With a lot of sanding and basic woodworking skills, you can turn your plastic thumb drive into a classy wooden drive. Let me show you how.
Skill Level: Moderate
Build time: 5-7 days
This project isn’t that hard, but it will take up to a week thanks to glue and poly drying time. The approximate build time only takes a few hours and requires basic woodworking skills. The drive could still be completed without benchtop power tools, but try to get your hands on at least a scroll saw to make the center cut. It could be done by hand with a coping saw, but it would be worth your money to rent a power saw for an hour or two.
This is up to you, but the center core should be a dense hardwood and very split resistant like white oak or white ash. You are going to shape the outer layers so that wood needs to take sanding well—try basswood, cherry, hickory, or mahogany. Try lumberyards for a better selection of hardwoods than Home Depot or Lowes – Menards has a nice selection though.
I made these thumb drives out of Honduras mahogany and white oak covered with four layers of a polyurethane finish. Home centers should have displays that show what woods look like when finished so pick out two that compliment each other.
This is very important: wear a respirator when sanding as some hardwood species are toxic. Most exotic species release gas or particles when sanded, so put a mask on and kick the dog out of the workshop. A good friend of mine lost his dog this way as he wore a mask, but his dog was in the shop when he was working with African Rosewood. WEAR A MASK.
Tear apart your thumb drive. Use a small screw driver or utility knife to pry it apart.
You are going to need three pieces of wood. A band saw is the right tool to cut down quarter stock to the appropriate size, but a miter saw or table saw could be used too. Make the top layer 1/2″ thick and if you can cut it safely, the bottom layer an 1/8″.
The center layer needs to be as thick as your USB port on the torn apart drive. Cut the center piece as close to that thickness as possible.
Eventually, these pieces are going to be glued together so sand each side well; the smoother the surfaces are, the better the glue will adhere.
Take your three pieces and sand down one outside edge smooth. It will be nearly impossible to sand down this side once you glue up the pieces and that’s the side the USB port will be on
After you sand down the port side edge, plug a torn apart female USB drive into the male port. This will give you the depth needed and also a flat surface to hold the drive while you complete the next step.
Trace the torn apart USB drive in the middle of the center piece of wood using the female drive port as a flat edge. The metal port with the female end should be the only thing not being traced on the wood.
You are going to need to cut the outline with a scroll saw. Be sure to cut within the lines until the drive fits snugly within the cutout.
Take this cutout and trace the outline on one side of the thin bottom piece. This will give you a general idea where the drive is when the whole thing is glued-up.
Time to glue:
Take your center cutout, along with one of the end pieces, and brush glue on both of ‘em.
Carefully place the glued-up pieces in between two wood calls and clamp with a lot of pressure making sure that the penciled outline correctly illustrates where the circuit board is within. Let the glue dry for a few hours and then glue the other piece in place. Allow the glue to dry overnight.
By this time you should have a block of wood with a USB drive sticking out one end and an outline on the bottom piece of wood. Hopefully.
I didn’t tape up my build until later on, but you should at this point. Wrap electrical tape around the metal plug to protect it and provide a little extra holding surface; you don’t want to sand off your fingernail like I did.
Using the outline on the bottom, trim away the excess wood on a band saw or scroll saw. This will save you sanding.
I used a bench top belt sander to do the shaping, but a handheld belt sander clamped to a table would work too. Slowly shape the drive and pay close attention to the outline as you don’t want to sand too much away. Oh, and wear a mask!
Once you have the drive roughly sanded out, use 220-grit sandpaper to finish shaping it. I found that if you staple sandpaper to a 2×4, you can rub the drive on the paper itself which gives you more control. The sand paper will finish shaping the drive and you will then use steel wool to smooth the wood.
You should have a wooden thumb drive that is 95% done. The shape should be complete and the wood smooth thanks to 220 grit sandpaper, but it isn’t smooth enough. So grab a comfy seat, a beer, and 000 steel wool.
Rub the wood drive on 000 steel wool for about an hour. Serious. It takes me an hour of steel wool sanding and a couple of beers before I’m satisfied with the wood. Seriously; an hour.
Then grab another beer and 0000 steel wool for another round of sanding. You will be amazed how the wood will look after sanding it with steel wool. There isn’t a better way to bring out the grain and color of the wood.
After all that sanding, the wood should be beautiful and ready to accept the finish. Remember, the finish will exaggerate the wood underneath and will not hid anything. It will make the grain and, if still present, sanding marks stand out so make sure the wood is perfect.
I used both glossy and satin polyurethane on my thumb drives; personally, like the former the best. You could use oils such as linseed or tung and the wood will look great, but oils will not protect the wood as much as a poly finish. Your choice though.
I used four coats of poly and they turned out great. Apply a thin layer and let it dry completely. You will need to lightly sand the finishes in between coats with a clean 0000 steel wool pad. The steel wool will remove some of the just-applied finish, but that’s what you want. This technique will build up a lustrous coat of poly on your wooden thumb drive.
Peel off the electrical tape and use a razor blade to clean off any poly that seeped through the tape onto the metal port. You could buff the finish or even put a coat of wax on it, but it’s basically done at this point. Have fun, be safe and feel free to drop questions in the comments below or at Matt at CrunchGear dot Com.
A wooden thumb drive with a cap. Rough first build pictured above.