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A while back, I went on a spree of replacing handles with wood in some tools/toys I had, since I quite liked the feel. In the past couple years, I've picked up competitive gaming, and would like the comfort of wood in my controller, if possible.

However, compared to my previous projects, this would be handled much more extensively, and would require much smaller parts for buttons/stick caps, so I don't trust my judgment on what a reasonable choice of wood and finish would be.

I've worked with redwood in the past, and it seems like it would hold up well for the grips both from past experience and from some articles I've found.

For the buttons and stick caps, I'm guessing that no wood I choose will be able to have the fine detail necessary while still maintaining the strength required, and that I'll need to instead make the structural portion out of metal or plastic, and add wood caps. Given that, at that point, fine detail is the main issue, I was thinking basswood.

I've never used a finish, since longevity was never really a concern. Having the feeling of wood is rather the point of the project, but from my research, that seems at odds with decent protection from wear/hand oils.

Do redwood and basswood seem like reasonable choices for this project?

Are there any finishes that wouldn't feel like varnish, but would also protect the wood from frequent handling?

  • Is your goal to have as close to an all-wood controller in appearance? There are woods that have strength and hold detail well. African blackwood is used to make instruments like clarinets and oboes; it is so hard it is usually machined like metal. (Though some people do turn it on a lathe.) So it is certainly possible, though it depends on the amount of effort and expense you are willing to accept. I personally would be tempted to make the body of the controller out of wood and reuse the buttons and analog sticks from the stock controller, but perhaps you're thinking along different lines. – Charlie Kilian Dec 29 '16 at 21:32
  • If I could pull off an all-wood appearance, I'd love that. I'd probably need to get access to my university's machine shop to work with blackwood, but that should be feasible. Using the stock buttons is probably a good place to start, but at some point I want to try other materials to see what feels best. – Mike Precup Dec 29 '16 at 21:43
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I've worked with redwood in the past, and it seems like it would hold up well for the grips both from past experience and from some articles I've found.

In woodworking circles you'll generally be told to rely on hardwoods or fruitwoods where you want a tough, resilient handle for something.

Certain hardwoods and fruitwoods were the traditional picks for tool handles of all types for many centuries (and still are today in some cases) and for good reasons as they're strong, tough and generally resistant to splintering. Not that softwoods are necessarily weak, but comparatively they aren't in the same league for this sort of application.

While redwood might hold up well enough (it would depend on the piece to a certain extent) I'd be more inclined to go with a close-grained hardwood if possible. There are numerous possibilities but maple would be a good candidate among species that are relatively easy to get, especially if you're in North America, and beech would also make an excellent choice.

For the buttons and stick caps, I'm guessing that no wood I choose will be able to have the fine detail necessary while still maintaining the strength required, and that I'll need to instead make the structural portion out of metal or plastic, and add wood caps. Given that, at that point, fine detail is the main issue, I was thinking basswood.

Basswood is fairly soft to very soft (wood varies) so would be a very poor choice I think for something like this. You won't easily get it but a much better choice would be rosewood. Other dense, oily/resinous tropical hardwoods would also work well, but all tend to be expensive and some are no longer available commercially because trade in them has been banned due to over-logging at source.

You might consider instead using a resin-impregnated wood such as those sold for pen turners and as handle blanks for knifemakers.

I've never used a finish, since longevity was never really a concern. Having the feeling of wood is rather the point of the project, but from my research, that seems at odds with decent protection from wear/hand oils.

You don't need to protect from hand oils, they don't actually pose any risk to wood*.

Up to a certain point finishes don't protect wood from much in the way of wear. You'll get some protection from minor scrapes and gentler hits that would otherwise result in a ding or small dent, but in general the finish gives when the wood gives from an impact so really what finish is doing in general is protecting the appearance of a piece, not so much protecting from wear outright.

If you go with a tight-grained hard wood for the handles you could easily go without a finish, just sand to a fine surface and use it immediately. If you would prefer to finish then there are many alternatives, from oiling using a straight oil (e.g. BLO) or a penetrating finish (e.g. "Danish oil" or "tung oil finish") through to shellac or varnish. All of these options are used by someone out there to finish their tool handles, and each user likes how the wood looks and feels, and how it wears over time.


