearranged all the pieces in again. I verified that I could get everything to fit in the case. After three tries, it worked. I still needed to make my layout beautiful, but I knew I could cram everything in there. So, I shelled out about $60 and bought the Black Musician's Gear Deluxe Dreadnought Case:

But, you can use anything. Something in your closet? Free! Go to Goodwill? Almost free! Garage Sale? Damn near free! Steal some luggage at the airport? Free (except for jail time!) If spending 60 bucks is too much, there are so many alternatives. Hell, any $20.00 tool bag at Home Depot will last for decades. So, don't break the bank (unless you want to.) It's the customization that makes a case feel luxurious, not the case itself.

Assuming you acquired your case, here is where it gets fun...

Step 6: Think About It: Halfway Done and (Possibly) No Money Spent?!?

Take a moment and think about that. You're nearing the end of this tutorial. The first four steps cost nothing. They're free. In fact, if you're like me, you didn't spend any money until the end of step five. For a preview of whats ahead, you can choose to spend almost nothing on steps seven, eight & nine. The rest of the "steps" are summaries, galleries of images and my personal thoughts. Why am I pointing this out? Because quality and craftsmanship has very little to do with your budget. If you have a house filled with crappy DIY projects its not because you lack the financial resources, its because you lack patience and focus. Most of the DIYers I know tend to slap crap together and wonder why it looks awkwardly made. Or, they dismiss it and say "Well, I'm not a professional and that's just the way this DIY stuff turns out."

That's a load of malarky.

Before the industrial revolution we were all makers. And the new industrial revolution will return us all from which we came. So, if we're all going to be makers, what's the difference between a good maker and a poor one? I believe it's craftsmanship.

You don't have to be a traditional consumer to get that it's more fun owning stuff that's professionally made. It isn't about money or keeping up with the Joneses. It's about putting more into the tools of your life. It's about elevating yourself. It's about reaping the rewards of patience.

And now that there will be several steps where I suggest you spend money, you'll find that the money is finally being well spent. In fact, you should be on Month Four of this project, which has given you plenty of time to save up some pennies for the cool stuff...

Step 7: 99 Designs & Logos

THE EXPENSIVE WAY: I have about 20 years of graphic design experience. Despite that, all my film gear was encased in a big truck with a craptastic logo. I don't have time to do graphic design anymore. So, I turned to my art-director-in-training and walked her through creating a logo for this project. She wasn't ready to do a logo from scratch. And, teaching someone how to do beautiful, authentic, original logos is a time consuming process. But, this junior art director had two things going for her:

  1. She had taste.
  2. She inherently understood kerning (which meant she could judge the layout of a logo).

So, we proceeded with a logo contest on 99 Designs. And while the logo was intended for the guitar case, it was used (as you'll see) on a variety of custom cases. So, it was worth putting some money into this project and getting it done right. We spent about $300 on the logo. However, you can spend zero dollars and get a solid logo for your case.

There are many ways to get inexpensive logos. Most of those ways will end up frustrating you:

  • DeviantArt is filled with new artists. The problem is that they're mostly inexperienced. I've tried a half-dozen times to hire someone from DeviantArt only to have the artist botch the project or lack basic professionalism.
  • Logo Tournament was amazing but they've allowed their Logo Court to be hijacked by their worst designers. Most of the really talented people left. And you have to pay too much for a good design.
  • Don't even think about Elance/Odesk/Upworks. Their artists suck.
  • Penciljack is dead.
  • Digital Webbing is almost dead.
  • Copycats of the 99Designs (like Design Crowd) are so poorly run you'll rip your hair out.

This leaves only a few ways to get an inexpensive, well-made logo.

FREE (AND ALMOST FREE) SOLUTIONS: If you're on a tight budget but still want a nice logo, then consider You'll be able to put together a professional logo for about 30 bucks. Hell, they even have a free section. Thats right. Free. Will it be 100% original? No. But, if you're on a tight budget this will get you a professional look for chump change.

Another option is The typefaces on this website are stunning. They're particularly appropriate for twenty-something hipsters who put chicory in their coffee, stretch out their earlobes and think being an anti-conformist means dressing like every other anti-conformist. World class letterists from across the globe have paid homage to the best typefaces of the past 150 years and you can buy them for only 20-50 bucks a piece. Some are so beautifully kerned that all you have to do is load it into Illustrator and type.

