WWDC 2017 Lightbox

Josh Tidsbury
Jan 8, 2018 · 6 min read

I have the great honor of working as part of the Technology Evangelism group at Apple. Involvement in the annual WWDC conference is one of the key efforts by the team each year, and I was really taken by the conference this year. The developers I met were simply amazing, the team behind the conference immensely talented, and the conference branding and theme also spoke to me very deeply.

As someone who came into technology from the arts, and endeavors to bring the best of both disciplines into everything I do, it struck a chord in my heart.

Technology alone is not enough.
Technology must intersect with the liberal arts
and the humanities, to create new ideas
and experiences that push society forward.

I wanted to create something of a keepsake for each of the other members of our team as a personal gift to each of them. I’ve always loved the aesthetic of the Apple Design Award, and wanted to create something of an homage to that design, but using my favourite material: wood.

Each of the 16 lightboxes is made out of solid white oak, created by laminating three 8/4 planks to form a 5" x 5" plank, which was then cut into 5" cubes.

Progression from raw 8/4 stock through to 5" cubes.

I had originally planned to use oak project boards from Home Depot as a bit of a shortcut to create mitered boxes, but the boards were so warped, uneven, and poorly prepped that I had to quickly bail on that idea. Plywood wasn’t going to give the look I wanted at the edges, and by the time I would have machined out my own planks to create a mitered box, there really wasn’t any time or effort to be saved.

In the end, I’m so glad it worked out this way — I really like the fact that the top of the box is endgrain, surrounding the glowing Apple logo.

The only real drawback to that was the time and effort (and smoke) involved in coring out a 2 1/2" hole through most of the block for the light path. I also had to create some additional space at the bottom to house the light module, switch circuit, and battery assembly.

This would have been where a CNC machine would have come in handy, but nothing that sawtooth forstner bits, a drill press, and some chisel work couldn’t take care of.

If you’ve done much woodworking, you’ll likely note that shearing through endgrain like this is about as evil as you can be to a drill bit, but the bit I ordered from Lee Valley was just as happy to core through the last box as it was the first.

Once the coring work was complete, all sides were well sanded to a 320 grit finish and then cleaned off, ready for the laser cutting.

The only way that I could think of that would allow for the level of detail and clarity in the graphics and to accurately cut out the Apple logo in the top of each box was to use a CO2 laser cutter. Who doesn’t love lasers, right?!

The first step was getting each member of the team to sign my iPad Pro so that I could capture a vector of their signature, without telling them what I was up to.

Signatures cover two sides of the box, with the conference theme prose written on the back. The slightly protruding stainless steel pin acts as the capacitive switch for the lamp.

My original plan was to use the laser cutters at Techshop, but unfortunately they went out of business right when I was planning to do the work. Thankfully, I was able to gain access to another machine.

After coming up with the designs in Illustrator, I used up a few test cubes to get the power and speed settings right for each type of element. It took 7 different speed and power combinations to make sure each element was clean and at an appropriate depth and darkness. The little people on the front side of the box were adjusted to only use 6 different shades of grey so that their features were easily seen when rastered into the wood surface.

Short video of the signature etching and cutting of the Apple logo

I also used the laser cutter to cut the translucent acrylic Apple logo insert, as well as some white acrylic sheet for the cover on the bottom.

The logo was glued in using clear epoxy. I had originally thought of using cyanoacrylate, but found that it caused some clouding at the edges of the acrylic when I tested it, which was not acceptable.

Before final assembly, I put on a coat of Tung Oil to provide a light protective finish and bring out the grain and burning details. It’s a very easy finish to apply, and is one of the more environmentally sound options as well.

I’ve not done a lot of electronics over the years, so creating a circuit to drive ultra-bright, white LEDs controlled by a capacitive switch proved to take a little while to sort out. But in the end, it’s a relatively straightforward circuit, and soldering them all up went quite smoothly.

First circuit board assembled

The four LEDs give a nice and wide field of light, plenty bright enough for the task. The little blue Adafruit board contains the capacitive sensor, with the white lead to be attached to the stainless steel switch pin that I drilled into the side of the box.

I designed and 3D printed a little plastic support that had mounting holes on the top to secure the circuit board, and additional holes on the bottom to hold the battery case. Four arms attach to the inside of the box, which also contain holes to accept threaded inserts for securing the cover on the bottom of the box.

3D printing and final assembly of the light circuit support

I actually really enjoyed sourcing the various little parts for these, such as the threaded brass inserts, nylon washers, machine screws, wood screws — everything precisely the right size to have all the parts assemble together seamlessly and securely.

This project definitely turned out to be much more involved than originally planned, but was absolutely worth the effort.

I really enjoyed bringing together traditional woodworking techniques, lasers, electronics, and a mixture of wood, plastic, acrylic, and metal materials to create a cohesive and interactive object that I hope brings back great memories for many years to come.

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