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iPod and iTunes Hacks by Hadley Stern

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Hack #21. Craft an iPod Case from Cardboard

Make your own custom iPod case out of cardboard for next to nothing.

You've eyed them in the Apple Store, online, and in various other computer stores. Yet none of the commercially available iPod cases that you have seen manages to substitute individuality for the coolness of the raw iPod in the necessary ratio to warrant its purchase. You want something to protect your cool, sleek iPod, but you also want something that maintains the coolness factor and makes your iPod definitively yours.

Aside from marring the surface of the iPod itself with an engraved quotation (and thereby limiting the resell value of your iPod when Apple comes out with that new 200 GB Video iPod that you have been dreaming of upgrading to) and encasing it in one of the available see-through cases, the only option left within easy reach is to design and make your own iPod case. This hack walks the do-it-yourselfers through the necessary steps to make your own iPod case out of cardboard.

Why Cardboard?

The short answer is, "Why not cardboard?"

The longer reply is that cardboard is a good choice for a do-it-yourself iPod case for many of the same reasons that make it one of the most common forms of packaging. It's cheap, strong, impact-resistant, easily replaceable, and bendable, and although it can be rigid, it still has some give. But perhaps the most important reason is that you can probably find a suitable piece of cardboard for this project lying around your house or place of work.

For this hack, I am using the box top to a case of paper that I snatched from work (note to my boss: I snatched the cardboard top, not the case of paper).

Cardboard is a forgiving medium to use for your first iPod case; if you screw up, it won't cost you anything to start over! After you've gone through these instructions with cardboard, you can try designing your own case out of other materials.


Some of you are probably thinking, "I want to try better, more stylish materials." For you cardboard haters out there, I just want to point out that designers such as Frank Gehry actually build furniture out of cardboard. Google "cardboard chair," and you'll find some of Gehry's designs along-side design-school assignments that require students to design chairs out of cardboard. As the price tags associated with Gehry's designs will testify, cardboard might be inexpensive, but—when nicely styled—it ain't cheap!

Besides time, patience, and a steady hand, here's a short list of things you will need or that you might find useful for this hack:

Dimensional Drawings for Carrying Case Developers (PDF)

Available from Apple's Developer Connection (http://developer.apple.com/hardware/ipod/index.html). This document is a little dated, since it provides all the measurements (in millimeters) for the 10, 15, and 30 GB iPods, with no mention of the iPod mini, the 20 GB iPod, or the 40 GB iPod. The rough dimensions for all these models are available on Apple's spec page for the iPod (http://www.apple.com/ipod/specs.html).


If you use "Dimensional Drawings for Carrying Case Developers" for your measurements, you can easily convert millimeters to inches via Google by typing X millimeters to inches in the Google search box, replacing X with the number you wish to convert.

Corrugated cardboard

I recommend 1/8" thick.

A sharp knife

Scissors won't cut it; they'll squeeze and bend the cardboard, marring the surface. I use a box cutter, but an X-acto knife or other suitable tool for making precision cuts in cardboard will work.

A pencil

For taking notes and marking the cardboard for cutting.

Some sort of straight edge with a ruler

A T-square would be ideal, but two good-quality rulers with nice flat ends can be used together as a makeshift T-square. The straight edge will be used both for drawing lines and for directing your cuts.

Metal paperclips

For holding things together.

Glue (optional)

I recommend Elmer's Wood Glue for this project, although any glue capable of holding cardboard together is workable. If you want to make your iPod case a glue-free foldable masterpiece, you can always include tabs and inserts in your design.

Sandpaper (optional)

For smoothing any rough cuts in the cardboard. It can be useful for cleaning out the small circles you cut for the iPod's controls.

A compass (optional)

For drawing the circles for the iPod's controls. If you don't have a compass, you can simply draw boxes around these areas and then use the boxes as guidelines for drawing the circles freehand. Either way, when it comes time to cutting the circles, you will be working more or less freehand.

If you have a computer and a printer handy, you can easily design the layout for your cardboard iPod case in Quark, Illustrator, Photoshop, or any other program with a ruler that is capable of accurately drawing measured lines. Then you can print out this template on a regular piece of paper, glue that paper to your cardboard, and start cutting away.

Designing the Case

We're going to start by flattening out the iPod's three-dimensional cover into a two-dimensional drawing, much in the way that a world map represents a flattened globe. We first need to get the overall size of the piece of cardboard we need—for these purposes, the measurements provided on Apple's iPod spec page (http://www.apple.com/ipod/specs.html) will suffice, but if available, I prefer the slightly more precise measurements from "Dimensional Drawings for Carrying Case Developers" in parentheses for comparative purposes:

  • iPod mini: 3.6" × 2.0" × 0.5"

  • 10–20 GB iPod: 4.1" (103.49 mm/4.07") × 2.4" (61.80 mm/2.43") × 0.62" (15.7 mm/0.62")

  • 30–40 GB iPod: 4.1" (103.49 mm/4.07") × 2.4" (61.80 mm/2.43") × 0.73" (18.7 mm/0.74")

  • Cardboard thickness: 0.125" (3.18 mm)

When flattening out the iPod/iPod mini, start out with a rectangular section of cardboard that will be folded around the iPod. There will be three sides where overlapping and gluing occur: the top, the bottom, and one side of the iPod. So, to determine the height of the rectangle, add the height of the iPod to twice the thickness of our iPod and factor in the thickness of the cardboard twice (for the two horizontal seams where the cardboard folds). The cardboard rectangle's height will be 4.85" for the iPod mini, 5.59" for the 10–20 GB iPod, and 5.81" for the 30–40 GB iPod.