There is no need for you to break the bank when making a stunning logo. Don't be intimidated by this step. Don't dismiss it. Embrace it. And don't you dare use a crappy freeware font. Don't cobble something together in Word and call it good. Take the time to buy an inexpensive template or typeface to use as the basis for your logo. The least you should do is use a free template at Graphic River. No one but you, me and handful of graphic design professionals will ever know it was a free template.

I could write an entire book on the logo process. It is so poorly understood, we're surrounded by awful logos and yet great (or at least very good) design has never been so inexpensive. Here is the short version; logos are nothing more than type, graphics, contrast and color done in a way to connote the values of the object, company or person they represent. That's it. Four things. Type, graphics, contrast and color.

And more than likely, you're going to be doing yours in black and white. Even if you're a 16 year old kid who just wants to make a case for your homemade tripod, it is worth the time to get a Graphic River template. You will get comments on the logo, I promise. Great comments. Stuff like "Wow, you took the time to brand your work? Are you crazy?" And that's exactly what you want as a response.

I know, I know. You make rhubarb jam by hand and you sewed your own jeans. You think a logo is corporate. You think it's selling out. It isn't authentic.

Forgive me, but you're full of crap. And here is why: logos harken back to the middle ages when most Europeans were illiterate. They were crafted by a shop owner or a sign maker so a store could communicate what it sold in seconds to an illiterate public. And over the centuries logos have evolved into something more. Think of The Beatles. Do you know their logo? How about Red Hot Chili Peppers? Or Mumford & Sons? Think of your favorite comic book. Or video game. Think of an artisanal cheesemaker. Or that amazing new food truck that sells Vietnamese inspired hot dogs. Every single one of them has a logo. And their logo helps you know what they stand for.

DIY was never meant to be frumpy, generic and lame. Corporate America didn't invent the concept of the logo. They simply appropriated it. So, take it back. And make it cool.

BACK TO OUR EXPENSIVE SOLUTION: When we held our contest on 99Designs, we made it clear we wanted something inspired by Aerosmith. I was only willing to spend $300 on the logo, so there was limited interest from the better 99Designers designers. Most of the submissions were ugly and wrong.

But one guy stood out. He was an Indonesian artist. Like any good artist, he had his own idea; something that was more steampunk than hard rock. The constituent pieces were nothing special; shareware gears and a nice but inexpensive typeface. How he put it together was magical. And because it fit into a perfect circle, it was an awesome emblem for the front of a guitar case.
Now, I'm a nerd through and through. So, a killer steampunk logo fit me perfectly. I needed to be flexible enough to not fall in love with my original intent. I needed to recognize talent, even if it deviated from our carefully crafted project description. So, while a few artists squawked that his design didn't meet the original description, I'm the one who gets to chose...and his design was far and away the most accomplished. So, he won, I paid him and I could now legally use the logo on my guitar case.

Because he was a professional, he gave the file to us the original version and an inverted version in several formats with several additional options and he took the time to make sure his Illustrator file was thoroughly organized. Every layer was properly named. No stray, rough-draft material was left in the file. His file was a joy to work with. Because it was an Illustrator file, it was already vectorized, which meant it was infinitely scaleable.

I could now do whatever I wanted with the logo. How will you use your logo? Well, here are a few suggestions...

Step 8: Awesome Sauce Done Dirt Cheap

I took the completed logo to the nearest makerspace. With the help of a fellow maker, we bought leather from Tandy Leather, stained it black and laser cut it on a 40 watt 20-year-old laser cutter. The laser cut the holes along the edge of the round emblems, making it effortless to stitch them onto the guitar case. Combined with marine-grade epoxy, the badging was both durable and professional.

The total cost for the leather, waterproof stitching and marine-grade epoxy came to about $40. The time on the laser was free; it was included with my makerspace monthly membership.

I enjoyed the process so much that I had the same maker help me make 40 leather luggage tags. I added additional text in Photoshop, exported the file to something that could be read by Corel Draw (because that's the only graphic design software our Makerspace has on the ancient PC connected to the laser engraver) and voila! Now, I had custom leather luggage tags.
The maker I worked with taught me how to remove the interior of the paracord so it would tie flat & straight. We took our time, ensuring every knot was perfectly symmetrical, smooth & clean. Then, we singed the tips with a lighter. Because the paracord is made of nylon, it melts together cleanly.

