Do you remember when the iPhone was still exclusive? You know, before Sprint and Verizon. Before the free 3GS and inexpensive iPhone 4? Think back to the original iPhone, when if you saw one in public, you took notice. That, or if you owned one, you got noticed, whether people came up and said something to you or not. The $199-$399 upgrade price of the latest models is somewhat of a barrier of entry, but it isn’t the same anymore. Thanks to subsidies, cheaper offers, and wider availability, as well as increased competition from other platforms, that time has passed. For better or worse, the iPhone is now everywhere in North America.
Those who are only interested in status symbols have probably moved on to something else over time, but there are still plenty of style conscious iOS users who are interested in standing out or making a statement, or others who just want something that has an element of individuality. Considering that our smartphones are with us virtually all the time, this is an important topic for many iPhone owners. As for me, I have more of a utilitarian viewpoint most of the time. I use my iPhone heavily at work, and I often find myself in environments that are less than hospitable for electronic devices, so I usually use a full-body skin and a heavy-duty case to protect my iPhone. But, I can’t deny the lure of something that looks and feels first-class.
Besides the loss of the iPhone’s exclusivity, there is also something else that I feel is largely missing from consumer electronics in general. Despite the large market for mobile phone, tablet, and general electronic accessories, there are relatively few high-quality, hand-made or custom products out there. And the ones that are available tend to be VERY expensive. However, if you have ever held a Vaja or Piel Frama custom leather case in your hands, then you know that there really is a difference. A BIG difference.
Several yeas ago, I managed to get my hands on a two-toned Piel Frama case for an older PDA at a significantly reduced price. The leather just felt so amazing in the hand, and looked so good. It was by far and away the best case I have ever had for any device. However, looking at the prices today, iPhone 4S cases from both Vaja and Piel Frama start at $95 and go up fast. Yikes. I’m not willing to pay that much for a case since I change devices once a year, but I can’t deny that there is a very real and noticeable difference between them and the rest of the pack.
So what’s out there for iPhone users looking for something stylish, unique, and even better, hand-crafted, that won’t leave a crater in your wallet? I came across a company a month or so ago that is making products that fill this niche perfectly, and the more time I spend testing and using their creations, the more impressed I am with what they are doing. The company is called Carved, and they make a line of beautifully crafted and finished wooden skins for the iPhone 4/4S, iPad 2, Kindle and Kindle Fire.
From what I have gathered, Carved is the epitome of the classic American small business done right. They are a small company located in Elkhart, IN, and from looking over their materials and website, as well as corresponding a bit with John Webber and Warren Fosse, I can tell that they are an extremely versatile bunch that take a lot of pride in what they do. Everything, from the wood selection, sanding, and finishing, to the product preparation and packaging, to the website, literature design and company management, is done in-house. Nothing is mass produced in a factory. Everything is either done by hand, or supervised by a real, live human being.
As I stated earlier, this is so very different than what we see from most of the consumer electronics industry. No matter what is produced, or where the company that designs it is located, 99% of everything is at least pre-fabricated in China or somewhere else overseas these days. About the best you can get these days is “Assembled in the USA.” It’s refreshing to see that, if you have a solid idea and are smart in your execution, that manufacturing can still work here in the United States. I encourage you to visit the Carved website’s Our Story page and take a closer look at how they do things.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “What exactly is a wood skin.” It is something quite unique in my experience with iOS accessories, and has unexpectedly breathed some new life into my iPhone experience. It is quite literally a very thin-cut piece of wood (yes, real wood) with a special adhesive backing that is specifically designed to hold it snugly to the surface of your iPhone without leaving residue.
As you can see from the samples above, Carved has a wide range of skins for both the front and back of the iPhone, made to satisfy all kinds of tastes and preferences. And what you see here is just a small sample of the Carved line for the iPhone 4/4S that I received from them and then bought myself for this review. All I can say is go to the Shop section of their website, and take a look at the plethora of colors and designs that are available. Including the custom option, there are no less than 27 different product headings for the iPhone 4/4S, so I would be shocked if you couldn’t find something that strikes your fancy. As picky as I am, I had a hard time on settling on just these five, but I have always been a sucker for a beautiful wood finish.
I’ve been using and handling the five skins in my possession for a few weeks now, so I’ve developed a pretty good feel for the product. I really like what I’ve seen so far, so much so that I may just have to ditch my Mophie Juice Pack for a while. That’s saying a LOT, considering how dependent I’ve become on the additional battery life it provides. Let’s take a closer look at this product that has been like a fresh coat of paint for my iPhone 4S.