To determine the width of the rectangle, add twice the width of your iPod to three times the depth of your iPod (two sides, plus an extra overlapping flap that will be glued onto one of the side flaps) and factor in the thickness of the cardboard four times (for the four vertical seams where the cardboard folds). The cardboard rectangle's width will be 6" for the iPod mini, 7.22" for the 10–20 GB iPod, and 7.52" for the 30–40 GB iPod.


When marking your cardboard, make sure you draw lightly with your pencil on the side you want to be the outside of the case. All drawings will be made on the side where we will cut. After cutting, you can lightly erase any remaining marks. All cuts into the cardboard should be made on the outside of the case, because slight tearing on the underside of the cardboard can occur if your knife isn't sharp enough. Although such minor blemishes can be overlooked if they are on the inside of your case, they may be a reason to start over if they are on the outside.

Start by marking off the appropriate rectangular section of cardboard for your iPod model:

  • 4.85" × 6" for the iPod mini

  • 5.59" × 7.22" for the 10–20 GB iPod

  • 5.81" × 7.52" for the 30–40 GB iPod

This rectangle is the main piece of cardboard that you will cut and fold to fit your iPod.


When marking off this bit of cardboard, you are immediately faced with a choice involving the corrugated lines of the cardboard. If you run these corrugated lines horizontally parallel along the length of the cardboard, then all vertical scoring cuts in the design can be used to produce a ribbed effect along the vertical folds in the case. Running these lines vertically parallel along the height of the cardboard has the reverse effect, producing a ribbed effect across all horizontal cuts. If you want all cuts to have some sort of ribbed effect, mark this rectangular section diagonally against the grain of the cardboard's corrugation. See Figure 1-66, later in this hack, for an example.

Now, for each of the four sides of your rectangle, use your ruler to measure in exactly the thickness of your iPod. Place a light mark at this point near each end of the side you are working on, and then draw a straight line between these points. Do this for each side of the rectangle. The result is a frame around a new inner rectangle. Now, from each of the lines you just drew, measure in the .125" width of your cardboard, and draw another set of lines. If you measure the distance between the innermost of your horizontal lines, the result should be the height of your iPod, or very close to it. If this is not the case, then something was incorrectly measured and you will need to adjust some of the lines.

Next, from the innermost vertical lines, measure in the width of the face of your iPod and draw new vertical lines at that point. Then from these new lines, measure in the .125" width of your cardboard, and draw another set of lines. If you measure the distance between these two innermost vertical lines, the result should be the thickness of your iPod, or very close to it. If this is not the case, then something was incorrectly measured and you will need to adjust some of the lines.

After you have marked off this rectangular section and made sure all the internal measurements line up, use your straight edge and your knife to cut the outside border of the rectangle, removing it from your larger piece of cardboard. Using the measurements provided in "Dimensional Drawings for Carrying Case Developers" or your own measurements, go ahead and mark the rectangle for your iPod's screen and the different circles for the controls within the larger rectangular on the left of your current design. This is the most tedious aspect of this project.

A good idea when measuring these controls is to think in rectangles and boxes. The screen is a box, drawn easily enough. Think of the large circular pad that you use to control your iPod as a box with a circle in it. Think of the four small controls between the control pad and the screen first as one long, thin rectangle and then separately as little boxes within that rectangle. Draw lines from the corners of your boxes to locate their centers. If you are using a compass, you can then draw the circles rather easily. If you do not have a compass, try it freehand or consider drawing several boxes at different angles around the same axis to provide a better guide for your circle.

On the flaps located above and below both the front and back panels of your iPod case, simply mark rectangles to accommodate the docking port and the headphones. For the purposes of this case, we are not going to leave a place open for the lock switch, because the top is where we will insert and remove our iPod from the case. The result of all this measuring and marking should look similar to Figure 1-64, a Photoshop sketch of the basic template that I worked up for my 15 GB iPod, complete with rulers in inches. The light grey lines separating major sections will be folding areas.

Cutting, Folding, and Assembling

After marking up your cardboard satisfactorily, it's time to start bending, cutting, and piecing together your iPod case.

The first thing I did was mark the areas where I would be bending the cardboard by slightly darkening those areas. You basically have two options here. One is to use something blunt, such as the back part of the blade on a pair of scissors or a flat edge of your straight tedge, to flatten the corrugated cardboard along the seam where you want to fold it, in effect crimping the cardboard at the folds. This method will make your case a bit more durable.

