This post describes the design and fabrication of a custom foam insert for a rolling hard case to carry my Sony Alpha camera kit. Since my 2018 blog post describing the design and fabrication of a custom foam insert for my Hasselblad X1D camera and lenses, I have switched to Sony mirrorless. Once again, I used the excellent MyCaseBuilder.com online tools to design the foam insert. The insert is designed for a Pelican 1535 Air Carry-On Case, a versatile case that meets the carry-on restrictions of most airlines and is convenient for both travel and gear storage.
I’ll describe the design process in detail for anyone who wants to “try this at home”. The process is relatively straightforward, as I’ll describe, and the result is very satisfying. First, pick a case. Many hard and soft cases will take custom inserts, so start with a case that meets your travel and/or storage needs. Once you’ve picked a case, I recommend laying out your gear either in the empty case or on a paper template that is the same size as the interior of the case. Then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what will fit in the case and what won’t. And you’ll also learn which items have to be oriented horizontally due to their height.
The MyCaseBuilder online design working palette shows placement of each item on a grid sized for the selected case. The dark blue areas show where the cutouts for wheel and handle recesses are on the back side. The dark gray border is a “warning stripe” to prevent the design from getting too close to the edge of the foam.
My design goal for the foam insert was that it would accommodate two Sony Alpha camera bodies, the Sony 16-35mm GM, 24-70mm GM II, and 70-200mm GM II lenses, Kirk lens collar for the 70-200mm lens, 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters, two batteries (plus the batteries in the camera bodies), a plastic Pelican 1040 waterproof accessory case, an SD card pouch, and dual battery charger.
I used my largest diameter lenses to size the two round lens cutouts. That allows me to use the case insert even if I intend to carry smaller lenses.
Although my design encroached into the warning stripe somewhat, I knew that would be no problem because of the density of the foam (described later in this post).
The MyCaseBuilder website has several tools for creating cutout profiles based on simple shapes – circle/oval, rectangle, and line drawing. The design process involves 1) measuring each item precisely (I used an inexpensive digital caliper), 2) constructing a cutout profile (diameter, length, width, depth), and 3) positioning the cutout profile on the design grid. I selected a grid with 5mm Grid size and 2mm Nudge Spacing. Nudge Spacing is convenient for moving the cutout profile horizontally or vertically incrementally. I also found that selecting Auto Snap Shapes was useful in positioning cutouts that I wanted to have aligned with each other. Note that the rectangle tool has an option for rounded corners. MyCaseBuilder also has a new option called PrintBuilder that provides the option of having text or an image printed on the lid or base foam. I chose not to use PrintBuilder for my design (precluded by my choice of foam).
While many camera and lens profiles are in the MyCaseBuilder public and private libraries, the shapes that I needed were either not in the libraries or were not as accurate as I wanted. For the camera body and 70-200mm lens, I used the Photo Tracer tool and top-down photos. Excellent photos are available on the web, both on manufacturers’ and online retailers’ websites. The Photo Tracer tool works best with a photo that shows the item against a white background. It also helps to have a dark or black object and/or to adjust the contrast in Photoshop to achieve the highest contrast possible between the object and the background. After downloading a product photo from the internet, I used Photoshop to create a photo of the camera on a transparent background and saved the image as a PNG file.
To use this tool, click on the Photo Tracer tool icon:
Next, click on the Trace a Photo button:
Here’s the photo of the Sony Alpha 1 that I used:
You are then presented with your camera or lens, outlined with points that can be deleted or moved to make the shape more accurate. The length and depth of the item must be entered. Note that the length in this case includes the strap lugs.
I designed the insert so that lenses could be inserted vertically (with hoods removed) to best utilize the available foam real estate. The plastic Pelican Micro 1040 case holds a power cable for the charger, USB-C cable, and camera plate for tripod mounting.
As cutouts are added, you can review what the finished design will look like using the 3D rendering feature of the design app. This feature is helpful to determine whether cutouts overlap or are too deep, are positioned too close to the cutouts on the back side (if your case has handles or wheels), or whether complex cutouts have voids that need to be corrected in the design.
I used the Tray Builder tool to view the foam design cross section showing the depth of each cutout with respect to the total depth of the foam and the position of the wheel and handle recesses.
The reason for the placement of some of my cutouts has to do with the wheel and handle recesses (particular to the Pelican 1535 rolling case) on the back side of the foam. The recesses limit the depth of cutouts in those areas and led to my placement of shallow items (batteries, charger, teleconverters) at the ends to make the most of the surface area and usable foam depth.
MyCaseBuilder offers three foam types:
- Ester – good general purpose foam (like “pick and pluck” foam)
- TopGuard Polyethylene (PE)
- MyCaseBuilder standard case foam for most applications
- Good for heavier objects which need to be secured in place
- Good for objects that can absorb a modest amount of shock without being damaged
- Pro-Cell – highest density foam with smooth finish
I chose the TopGuard Polyethylene (PE) foam for this project because of my previous experience with the foam choices. The TPE foam is a more rigid foam than the Ester foam and is less likely to shed or peel with heavy use. And the top face of the foam can be one of four colors:
The top layer of a TopGuard PE Foam insert consists of a high density 1/4 inch color topper laminated to standard density Black Polyethylene foam. The top face of the foam and the top face inside of the cutouts will be in the TopGuard color of your choice. The sides of the foam and the sides of the cutouts will be black. Available in Black, Red, Blue, or Yellow.
Once the design is submitted, fabrication time is estimated to be 9-12 business days depending upon order backlog. My foam insert was shipped within the estimated window and arrived well packaged and as designed. I purchased Failsafe Design Protection and took advantage of the one “do-over” offered by this option. Failsafe Design Protection is cheap (starting at $9.99) and provides one “revision and refabrication of your original foam design”. The do-over was perfect.
The custom foam insert is exactly as designed and the quality is excellent. I highly recommend MyCaseBuilder if you’re interested in a fitted foam insert for any case (they sell cases too). Their online design app is easy to use. Customer support is responsive and helpful and fabrication time is reasonable.
After going through the process, I have a few tips for anyone who’d like to try it:
- Don’t get too cute with the cutout designs; the MyCaseBuilder fabrication process cuts the foam to the maximum depth of each cutout and glues pieces back into the insert necessary to match the design
- Measure twice, cut once
- Include finger notches where necessary to remove items
- Observe the back side cutouts for wheels and handle (if applicable to the case you choose); MyCaseBuilder’s 3D rendering tool is great for finding trouble spots as are the “warning stripes” in the online app
- Buy Failsafe Design Protection
I have no affiliation with MyCaseBuilder nor do I advertise on my website. I’m just a satisfied customer.