Whenever I go away on holiday, I like to take one of my instruments with me. A uke is the perfect travel instrument, but unfortunately it is fragile. So I decided to make a travel case that would keep my uke and other small valuables safe (mostly from other luggage).
I attempted to keep the case as light as possible but still tough enough to take a light beating (like being thrown around in the back of a van). In an attempt to build something that has not been done before, I constructed the box out of 'laminate' panels that i made myself. The laminate will not crack and is waterproof, but it was really a challenge to make.
Step 1: Gather Your Materials and Tools
- Bandsaw (hacksaw will work)
- Large flat things (I had some sheets of heavy chipboard)
- Threading needles
- Optional: A belt sander
Materials and expendables:
- Polyester resin (I used 1L, 2L is probably better)
- Hinges and other suitcase fittings
- Some wood blocks to use as reinforcement and to square everything up
- Off cut leather pieces and wax chord
Step 2: Experiment With Your Laminate
In theory, laminates are not too hard to make, but the results can vary a lot with the amount of resin you use, number of layers and the type of fabric. I advise making a couple of sample pieces first to test your laminate.
Preparation is key when making laminates, it will ensure your work space and clothes stay clean.
Cut your fabric and cardboard to size, enough for each of your experimental panels or final panels.
You need 2 flat surfaces to press your laminate in between, so unless you want to make your flat surfaces part of your laminate, lay down some wax paper on the bottom surface and tear some off for later when you are done stacking.
Making the laminate:
If you have made micarta before, the process is the same: Follow the instructions on the can for mixing your resin. soak a layer of fabric in resin, lay it down flat onto the the piece of wax paper you set up earlier , and keep layering. Make sure to get all the bubbles out between each of the layers (put on some surgical gloves and just massage them out). I chose one of my layers to be cardboard for some added flexibility and thickness in the final product.
Cover your stacked laminate with a piece of wax paper and place your other flat plank on top of that. I don't clamp my laminates (because i don't have enough clamps), placing a couple of heavy weights on top of the stack works well.
Leave this overnight and decide on the best sample for your build. I chose 3 layers of fabric with a piece of cardboard in between the second and third layer of fabric.
Step 3: Make Your Panels
Before you just start making random sized laminate panels, decide on the size of your project. For example, I wanted to have the case big enough for my ukulele and some other small valuables. I took the length of my ukulele as the 'long side' and about twice the width of the uke for the shorter side.
Cut out some cardboard panels to use as your 'core' for the laminate, be sure to make them bigger than what you plan your final panels to be. You can then use these cardboard templates to size your fabric layers.
With all your fabric layers, cardboard and resin ready, start making your large panels for your case in the same way you made the sample pieces in the previous step. Don't be afraid to use a lot of resin...seriously. I realised that i would run out of resin, and used less on some of my panels. This resulted in some of them being a bit dry and some delaminations later in the project. In the case of delamination or a dry laminate, all is not lost, just stick it back together with more resin.
Cut your panels to size:
There isn't much to this process, just mark out the size of panel you want on your sightly over sized laminate and cut out the square with your hacksaw or bandsaw (Jigsaw should work too). If your laminate is a solid block, like it should be, cutting will be easy, if not, the dry fabric should be cut with a pair of scissors if you see that the threads are being pulled out of the fabric. Stopping and coating the dry area is probably the best idea, even though it will mean letting your laminate dry again for a couple of hours.
Step 4: Making the Box
I decided the the stiffness and strength of my laminate is good and that i did not need a frame for my box, but i needed some wood blocks to fix everything together.
Cut some wood blocks to use in the corners of your lid and the main body of your box. These will square everything up and provide fixing points. Just square up your side panels, drill a small hole through the panels and the block of wood and screw everything together. An easy way to 'cheat' this step is to use epoxy to glue your panels in place before drilling holes for the screws. Epoxy alone will probably be strong enough to keep the whole structure solid, but i like the idea of a mechanical bond that will not be able to snap off.
Do this for the side panels and then finally just screw on the large top and bottom panels. To give the box some more strength, i added a brace in the centre of the lid and bottom of the box. This brace was a good place to fix my lid's centre to (as well as the bottom). Instead of using a screw in the centre of the lid, I drilled two holes and used a piece of chord to tie everything together (I didn't want to spoil the large flat surface and it would be hard to hide screws here).