Look and Feel
I have to be honest. I may be a little biased when it comes to the look and feel of a beautiful piece of wood with a fine finish. First off, my father is an avid gun collector, and I still dabble a little myself. He has always preferred custom guns with detailed engraving and beautifully finished wooden stocks, so I grew up with an appreciation for beautiful woodwork. I am also a percussionist with 25 years of experience. Whether it was high-end custom drum sets, or beautifully finished Rosewood marimbas, I learned to respect the craftsmanship and skill that goes into the creation of these instruments. So it isn’t any surprise that I was immediately drawn to Carved’s products when I saw them. However, while I may prefer wood products, my past experience with them also makes me very picky.
All that said, the five skins I received from Carved definitely passed both the eye and feel tests. The subtle variations in wood finishes don’t always come across adequately in web-quality photos, so one thing I would like to point out is that the finishes vary from matte to gloss, depending on the wood used, and the look of the grain.
The visible texture also varies from sample to sample, with the grain highlighted with great contrast in some, while much more subdued in others
You can really see the attention to detail here. The finishes are perfectly matched to the different woods available. The look and the grain of each is showcased. The non-decorative skins, like the Walnut version shown below, are simple and straightforward. They do a great job of showcasing the natural beauty of the wood.
The execution of the sanding is just as important as the finish, and thankfully, is just as spot on. As with the finishes, the feel of the wood also varies from type to type. The Rosewood burl is buttery smooth, the Purpleheart and Padauk are noticeably textured, while others, such as the Natural Bamboo, English Sycamore, and Paldao sit nicely in the middle.
Again, the attention to detail is easy to see, and in this case, feel. Even with the more textured skins, there are no rough sandpaper-like spots or jagged edges. The consistency for a hand-produced product is very impressive to me, and shows how much the craftsmen at Carved care about the end product that goes out the door. The look and feel of these skins is a standout feature that grabs the eye, and makes you want to run your finger over them.
While the look and feel of such a product is the first element that you notice, it wouldn’t stand out the same way if the design got in the way. However, that isn’t a problem here, as the fit and finish of Carved’s wood skins is every bit as good as the finish and sanding. All of the cuts and holes are precise and line up perfectly and the fit of both the front and back skins is consistent from one to another.
The second great design element of Carved’s skins is the impressive execution on models with inlays and laser engraving.
You can see one example above with the World Map skin. Each continent is inlayed in a different wood and finish on a light English Sycamore background. While the finish and feel of each type of woods is different, the skin doesn’t feel haphazard or thrown together. Each section is perfectly integrated into the whole. The precision cutting insures that everything fits together as well as possible, and that users end up with a combination skin that will withstand day to day use.
You can also see the same level of execution in the Rectangula 3 skins, which has two sizable rectangular sections of Padauk inlayed inside of an English Sycamore base. The three Rectangula variations are the only stock models with inlay on the front skins, as well as the rear, which gives them some additional distinction, and the user’s iPhone a little more visual appeal. Also, you can see the large, laser engraved Carved logo in center.
And for good measure, here is a close-up of the small and subtle Carved logo that is laser engraved on the corner of all their rear skins. Their logo, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, as Carved offers several elaborate stock engraving designs, as well as full custom design and logo options. Just take a look around the Gallery on the Carved website, and you can see a few examples of their impressive custom work.
Anyone who has installed a protective skin on an iPhone before will know that the process and difficulty can range anywhere from dead simple to very involved. Thankfully, since Carved’s skins are more rigid than most protective skins, installation is about as easy as you can get.
Simply peel the backing off of the skin, line it up with your iPhone’s front or back cutouts, and press down across the device. Done. It took me less than 30 seconds to apply this front skin, and it has not fallen off or slipped out of position since.
Carved’s skins use a special adhesive backing that works very well for this purpose. It holds well, but isn’t so sticky that the skin can’t be adjusted slightly or removed easily. It also doesn’t leave any residue behind when a skin is removed, which is a plus. Most important, is the fact that it is reusable. You can remove and reapply more than once, which adds a lot of additional value to these wood skins. From my conversations with the folks at Carved, the more careful you are when taking a skin off and handling it while it is off, the longer the lifespan will be. If the glue didn’t last or didn’t allow for some versatility, then Carved’s skins wouldn’t be as solid a value, no matter how good they look, so this is a critical feature.