I had a couple spare tool bags from Home Depot and rebadged them. I went nuts and used the luggage tags on all my other custom bags, boxes and cases. Despite the momentary freak out, I kept my focus on the original guitar case. It now had a beautiful custom circular logo that mimicked the sound hole (stop giggling, that's what its called) in a guitar. I tied on the leather luggage tag. This $60.00 case now looked totally custom. Now, it was time to focus on the interior once again...

Step 9: Refining the Foam Inserts

Remember the case I destroyed, like a high school football player with 'Roid Rage? That's because I used that awful spray foam so many recommend. There are many instructables that use foam-in-a-can. Here's one:

And I understand why he chose it. It's inexpensive. It's easy to use. You feel like you're making progress fast. And so that's what I did to the very first Dreadnought Case. When I die, I will regret having done that. I'll be on my death bed, whispering to my wife and son that amongst all the terrible things I did throughout my life, that freakin' spray foam is near the top of the list. And because of it, I murdered a beautiful guitar case. Oh, the humanity!

Why do I hate it? Here are a few reasons:

  • Unless you spray very carefully, it leaves voids.
  • Even if you are an expert, it doesn't have the consistent density of a professional foam.
  • It cuts like crap.
  • Your human hand will never cut into the foam with the symmetry and precision that your design deserves.
  • Once its sprayed in, its forever. It defies the concept of a modular custom case.
  • The only way to make it look somewhat acceptable is to cover it in cloth. That means its the equivalent of a shabby chick couch from an episode of Friends. I hated that style in the 90's and I sure as hell hate it in my lovely custom cases.

Ladies and gentleman, we deserve better. But, for those of you on a budget, here are some suggestions...

FOAM DONE CHEAP: So, you don't have much to spend. No problem, go to Home Depot and buy a sheet of Foamular. It's incredibly dense, easy to cut and a single 8' sheet will cost you about $20.00. The crappy foam-in-a-can will cost you about $8.00. For $12.00 more you avoid almost all the flaws listed above. There are a dozen instructables on how to make your own hot wire foam cutter:

But, even the best hot wire foam cutter isn't great at fine details. They're great for free-form work. They're wonderful for big stuff. Giant letters for a kids birthday, the interior pieces for holiday decorations, pillowy styrofoam wire is great! Interior modular pull-out shelves for a complicated case? No way in hell. It's not the tool's fault...its just the wrong tool for the job.

FOAM DONE RIGHT: The problem with hot wire foam cutters is the lack of repeatable precision. Remember what I said at the beginning of this tutorial? Do you want this done right? Okay, here is where you're going to bleed a little.

You can get the case from Goodwill. You can do the logo with a free template. You can design everything on My Case Builder for free. You can make leather badges and luggage tags for only a few dollars each. Up until now, you might have spent as little as twenty five bucks. Good for you. And if your budget just won't allow it, you can do the Foamular solution with a home-made hot wire foam cutter...

...but that won't get you to groovy. No sir. So, for those of us who want it wicked, we're going back to My Case Builder and we're tweaking our case construction to perfection. And then, we'll be ordering our custom foam inserts from them, where they'll use a proper CNC table and do it right.

Now, perhaps you're lucky enough to have access to a makerspace that has a sophisticated CNC table. And, perhaps they allow you to cut foam on it. If that's the case, then you're in luck. I didn't have that option. I had to order my foam online.

For the Dreadnought, I had enough depth for two layers of foam in the bottom and a single layer in the top of the case. I refined every cut-out, importing photos into Photoshop where I enhanced the silhouette and compensated for shadows and perspective. I measured, remeasured, and remeasured again. Eventually...

Step 10: A Finished Project (But Is Any Project Really Finished?)

As you can see, the final inserts look extremely clean and professional. I spent about $200 on the inserts. And if you get My Case Builder's Insurance, you can fix & reorder any design that doesn't quite work. That might still be more than your budget allows. I totally understand; go back to the previous step and review the section on using Foamular for only a few dollars. However, that being said, you can't get a result like this without going pro.

