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In The Lab
Art Nouveau Case Mod, Part 1
(Return of "What I did over Summer Vacation")

by chris

Last year at this time, I was working away on the Egypt Mod case. With travel back and forth to our new North Jersey Micro Center, I seem to have had less time to spend messing around on a new case modification. However, I have not been entirely idle, as I have been trying a little wood carving. Besides, with the warm weather, it is much more comfortable being down in the nice cool basement...

My latest project is inspired by the flowing drapery and organic aspects found in art nouveau design. I am not a carpenter by any stretch of the imagination, but that won't stop me from creating what amounts to a fancy wood shell that depends on an existing case shell to provide support and the mechanical functionality of a desktop case. To tie the project elements together, I decided to incorporate flowering dogwood blossoms into the design of the wood panels and windows. I want the natural wood grain to be obvious, and it should also fit with a color scheme of pink and white. I settled on Bubinga for the wood, and obtained a nice selection of this "African rosewood" from the neighborhood Woodcraft store.

Case preparation
I started with a Foxconn TH 202 series chassis that I saved back after one of my system upgrades. Foxconn makes some very nice cases that allow you to install most of the components without the need of any tools at all. Their outside shells are well-finished and have a certain flair, in this case (sorry, no pun intended) with their "Diabolic" theme, complete with glowing eyes, horns, and even a toothy grill over the front USB and audio connections.

From left to right: (1) an original diabolic style case. (2) The stripped chassis with wood bezel frame attached. (3) Clamping the grid to the front bezel plate. (4) The partially completed bezel plate inserted in the frame. Note the remains of the paper template glued to the wood as a carving guide.

My first step was to strip off all of the plastic parts, windows, and trim pieces to take the case down to the basic metal shell. Because the drive bays were designed to position the drive out through the front of the plastic bezel, I need an extension to my case for the same purpose. I want a solid door to cover the front bays, but also decided that decorative openings for the drives and front panel should be an integral part of the project. To support a new bezel, I added a rectangular frame and anchored it to the case with a couple of 90° angle supports. Openings for the 5.25" and 3.5" drive bays and the front panel connections were marked and cut through the bezel panel. A wood grid fits snugly into the opening and supports the new front bezel. Wood screws on either side prevent the bezel from shifting or being pulled out. The grid is glued to the front panel before carving and finishing the surface.

Front drive bay panel
With the openings roughed out and the position and dimensions now defined by the retaining edge, a design for the front is laid out in actual size with paper and pencil. This template was glued to the board with rubber cement and the design was then cut into the wood using a Dremel tool and a sharp burr. For the open-work dogwood blossoms, a high speed rotary cutting bit was used, and then a variety of burrs to shape the detail. I could not proceed with the sides, top cap or base until this step was complete, since I could not know the exact dimensions until the bezel was installed and roughed-out.

Integrated into the bezel design are a (wood) power button and a frosted quartz cabochon, which will diffuse the LED light for power status and hard drive activity. Once I had the openings designed into the pattern, holes are carefully cut into inserts that are mounted in the bezel's support grid and the power switch and LEDs are hot-glued into place. Hot glue should be secure enough to hold, but flexible enough that it can be torn out if switch or LED needs replacement. Translucent white glass is trimmed and installed behind the carved blossoms in anticipation of some specialty lighting to be added later.

Case panels
With the front-to-back dimensions now known, I could start work on the rest of the panels. A simple bottom panel is cut and the edge routed to extend slightly below the side and front panels. The base is necessary to support small feet at the corners, raising the system above the desk or floor surface. Two different side panels with windows are planned, with an intricately detailed one on the motherboard side. The other case panel will also have a window treatment, but not as detailed. There is a motherboard tray that slides into the bottom of the case, and behind this is a sheet metal shield, placing little or nothing of interest in view through a window in that side panel. I am thinking that the sheet metal may allow for some specialty back-lighting in this narrow gap showing off a second art glass window really well.