The End Result
Remember what I said about the iPhone no longer feeling exclusive, and not standing out? That will not be a problem with a Carved skin applied. I have gotten several comments and even more looks since putting it on. Your mileage may vary, depending on which finish or design that you choose and whether you get both a front and back, but you will likely get some attention when you pull your iPhone out wearing a Carved skin.
You can see my personal choice, the Build You Own Puzzle skin, above. This one REALLY stands out, and adds a a bit of custom flair to your iPhone. Each of the puzzle pieces are chosen from a Custom Skin Designer on Carved’s website. If you don’t want to bother, or would like to save a few bucks, Carved also has a Random Puzzle skin available, as well.
You have a choice of six different woods- Bamboo, Paduak, Paldao, Purpleheart, Rosewood Burl, and English Sycamore for each spot, so you can be as creative with color and feel as you like. While I went for a random look with some loose patterning, you can be as structured or as random as you want in the room allotted.
Also, you have the option to not only save your work in the custom editor, but also to browse the creations of other Carved customers for ideas. You can even vote for your favorites! How cool and creative is this? I fell in love with the Build Your Own Puzzle skin as soon as I saw it, and had to have it. The whole idea just had a lot of appeal to me.
The fun doesn’t stop with the design, as the application of the Build You Own Puzzle is also very unique and even enjoyable. Instead of applying the entire back skin as a whole like all of Carved’s other offerings, the puzzle pieces are applied one at a time.
You literally solve your puzzle on the back of your phone. Even better, if you change your mind, or give one as a gift and your friend wants to change things up a bit, they can. While the corner pieces can’t be switched, every other piece can be moved around to some degree, adding some more fun to the proceedings.
I have a LOT of experience installing protective skins on iOS device, both for myself and for other who I know, and while I have gotten pretty adept over the years, it has never been something I enjoyed. My Carved Build You Own Puzzle skin was different, though. I found this experience to be fun and easy.
And the end result, in my humble opinion, is amazing. I have a beautiful, unique, and eye-catching rear cover on the back of my iPhone 4S.
One thing to keep in mind about the puzzle skins is that, since they are made of different woods with different finishes, the feel can be very different from piece to piece across the back of your phone. On mine, the Purpleheart pieces have a very noticeable texture, while the Rosewood Burl is incredibly smooth. Also, two of the Rosewood pieces are just slightly raised above the others, so they stand out in a different way as I run my fingers across the back of my iPhone.
While some might point to this as a problem in consistency, it is more of an attractive feature to me, as it really underlines the hand-made aspect of the product. I love the unique feel. This isn’t some mass-produced collection of wood grain stickers. This puzzle is a collection of 15 individual items that are brought together into a whole. Like a patchwork quilt, everything isn’t going to be absolutely uniform, but that actually becomes part of the beauty of it. If you feel the same way, then you will probably love the Build You Own Puzzle, as well. It gives you the freedom to create something of your own. However, even if you prefer something more uniform, the flexibility of Carved’s editor and the six wood choices available allows you to create a more conservative or patterned skin that will suit your needs, as well.
How much protection does a wood skin offer? Well, as you can see from the photo above, these skins are very, very thin. As such, they are not made to absorb high drops on hard surfaces, which Carved points out on their website. Despite the fact that Carved’s skins are made of wood, from a protection standpoint they are much more like full body skins like Best Skins Ever. They will protect the glass surfaces of your phone from scratches and maybe very slight impacts, but that is it.
Thankfully, though, Carved skins are compatible with Apple’s Bumpers and other similar cases that cover the metal sides of the iPhone 4/4S. This is another very smart design decision, as is allows those of us who want some additional protection to have it, without sacrificing the distinctive look of the wood.
No product, no matter how good it is, will be perfect for everyone, and Carved’s skins are no different. If you are cool with carrying your iPhone 4 or 4S around naked in all of its glass glory, then you won’t be bothered a bit by the low level of protection. If you use protective skins such as InvisibleShield or Best Skins Ever alone, then you will feel right at home, as well.
In fact, I asked about screen protectors, and was told that Carved’s front skins are compatible with them. I was cautioned that reusability could possibly be negatively affected depending on how the adhesive interacts with the screen protector’s material. Also, there is a chance that you will not be able to remove your Carved skin without ruining the screen protector. However, despite these modest potential drawbacks, it is nice to know you can still use a screen protector if you choose to.
So Carved’s skins will instantly fit like a glove for some. How about for habitual case users? Hmmm. That may be a different story. If a Bumper-style case is enough, then you are probably ok, but if you prefer an Otterbox, this might be more than you can bear.