I added black flocking and corrugated black plastic bottoms to the top inserts. If you want to do this, you'll have to add it as a special request. I also spent time on Amazon buying small spice containers and transparent plastic bottles to hold all the little junk that normally gets lost.

For audio geeks, this kit contains a pre-phantom-powered Sennheiser 416 (already mounted inside the dead cat & plastic cage.), a modified Octava MK-012 kit (which sounds absolutely lovely), and three utility Samson R21 omnidirectional microphones (which I use for Q&As or lectures; I speak at colleges, universities & film festivals around the world and very few ever have audio set up correctly. I eventually decided I'd show up with everything I need in one tidy case and then there's no tension when they don't know what they're doing.) Telescoping mic stands, XLR cables and a variety of adapters are hidden under the top shelves.

The logic is simple; microphones, audio recorder and cables are on the top shelves, adapters and stands on the lower shelves and the clapper is in the lid.

Also, I mounted three motion-activated LEDs inside the lid. Explaining my intent to the people at My Case Builder was a challenge; eventually they got it. And now? With the wave of a hand, the LEDs cast about 400 lumens onto the interior of my case. When I shut the case, they turn off, preserving the battery. I swap out my rechargeable AA's about once a month.

In the rebadged black tool bag, I have my head phones (three sets of Audio Technica ATH-M50's, in red, black and white so no one on a film set gets confused about which set they're using), an amplifying break-out box and portable 8-channel mixer. Between the Dreadnought and the bag, I have everything I need...

...but, even now, there is more I could do:

  1. I forgot to compensate for the thickness of the corrugated black plastic. That means each layer sits about 1/8th of an inch higher than I wanted
  2. The top foam is a bit tough to un-velcro whenever I need to remove the lights. I need to tweak that.
  3. I need to create a disk of diffusion for each light without occluding the motion sensor. The lights are too damn bright!
  4. Where's the boom pole? That's right, the one thing that justified the guitar case didn't fit in the guitar case. In the end, each layer was about a quarter inch thicker than I'd originally estimated, resulting in insufficient space for my boom pole. I'm finishing up an inexpensive case for it as we speak.
  5. I'm unimpressed with the construction of the LEDs. The manufacturer could have done better. I suspect I need to make my own motion-sensor LEDs, with a better CRI and a better made PCBA.

Step 11: Budget Breakdown


  1. Think, Scribble, Test & Repeat. (FREE)
  2. Lay all your stuff on the floor, take snapshots with your phone. (FREE)
  3. Use to design a generic square version. (FREE)
  4. Play Tetris ($0 - $2.99 depending on version.)
  5. Choose a case. Use a hat box, duffle bag, lunch box, suitcase, tool box or briefcase you already own. (FREE)
  6. Download a free (or nearly free) logo on Graphic River. ($0 - $5)
  7. Decide on how you want to badge your case. Laser engrave scrap material or the case itself at your local makerspace. (monthly fee may apply)
  8. Refine the foam insert on (FREE)
  9. Buy rigid construction foam from hardware store ($20)
  10. CNC your foam (based on a screen capture and print out of your Case Builders layout) at makerspace (FREE)

TOTAL COST: $27.99 (plus makerspace monthly fee if applicable)


  1. Think, Scribble, Test & Repeat. (FREE)
  2. Lay all your stuff on the floor, take snapshots with your phone. (FREE)
  3. Use to design a generic square version. (FREE)
  4. Play Tetris ($0 - $2.99 depending on version.)
  5. Choose a case. Buy a case from Goodwill, Home Depot, a used suitcase on Ebay or wait for a sale at Musician's Friend. ($20 - $60)
  6. Download a slightly better logo on Graphic River. ($20)
  7. Decide on how you want to badge your case.
  8. Laser engrave scrap material or the case itself at your local makerspace. (monthly fee may apply)
  9. Refine the foam insert on (FREE)
  10. Buy rigid construction foam from hardware store ($8)
  11. CNC your foam (based on a screen capture and print out of your Case Builders layout) at makerspace (FREE)

TOTAL COST: $50.99 - $90.99 (plus makerspace monthly fee if applicable)