All of the edges that are not perfect can now be sanded down with at belt sander or, if your laminate is solid enough, filed off.
Step 5: My Failed Step... Making the Raw Laminate Box Look Pretty
When i started this project, the idea was to sand down the laminate's top surface and the whole box would then have looked like a glossy piece of fabric or have that 'carbon fiber' look. But being an experimental project, this did not turn out the way i hoped it would.
Firstly, my laminate was not the same everywhere because I didn't use enough resin in the initial making of the panels. This meant that I had rough, 'dry' spots and smooth areas where there was good resin coverage. I tried to fix this by covering the panels in more resin when the box was already assembled. The result was a patchy (and ugly) colour scheme.
Another failure was trying to hide the edges. I attempted to cover the edges with strips of fabric drenched in resin, but a torn surgical glove caused a panic and a big sticky mess. The pieces of fabric were stretched in some places and not even close to straight on..this ruined the little hope I had left for my resin finish.
I almost scrapped the whole project at this point, but decided to cover up all my mistakes and change the style to a more classic look.
Step 6: Covering the Case With Fabric
You now have two solid, separate rectangular pieces of case: the lid and bottom.
Place the part you are working with on a large piece of fabric. Cut out a big enough piece of fabric to cover the whole part (sides and bottom or top).
Cover the large panels in contact adhesive and let it get sticky before placing it in the centre of the piece of fabric. Imagine the side panels folded down, cut off the corners that will not be covering the outside of the box. Now just apply adhesive on the box, let it dry a bit and then fold up the piece of fabric onto the side and into the case. Make sure to get the fabric smoothed out and tight. It should stick almost immediately, so no pressure is really needed. Keep doing this for all the sides.
If you used screws earlier, you will still be able to see their shape through the fabric. We will cover these and the ugly fabric-seam corners in the next step.
Step 7: Leather Corners
The aim of this step is to finish off the corners by hiding the screw-shapes and the cut fabric corners. We will do this with pieces of leather; they will not only look pretty, but are tough and can serve as 'feet'.
Draw a square on a piece of paper and cut it out. You can use this as a visual aid to find out what looks good on your case. In my case 6 cm wide squares fold around far enough and a 3 cm high curve above that works well when cut in half to fold over the top (see pictures).
When you decided on which size to use, use your paper template to mark out your corners on a piece of off-cut leather. Cut them all out, get the edges as straight as possible.
The bare leather corners will look good, but I decided that i wanted to add some more detail. Using a tracing wheel, i marked out a square on each piece of leather. I then used an awl to cut a small hole for every second mark the tracing wheel made. I then proceeded to saddle stitch a square on all 8 corners (look up saddle stitching in Instructables, there are a couple of great ibles on this subject). This will take some time, but it is definitely worth the effort.
Now with your 8 corners stitched, cut a slit down the middle of each of the curved tops, this will enable us to fold the leather. Apply contact adhesive to one half of the leather corner and stick of to one of the corner's faces. The curved, unstitched piece of leather should now be hanging over the edge of the box, fold and glue it down so that the slit you cut is flush with the edge of the case . When that is dry, fold the leather around the corner and stick it to the box. And then finally fold down the last piece of leather down to frame the corner. Repeat this 8 times and your box is almost done.
Step 8: Finishing
You are now basically done.
Attach the hinges and your clasps. There is no special method , just drill the holes (carefully, the fabric might unravel) and screw in the hardware. I just placed some wooden blocks in the inside of the case so that I could use longer screws for my hinges. I might add a handle later on.
I finished off the whole project by marking out the shape of my ukulele on a piece of foam and cutting that out to fit in my case. The foam can be cut easily with a band saw, hacksaw or even a bread knife should work very well. I placed a solid piece of foam in the bottom of the case and squeezed the uke-cutout piece in above that. The lid also got a sheet of foam to hold the uke safely in place.
The unused space in the case is for other valuables that i might bring along on my next trip. Anything fragile like watches, bottles or electronic devices will fit well in your travel case. Just cut the foam to the shape you need and you are done.
Although this project had its ups and downs, the end product is definitely worth all the effort. I believe using wood would have been an easier alternative, but with some more experimentation home made laminates might become very useful.