Entrepreneur Ben Saks builds a ‘case’ for sustainable business
Ben Saks' startup is making it big with natural phone covers

Entrepreneur Ben Saks builds a ‘case’ for sustainable business

Founder of KerfCase, Saks offers luxury natural phone covers. The company focuses on sustainability and the needs of an individual customer rather than mass production.

Ben Saks of KerfCase focuses on the task at hand. (Photo courtesy of KerfCase)
Ben Saks of KerfCase focuses on the task at hand. (Photo courtesy of KerfCase)

Your smartphone may be built in China but its case could be constructed from the tree next door — at least, that is what Ben Saks has been proposing for the last few years. The Carnegie Mellon University graduate, who is founder and sole-owner of KerfCase, came upon the idea of creating natural phone covers while working in the CMU woodshop in 2013.

Back then, Saks had purchased the iPhone 5 and an accompanying case.

“I hated the case, bought another case and hated that one, and thought I should make my own,” he said.

So as any resourceful, determined — and talented — person would do, the one-time Shaker Heights resident took a discarded window sill from the school, repurposed the scrap and manufactured a wooden sleeve for his device.

Saks’ buddies thought it looked cool, so he “made a few more for friends.”

Five years later, the former Clevelander is still churning them out. But as opposed to the plastic counterparts readily available online, these are a bit pricier. Currently, kerfcase.com has a “limited edition amboyna burl case for the iPhone 8 Plus” as its costliest offering. The $419-plus price tag is well shy of the $649-plus sticker on the sold out “limited edition ebony case for the iPhone 6/6s Plus.”

“Positioning ourselves as a luxury product took some time,” he explained. But because of the strength of the yield and the company’s customer service, a loyal client base sprouted.

A worker puts the finishing touches on the product. (Photo courtesy of KerfCase)
There is an appreciation for what is being done there, explained Phil Giammattei, KerfCase’s operations manager. “If you want a case made out of solid ebony, we’re the only game in town.”

Having the ability to be involved in every step of creation is “super energizing,” added the University of Pittsburgh graduate. “This is a fun place to work. Every day we’re doing 20 different things.”

For now, Giammattei is the sole person at the small business besides Saks.

“We lost our third wheel a few weeks ago,” explained the founder. “Now it’s just the two of us.”

By keeping the company trim and focusing on each individual customer, Saks is shaping KerfCase into a mold he likes.

“We’re doing it locally, the way we want to do it,” he said. “We’re in control of the process, and the product turns out the way we want it.”

A piece of machinery that KerfCase uses to produce the natural phone covers. (Photo courtesy of KerfCase)
Pride is patent but so too is the staff’s specificity, technicality and love of lumber.

During a tour of the Point Breeze plant, Saks beamed when passing a stack of tree remnants. Some of the not-quite stumps trace their roots to nearby hills; others, like the figured walnut, arrived from northern California.

If you look at that piece, “you get a cool 3-D illusion,” said Giammattei.

“The curly maple really displays the chatoyancy factor,” agreed Saks, showing off some of the company’s other creations.

Because of KerfCase’s commitment to sustainability, “we save all the scrap and make stuff,” he added.

Other creations include geometric lampshades, wallets and expandable studio cases (all of which come from wood). Some of the makings were sold at Handmade Arcade, an annual Pittsburgh pop-up marketplace for craft-based artists and designers. Other KerfCase constructs are available upon request.

A basic kit in cherry from KerfCase. (Photo courtesy of KerfCase)
New ideas are always budding, as evidenced by the wall of post-it notes, said Saks, who made a brief detour to Los Angeles after graduation before venturing back.

The job out west was “right before the 2008 crash,” he said. “Every week they were letting people go. I eventually came back to Cleveland and helped my dad with his business, greenpaperproducts.com. His business was growing, and in 2009, some friends were here. I came to visit and never left. I realized how much I love Pittsburgh.”

Because of the neighborhoods, their residents and the landscape, Saks decided to re-establish residence in his college town.

The fact that he spent his adolescence in Cleveland and adult life in Pittsburgh makes him “love” both cities, regardless of any supposed rivalry between the two.

“Pittsburgh doesn’t have a basketball team and Cleveland doesn’t have a football team,” joked the Jewish entrepreneur.

Before exiting the sawdust scented space, Saks pointed to a past holiday promotion. It was a Roberto Clemente Bridge kit.

“My goal is to make products that I’m excited by and create a business that supports me and other local families,” he said. “That’s the measure of success that I’m looking for.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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