  1. Think, Scribble, Test & Repeat. (FREE)
  2. Lay all your stuff on the floor, take snapshots with your phone. (FREE)
  3. Use to design a generic square version. (FREE)
  4. Play Tetris ($0 - $2.99 depending on version.)
  5. Choose a case. Buy a case from Goodwill, Home Depot, a used suitcase on Ebay or wait for a sale at Musician's Friend. ($20 - $60)
  6. Hold a graphic design contest on 99 Designs. ($250)
  7. Decide on how you want to badge your case. Laser engrave purchased high-end material or the case itself at your local makerspace. ($20; monthly fee may apply)
  8. Refine the foam insert on (FREE)
  9. Buy standard foam inserts from ($100 - $300)

TOTAL COST: $392.99 - $632.99 (plus makerspace monthly fee if applicable)

From here, it is obvious. You can spend more on your graphic design contest to get a better design from a better artist. You can add flocking and corrugated plastic to the bottom of your foam inserts. You can pick a custom built case from a fellow artist. Go nuts on every tiny detail. Custom hinges coated in unicorn tears. Buy a Picasso, burn it and then mix the ashes with lacquer for a truly expensive veneer. Who knows how crazy you can go.

My work normally stops at the "Gettin' Fancy" budget level. However, I'm considering refining some of the concepts into Money To Burn budget level. But, if I do, I won't have to start from scratch. The beauty of cases like these is that they're upgradeable. Start with a couple Damn Near Free designs so you can refine your skill without spending money. Then, move up to something at the Modest Budget level and slowly, over a couple years, refine it into something masterful and luxurious.

Step 12: Final Thoughts

Before this case, the most complicated case I ever worked with was a standard 1610M Pelican. That's nothing but a rectangle. This forced me to play Tetris in a way I'd never conceived. The frustration! The challenge! The triumph!

Overall, I'd rate my work an 8 out of 10. I can do better. Is this good enough to use on a film set? Sure. Is it cleaner and more organized than anything anyone else has seen? Absolutely. When I show up to a conference and crack open my guitar case as I set up a mixer, stands and mics are people gobsmacked? No doubt.

But, in the end, I'm an artist for me. Not for other people. For me. I want to push myself and see how far I can go. Why do we climb mountains? Because we can. The real goal here is to do my very best, to be honest about the work I do, find a few things I can do better next time and then raise the bar for my next project. I'll sleep when I'm dead. In the meantime, there are more crazy things to do.

Perhaps, you grok that. I hope so. Otherwise, you just wasted your time reading this damn thing. The last century has robbed us of our innate sense of creativity and craftsmanship. We've bought luxury instead of making it. The joy of walking into an Apple store and buying the latest iPhone is fun...for about 15 minutes. The joy of making something yourself and knowing you pushed yourself to your very limits lasts forever.

Too many makers are rushing onto the next project, feverishly treating the act of makering as if it were a sprint. Me? I think being a maker is a marathon.

Remember at the beginning of this tutorial how I said one great idea is enough to transform a custom case into a joyous event every time you open it? Every time I open it I get a kick out of the lights. I've had other filmmakers gush about that one feature. "OH MY GOD IT HAS ITS OWN LIGHTS! DO YOU HAVE ANY CLUE HOW OFTEN I'M BITCHING TO THE A.D. TO SET UP SOME LIGHTS OFF SET SO WE CAN SEE OUR GEAR?" Yes...and I was taking notes.

It isn't the act of using CNC software to cut foam that makes a case amazing. It isn't the flocking, the leather, the proper die, rivet or foam. It isn't a great logo. It isn't an unusual choice for a case that causes surprise upon its opening. It's the synthesis of all those things...and of knowing that there is an intelligence behind its assembly.

You do not need to spend what I spent on this case. You can come damn close with something already in your closet, a free template for a logo, an inexpensive (but elegant) typeface, a piece of insulation-grade foam from a hardware store and a home-made foam cutter. If you're crafty, you can do this project for $50.00 or less...but if you're a craftsman, you won't rush the process. And that is what will elevate your work so that others will gasp with whats in your hand.

Don't just be a maker. Be an artist.

Step 13: Gallery of Images

Because this tutorial isn't about a single case, I'm including an (ever expanding & always changing) gallery of images. If you create a truly awesome case, send me a picture. If I love it, I'll include it along with proper attribution.

Hopefully, this gallery will inspire you to create unique solutions for your custom cases. I'm also looking forward to being inspired by you!

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Remix 2.0 Contest

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Epilog Contest VII

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