The second option (which I elected to use) is more difficult, but also more stylish. Corrugated cardboard is made of two thin pieces of paper sandwiched around another piece that is folded in waves. Carefully making sure to cut through the outermost layer of paper only, I traced each vertical and horizontal grayed-out section, one by one. After cutting the top layer, I gently and carefully pulled it free, revealing the ribbed effect of the cardboard. I then fully removed the small sections surrounding the middle squares at the top and bottom of my template. Finally, I carefully folded the piece along the different seams, using my straight edge to help bend along the lines and shaping the piece around my iPod, making slight adjustments where necessary.

Sketch of the basic template

Figure 1-64. Sketch of the basic template


If you do not like either of these methods, consider using some thread and a needle to sew along the seams, pulling the thread tight to collapse the cardboard into a crimped seam.

When you wrap the piece of cardboard around your iPod, you will have numerous extraneous flaps. Some will overlap and be glued together, whereas others will end up being cut off, depending upon your preference.

The next step is to cut out all the areas needed to control your iPod. I waited until after bending for this part to ensure that there wouldn't be any accidental bending along the middle of the screen or the touchpad area. I recommend first cutting an X through all the circles and rectangles that must be removed, and then slowly and carefully cutting around the perimeter of these shapes.

If you go too fast, or your knife is dull, the bottom layer of paper that makes up the sheet of cardboard may bunch and tear irregularly. If you notice this starting to happen, simply stop, take a breath, and slow down. Nothing is ruined yet. After you have removed all the necessary bits, wrap the case around your iPod again to see how it fits. Make any adjustments necessary to accommodate your iPod's controls and ports.

As you can see in Figure 1-65, I've accomplished a functional, albeit sloppy, cut to my case. Notice the ribbed effect at the seams and the horribly erratic attempt at cutting circles in cardboard. That's stylish!

My case before assembly

Figure 1-65. My case before assembly

Now, for assembly, you have to decide what to do with the bottom and top flaps and how you are going to make the top open and close for iPod insertion and removal. See Figure 1-66 for my solution to the first problem.

Rather than cut a rectangle the exact size and position of the port on the bottom of the iPod, I instead removed a middle rectangle from the bottom flap (the one coming from the front of the case) and left a corresponding flap on the top that covers the port when it's not in use. You could simply glue the remaining flaps to each other to close up the bottom, but I took the extra step of making two cuts into each of them, about two-thirds in, and interleaving them. Just a slight spot of glue works nicely on each of the mini-flaps, and due to the porous nature of cardboard, simply holding the pieces together for a few seconds allows enough seepage to keep the pieces together.

The bottom flap of my iPod case

Figure 1-66. The bottom flap of my iPod case

After all the bottom bits are glued, fold the two side flaps inside the bottom of the case (or cut them off). Fold the flaps over each other and glue them together. Before doing so on mine, I went ahead and removed the top piece of paper from the bottom of these two flaps (the one that folded down from the face of the case). If you do this, you will need to hold this seam together for a bit longer while it dries. I used my calipers to hold them together, but a paperclip will suffice in a pinch.

For the top of the case (see Figure 1-67), I simply cut the necessary holes for the headphone jack and didn't worry about any interlocking sections or tabs. In order to keep this part of the case open for inserting and removing the iPod, I took advantage of the corrugated cardboard again, running two paperclips that I bent specifically for this purpose inside the two flaps. They will securely hold the flaps closed when the iPod is held within, while remaining easy to bend and remove when I want to reopen the case.

Ugly but effective use of bent paperclips to hold together the top of the case

Figure 1-67. Ugly but effective use of bent paperclips to hold together the top of the case

As an added touch, I took some copper gardening wire that I had lying around the house and ran it through the corrugation of the back of the case to create a bendable hook, by which I can attach my new cardboard iPod case to my belt. Figure 1-68 shows the completed project, hanging from my belt.

My finished cardboard iPod case

Figure 1-68. My finished cardboard iPod case

Hacking the Hack

I chose cardboard because it is freely available and because if I drop my iPod when it is in my cardboard case, the cardboard will offer protection from scratching and some absorption of the impact with a bit of pushback bounce (unlike materials such as metal or a hard wood, which lack the sponginess of cardboard). If you are a woodshop hobbyist and would like to go the wood route, consider using a softer wood such as balsa that you whittle to the right shape and size, and then covering it with a thin veneer of some harder wood to protect against scratches.

If you stick with the cardboard design, consider ways to make the case water-resistant with different paints or sprays. If you get your cardboard from a liquor store, consider designing your case so that the logo of your favorite drink adorns the back of the iPod. I'm considering taking some soda cans and trying to glue some flattened aluminum to my cardboard case to make it match my AL PowerBook. If cardboard, box cutters, and glue aren't your cup of tea, but fabric and sewing machines are, consider using these measurements to design yourself a quilted and padded iPod case out of your favorite fabric. What ever you choose to do, have fun and be creative!

C. K. Sample III

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