To create a large solid wood panel for carving, two boards are glued together along one edge. The side panel is trimmed to size, and the pattern transferred onto the wood with pencil and marker. Starter holes are drilled and the back of the panel has a recess routed out to hold a window. A jigsaw is used to cut the large opening and some of the larger openings in the blossom pattern. Then, using a high-speed rotary bit in a Dremel tool, the smaller openings are cut out. Using a selection of burrs in a flexible shaft, the curves and blossom details are roughed out. After that, it's more carving, lots and lots of sanding, and finally sealing of the wood.

From left to right: (1) pattern traced on side panel. (2) Routing out the opening for rear-mounting the window. (3) Rough-carved side panel.

After the side panels have been carved and sanded, they are attached to the chassis panels with four or five screws. Marks through the carved openings are transferred to the metal panels and then sketched in a connect-the-dots fashion on the sheet metal. With the outline clearly marked on the painted surface, the wood is removed and the metal panel goes outside with my handy-dandy plasma torch to quickly cut out the window openings.

A board is cut to fit on the top of the case between the two side panels with a design sketched directly on the wood and then rough-carved to shape. As I was working on this piece, I saw that one area lined up pretty well between the position of the power supply and the front drive bays. By routing this out and adding open-work dogwood blossoms, the top panel can now allow for air flow if a top case fan is added. Right now, it makes a shadow-box style dust trap; if I don't install a fan, I will add a piece of glass behind it to match the front panel appearance. With all of the wood panels completed, everything is attached to the metal case. Any of the panels that will have glass installed will have to come off again, but to complete the door, I need to know the positions of the sides and top to make the best fit.

Views of the finished top and sides, mounted on the metal case to prepare for carving and mounting the front door.

With the top and side panels attached and in position, a thick length of board is cut to size as a front door. The extra thickness is needed so I can carve designs on both surfaces. The outside surface is carved with curves and blossoms like the other panels. Since the quartz cabochon is the highest point on the inside panel, its position is marked on the inside of the door to have a depression carved at that location. Additional curves and blossoms are worked into the design and the inside of the door carved and finished. A length of piano hinge is attached along one side of the door, and then the door attached to the edge of the right hand side panel. To keep the door closed, a small magnet is embedded in the door and a second one in the edge of the side panel.

From left to right: (1) cutting and shaping glass to the paper pattern. (2) Cut glass with copper foil edges tacked in place. (3) Side window before cleaning and mounting. (4) Window mounted in side panel.

Case Windows
With so much effort put into carved wood, I want a side window that harmonizes with the rest of project. Using the dogwood blossom design, a leaded-glass window will fit into the lip carved out behind each of the side panel openings. To start, a paper template is cut to fit the opening and held in place with tape. From the outside, the openings are outlined on the paper and a rough sketch of the blossom design added. A more detailed drawing is then made on the paper using markers to suggest the positions, shape and layout of the glass. Petals of pink glass are cut and shaped for the blossoms, caramel brown for the branches, and a clear frost pattern for the background grid. Copper foil is wrapped around the edge, and then the individual pieces are tacked together with a bit of solder at points where they touch. Once all of the pieces have been cut and placed, a heavy duty soldering iron is used to flow tin-lead solder over all of the exposed copper foil on both sides of the window. (This also lets me conceal all of the small gaps that we amateurs leave when attempting this type of work.) Brass plated furniture tacks are soldered to the center of the blossoms and then the window is scrubbed clean for mounting into the side panel. Several small wood screws with washers hold the window into the wood frame, and then the metal side panel is again attached to the wood panel.

Next month
I need to finish the second window, add some feet to raise the case up off the ground, and the shell should be pretty much complete. For some reason, there seems to be sawdust all over everything, so the chassis needs a good cleaning out and it should be ready to have the system board and other components installed. I also promised some special lighting, and have to make a decision to go with air or liquid cooling. At that point we will find out what, if any, cooling or assembly issues I created as a result of the fancy shell.

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