*In fact handling and the inevitable buildup of skin oils etc. in the surface are one of the traditional ways that some things were finished, this is sometimes referred to as "hand finish".

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    if you go without a film-forming finish and/or impregnated wood, those controllers are going to get grimy really fast from your sweaty hands! Although the wood integrity isn't at risk, they'll probably start to look ratty. – aaron Dec 30 '16 at 15:46
  • @aaron I don't think that's as certain as one might at first think. Obviously lighter-coloured woods will show dirt more easily, but the evidence of certain tools and tool handles suggests that even with a wood that's not dark in colour going with no finish can still give you something that doesn't become grimy and disgusting looking with regular sweaty handling Basically as long as the wood is fine-grained enough along with being hard. And standards for looks can vary enormously! The same thing could be described as "comfortably worn" or "ugh gross" by two different users :-) – Graphus supports Monica Dec 30 '16 at 17:37
  • I ended up going with rosewood for the detail, and padauk for the grips, since they had a fairly cheap piece that was the right size, and both the current color and the color it will change to fit the aesthetic I wanted well. Current plan is to go without a finish. Thank you for all the advice! – Mike Precup Dec 31 '16 at 0:20
  • Welcome Mike, hope it works out well for you! – Graphus supports Monica Dec 31 '16 at 1:22
  • good choice of woods too - those dense and/or oily tropical woods are a lot better than something like pine or oak in terms of the need for finish. – aaron Jan 3 '17 at 13:15
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Both redwood and basswood are on the softer end of the Janka hardness scale, which measures the hardness of woods. But I am having a hard time imagining they'd fail to "hold up" to the kind of (ab)use a gaming controller would take. (Assuming you're not in the habit of slamming them down or throwing them across the room, that is. Which in any case is hard on the materials they're traditionally made from, too!) I think both would be fine choices. As you said, the basswood may be too soft to maintain the fine detail, which I'm assuming you mean is the engraving of the button names and arrow directions. I think basswood would hold its shape just fine. But as I mentioned in my comment, there are certainly woods I would expect to hold that kind of detail. My comment mentioned African blackwood, but I don't think you'd need to go that extreme. Even hard maple would hold up fine, I'd think.

Note that all woods are stronger along the direction of the length of the grain, so you'll want to design your controller's various parts with this in mind.

As far as finishes go, you're looking for something that is as close to bare wood as possible. My suggestion is: Bare wood! Many hand tools were traditionally left unfinished, and they were expected to take a beating far beyond what you'll be subjecting your controller to. If you leave the wood bare, eventually the oils on your hands will naturally stain the wood.

If you don't think you'd care for that look, another option is to proactively oil it yourself, and then seal it with a coat of paste wax. Traditional oils include tung oil and boiled linseed oil (commonly known as BLO), but there are modern options that look just as good and are much simpler to use, such as Minwax Antique Finishing Oil. Give it two or three coats of oil, waiting the appropriate amount of time between each coat. After oiling, finish it off by applying a coat of paste wax and then buffing it off. The wax will wear off with regular use, so expect to reapply it periodically.


Note that if you do go the oil route, you need to be somewhat careful as to which product you choose. Some products, such as Watco Danish oil, are actually a combination stain and varnish. While you may be pleased with the appearance, I suspect it would come with the varnish feel you're looking to avoid.

Whatever route you take, my advice is to test the finish process on a scrap before you apply it to the final work piece. That way you'll have a much better idea of how it's going to turn out, both in look and feel, before you find yourself in the heartbreaking position of having to sand the finish off and start the finishing process over with something else. Also, if you decide to try out different finishing processes, you can do it on separate scraps, and then compare them side by side to decide which one you want to use.

  • Thank you for clearing up my misconceptions on finish! I'm planning on going with bare wood now. Good point on the grain, the plan is to make it in multiple pieces so that portions which would take stress in different directions can each have the appropriate grain direction. – Mike Precup Dec 31 '16 at 0:23

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