Grovemade Takes Woodworking Design to Another Level Entirely

Tim Walker August 29, 2016 5 min read

“I want it to be hard. I want to be under a little bit of stress, a little bit of risk.

I think that’s what makes us, us. We have no interest in being mediocre.”

—Ken Tomita, founder of Grovemade


In Portland, Oregon, the team at Grovemade has spent the past seven years perfecting designs for phone cases and desk objects like keyboard trays, pencil cups, and monitor stands. The woodwork that has become their trademark is finicky, difficult, and endlessly detailed — but founder Ken Tomita wouldn’t have it any other way.


Now they’re leaving their comfort zone all over again with a wooden desktop speaker reminiscent of a chambered nautilus. “The speaker is a huge leap for us, an exploration,” Tomita says. It’s also a reflection of his design ethic and desire to create products that only Grovemade can produce.



A Company Designed to be “Small and Special”

The very first product created by Tomita and co-founder Joe Mansfield back in 2009 was a bamboo case for the iPhone 3. Tomita describes it as “a total flop,” but they kept going and then had a big hit with their iPhone 4 case.


The company’s staff quickly grew to around 20 people, where it has held steady even as Grovemade has gone through several pivots and expanded its product line with other objects made in wood, metal, and leather. The employees who stay are ones who thrive under constant change and improvement.


Tomita believes strongly that working on Grovemade’s culture leads to great work. “Some people fit, some people don’t, and that’s okay,” he adds. Of the people who remain, he says, “We’re excited to walk into work every day because we feel like our potential is only limited by ourselves.”


Because Tomita owns the business himself, he runs it on his own terms. While it must remain profitable, he has no interest in making it large. “I want to create a healthy company that can do amazing things,” he says. “We’re designed to be small and special.”


A Hybrid of 3D Machining and Artisanal Handwork

The new desktop speaker, made in collaboration with industrial designer Joey Roth, captures the Grovemade philosophy perfectly. As usual, they’re using 3D designs, then milling the parts on a CNC machine designed to work with metal. Then comes the painstaking handwork.


Grovemade3“Usually we stay away from organic shapes,” Tomita says, “because they are difficult and time-consuming to both model and program toolpaths on, and ultimately make.” Working with Roth, though, they decided to machine a very complex shape that doesn’t compromise on either form or function. The result, Tomita explains, is “a speaker that’s made out of the ideal acoustic material — wood — and is in the ideal form.”


From a production standpoint, there’s a clear downside: Wood is an organic material that has lots of irregularities, so it isn’t easy to work with. Grovemade outsources some of its metal bending and machining, but Tomita says that their processes for wood finishes are “un-outsourceable” because they’re “too finicky” to entrust to anyone else.


“The speakers are going to be tough,” he adds. 3-axis CNC machining leaves grooves in the wood. The finer the path, the fewer the grooves, but more paths means that each piece takes much longer to produce. “It’s hard, time-consuming, and expensive for us,” Tomita explains.


That’s probably why nobody else makes speakers like this. Tomita is happy to fill that niche because it fits his ideal of focusing on “things that only we can do.” For now, their challenge is to learn to produce the speaker more efficiently so it can become profitable.


Using Fusion 360 to Drive the Iterative Design Process

During the design process, the Grovemade team typically goes back and forth between CAD and physical models. That process starts with sketches, cardboard models, and mockups made from blocks of foam or wood, then iterates back into the software as they add details. It always comes back quickly to physical prototypes in wood. Tomita explains that even great renderings or 3D prints simply aren’t the same as being able to hold the wooden object.Grovemade5


The team loves how Fusion 360 combines CAD with CAM. That seamless integration makes it incredibly easy — and fast — to make changes in the design and then machine another prototype immediately using their in-house CNC equipment.


“We need to be able to make changes quickly and try it again,” Tomita explains. He adds that they routinely go from CAD to CAM to machining to holding it in their hands all in the same day — “which is absolutely incredible.”


Grovemade used to work with a combination of different 3D design and CNC packages, Tomita says, “but the software was so time-consuming that we wouldn’t do [prototyping] a lot of times.” Fusion 360 gave them an all-in-one application that, besides being far less expensive, allowed them to avoid that friction and go straight to machining anytime they want. And because it’s all integrated, they don’t have to worry about migrating design changes across multiple pieces of software. “If we change one thing, we don’t have to redo it on the other,” Tomita says. “It’s pretty massive.”


All in all, he adds, Fusion 360 “fits right in with the scale of our business”


Finding Customers Who Appreciate Great Work

Tomita credits Grovemade’s uncompromising stance for attracting passionate and loyal customers. He believes that people who buy their products can feel the hard work that went into making them.


He hopes that the same will be true for the new speaker, which he describes as “a home run swing.” But he also makes it clear that he’s not worried about it: “If you’re not comfortable with striking out, you’re never going to hit a home run.”


For Tomita and the rest of the Grovemade crew, satisfaction comes when they give it everything they have. They focus on the things they can control — that uncompromising commitment to beautiful design and high quality — and don’t worry about the outcomes. “We’re always evolving,” Tomita says. “We don’t really know what the future is.”


The challenge to grow and learn every day is exactly what Tomita wants: “I feel like we’re constantly scrapping to make it work, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”


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