MICRO CENTER: COMPUTERS AND ELECTRONICS
Random Access   chris, kp & rob
In The Lab
Extreme Case Modding Part 1: In The Beginning...
by chris

It's easy enough to find a fancy case and slap a motherboard into it. Not much more effort is required to install cold-cathode lighting or to swap out fans for LED illuminated ones. I have held off doing anything more involved than these basic modifications, if only for lack of an idea for a extreme makeover. Watching all the current shows like Monster Garage, Monster House, and American Chopper gave me the urge to cut, weld, or "monsterize" something, but what I needed was a grand vision.

Besides the excuse to hack something up, I developed an idea that serves several purposes and provided a goal for a project. I wanted to explore several techniques for modifying the case, and at the same time, build a system with some different technology and effects that would enhance the overall theme. The core concept for my case is a science fiction pseudo-technology look, but within a traditional case format. The initial thoughts I had for this case are loosely based on Paramount's Star Trek Borg: lots of yellow-green lighting, corrugated tubing, with cables and hoses merging with the electronics or piercing the surface features. A little bit of Star Wars "model bashing" will be used to further enhance the surface-mounted details on the shell of the case. Following the Borg approach of assimilating useful technology, I will be using all sorts of odd pieces and parts of toys, computer parts, wire, tubing and other items to create the effect.

The "cubic" server case
The "cubic"
server case

Rather than use a basic tower style case, it occurred to me that a server case would be more appropriate (it's a Borg "cube"), and give me more area to work with on my project. The case I chose is a simple server case, which is essentially a double mini-tower on wheels. The motherboard mounts in one side of the case, and the power supplies (it can take two) and drives are mounted on the other side. The case did not come with any power supply, but did include two 90mm fans, one in front and the other in the rear above the power supply opening (inside a 3.5" 4-slot drive bay.) The first thing I did was to move the rear fan to the front of the case and remove the hard drive assembly and a couple of other internal pieces. I then mounted two power supplies in the case, a heavy duty model to power the system board and drives, and a smaller one dedicated to the fans, lighting and special effects. I loosely mounted the motherboard in the case and installed a floppy, a SATA hard drive and optical drives. This is all necessary to determine placement of power and drive cables and to experiment with hoses and other water-cooling components.

The motherboard mounts to the left side of the center partition.
The motherboard mounts to the left side of the center partition.

The drive bays and power supplies live in the right side of the case.
The drive bays and power supplies live in the right side of the case.

A view of the rear fan modifications
A view of the rear fan modifications

Immediately I found that the main motherboard power cable would not reach around the center partition to the connector on the system board. One of the first modifications was to remove the components and cut two holes, one through the motherboard tray and a second through the center partition in the case. This allowed the power connection to loop directly from the power supply through the center partition and connect to the system board with lots of slack. A Dremel tool with 1" cut-off wheels made quick (but smelly) work of this. The sharp sheet metal edges were covered with some split-loom tubing, and the case vacuumed out to remove the abrasive grit and metal grindings.

The water cooling radiator is supposed to be positioned just behind the front cooling fans, so that the cool air entering the case is used to first reduce the water temperature before passing over the system board and other components. I wanted to move the radiator to the rear of the case to vent the warm air out the back rather than across the components. With the split case design, most of the air movement will be to the drive side and out the rear of the case anyway. The grill opening on the rear has mounting holes for either a 90mm fan (that would be inside the drive cage), or with the drive bays removed, a 120mm fan can be positioned at the rear. The radiator takes a single 80mm fan which I replaced with a black and chrome Centaurus fan. I used nippers to remove the double grill opening formed in the rear sheet metal of the case, but left the 120mm mounting holes. The sharp edges were covered with split tubing and the plastic rear cover had to be slightly modified to allow for the now-raised edge around the fan hole. Changes to the radiator assembly included reversing the pipe feed orientation in the frame, adding the fancy 80mm fan, adding a flat plate to attach a 90-to-120mm fan adapter, and last, attaching a 120mm green UV reactive fan directly to the case opening. I placed a piece of hardware cloth mesh over the fan to keep fingers and other things out, then mounted a circular 80mm ultraviolet tube to keep the mesh from shifting and make the fan and adapter glow.

Power cables and other wires were bundled inside lots of split tubing, then run to the drives, panels and components. Water tubing was cut to length, arranged and connected to the heat sink, radiator, flow indicator, primary and secondary reservoir, and then tested for leaks. Glow in the dark floppy and optical drive cables were checked for reach and installed, and electro-luminescent SATA drive cables attached.

Demonstrating cutting techniques
Demonstrating cutting techniques

The finished cut
The finished cut

The installed window
The installed window

Starting with the power supply side case panel and a commercial window kit, I marked the position for the plastic window. The opening needed to be about an eighth of an inch larger for the rubber gasket to fit between the window and the metal case. I also marked out a smaller opening that would take a special effect lighting unit. To provide a starting point in the middle of the sheet, drill a large hole inside the line; I drilled two so I could work from opposite directions if necessary. Using the hand held nippers, I followed the pen mark to cut the hole. Tight corners were near-impossible, so I planned for a curved corner. The small cutter "nibbled" off pieces of the sheet metal when I closed the grips all the way. This is good since I did not have to manipulate a strip of metal as I cut. If you don't complete the cut, a curl of metal will be forced out of the way, and you can take this off with a full stroke at any time. [Tip: don't do this over carpeting - you will end up with tiny dots of sheet metal everywhere.] The process for the larger opening was quickly completed using air-powered shears to cut the hole.

After straightening the panel's tabs and flattening the sheet metal back out from my nipper mangling, the window was ready to install. [Tip: some inexpensive auto-body sheet metal hammers and blocks work well for this. Also plan to file or grind the sharp edges and any burrs from cutting.] The rubber gasket attached around the inside edge of the opening, then after lots of struggling to install it, I removed the gasket, ground the opening wider, and repeated until the window to popped into place. A rubber bead was inserted into a track in the gasket to hold everything tight. More split tubing was used to cover the small opening, at least until I started to mount stuff.

Window dressing
Window dressing

Top of the case
Top of the case

The rest of the work on the side panel was all "window dressing" with some plastic shapes cut and glued together, then mounted to the side with small screws. Ribbon cable was created using some duct tape to hold the wires, adding contact cement, and some double-sided carpet tape was applied to the back. The small green blocks are inexpensive plastic jewelry boxes. 1/4"- plastic is cut to fit tightly inside the box covers, and then screwed to the sheet metal case; plastic glue is used to attach the box to the plastic base.

The top of the case was enhanced in a similar fashion, but it already had a plastic sheath over the metal. Drive bay mounting brackets were used to anchor the 5 1/4 drive bay water reservoir to the top of the case. Holes drilled in the top allowed the heavy vinyl tubing to enter the case, and the vinyl hose was protected from the sharp metal with more split tubing. Plastic parts were directly glued to the top using general purpose plastic glue (from the local plumbing section of the hardware store.) Double-sided carpet tape was used to anchor the ribbon cable and also to mount some plastic parts on the surface of the water tank. (Drilling holes in the water reservoir is not a good idea, and most glue won't stick to the polypropylene plastic tank.)

Plasma cutting
Plasma cutting

To cut several interesting openings in the motherboard side panel of the case, I got to try out a plasma cutter - cool! My resulting lines were not very straight and needed grinding to look good, but this went very quick, and did little damage to the case panel.

Next month, the modifications continue with finishing up the side panel, modifying the front case bezel and drive bay doors, and then starting on the interior of the case.

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