The look and feel has at least temporarily converted me from being a case user, but it has definitely been an adjustment. I have to be very careful at all times. We just had laminate floors put into half of our house, and we have tile in the kitchen and bath, so there aren’t very many safe “drop zones” where I live anymore. However, I have not run into any trouble in the two weeks that I have had my Build You Own Puzzle skin installed.
Whether Carved’s skins will work for a case user or not will ultimately depend on how much they are married to the protection that a case provides. It’s that simple. Carved’s skins are designed to be beautiful and add a modicum of protection, without negatively affecting the thinness of the iPhone 4/4S. The product succeeds at this goal. It’s just a matter if their goals fit in with yours.
On a positive note, even if you are unwilling to part with using a case with your iPhone, the guys at Carved are working on a wood iPhone 4/4S case that will offer far more protection than the wood skins I reviewed here. There is a small amount of information on the Carved website, but no indication has been given on exactly when it will be released. Let’s hope it is soon, because that may be a more suitable device for me, long term. A case that combines Carved’s creativity and craftsmanship together with more protection from the elements sounds almost too good to be true. Stay tuned, as I hope to get my hands on one and do a review as soon as they are released.
Another small trade-off to be aware of could be decreased resuability with the puzzle skins. I have found that the adhesive definitely holds up as advertised, but that was only over a two week period. However, I think it may be a good deal more difficult to keep the adhesive on all 15 individual puzzle pieces in good condition if removed, while they are not in use. As with anything sticky, it only takes a little debris getting onto the adhesive surface to gum up the works, so to speak.
Each puzzle piece comes with its own paper backing, so keeping up with them, and then re-applying them would be an absolute nightmare.
I plan on using the original container that the puzzle skin came in, and just adhering the pieces to the bottom, putting the top cover back over it to keep the pieces in place, and then taping it down so they don’t move around. If you try this yourself, be sure that the inside of the container is very clean before you put the pieces down, so they don’t pick up any debris there.
Despite some very small amount of concern with the reusability of my Build You Own Puzzle skin, I still recommend it highly. I also have to point out that, even though Carved stands behind all of its products, they have keenly recognized the inherent fragility of this particular model. On the Custom Skin Designer page, they state that you can get up to three individual pieces replaced over the life of the skin. So, if you have one that gets broken, or is falling off, Carved has you covered. Bravo, for thinking ahead, and offering this to customers before they buy.
The value of a product can be a very subjective thing. For someone who is looking for full-body protection for their iPhone above all else, Carved skins will probably feel like too much style over substance. However, for someone who is more concerned with finding a product that is distinctive, with style and flair, they will seem like an amazing value. This also goes back to my mention of handcrafted items in consumer electronics. Carved’s skins are hand made in the USA by a small team that is dedicated to making great products. In an era of mass production, they definitely stand out from the crowd.
While you often have to pay an arm and a leg to get most other hand made tech accessories, that isn’t really the case with Carved. They have plain, single finished rear skins for $14-$19, with matching front skins available for an extra $5. This is cheaper than you would pay for most clear film front and back protective skins, so these Carved’s are a very good value in comparison.
For those who want to go all out, the Custom Puzzle that I used is $35 for the back, and the Custom Engraving option is only $39.99, with front skins again available for an additional $5. Those certainly are not cheap, but look at what you are getting- two different ways of designing a hand crafted product that is all your own. When you stack these two custom options against the high-end leather cases I mentioned earlier, the prices pale in comparison. All around, this is about as inexpensive as you will find craftsmanship at this level in iPhone accessories. So in my humble opinion, Carved’s skins are definitely worth the price, and are a great value for your money.
The bottom line is this- Carved skins are one of those rare accessories that can bring some exclusivity back to your iPhone. If you don’t believe me, get one and put it on your phone, go to Starbucks, and just sit it out on your table. Maybe use the app to pay for your purchase, while you’re at it. It stands out so much that other people will notice it. So, if you aren’t married to using a full-body iPhone 4/4S case for protection, and you are looking for something to bring a little sexy back to your favorite phone, then look no further. Carved’s wood skins for the iPhone 4 and 4S get the job done, while leaving your wallet intact.
You can find out more about Carved’s products and purchase them from the Shop section of the company’s website.
Walnut Rear Skin- $19.00
World Map Inlay Rear Skin- $24.00
Rectangula 3 Rear Skin- $29.00
All of the matching front skins are available for $5 extra with your Rear Skin order.
The Walnut, World Map, and Rectangula 3 Wood Skins were provided by Carved for review on iSource. The Build Your Own Puzzle skin was purchased by the author. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.