Building an Inexpensive Plexi-PC



Introduction

Lots of folks lately are interested in PC case mods with plexiglass windows, fancy 5" bay gear, interior LED lighting, and custom fan grills. I think it's great - anything to get away from the blah-PC. I have a number of computers in the house (too many, actually), but I recently spent a weekend building an inexpensive PC with a plexiglass case, and ended up with a nice box. While not as little as my Shuttle SV 25 or Apple Cube, I feel pretty good about this first effort.

What's Here

This page provides some bare details about one approach to building a cheap, but transparent computer case. I'm not going to get into the pros or cons of using such a case, as I doubt the FCC would approve such a design and engineers might scoff at the RFI. I'm happy with it - the computer works.

What I like about this computer is that it is cheap and required no special plexiglass adhesive (not really an adhesive - the proper stuff to use ismethylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane, which is fed via syringe to adjacent edges of the plexiglass, and actually 'melts' to great a bond).  All told and considering that I had a spare CPU, power supply, 128MB memory stick, LCD, cables and hard drive, this new computer cost around $100. Oh, and that's not considering one component I added: a PCI PCMCIA adapter.

Parts Lists

(3) sheets of 1/4" 16x20 plexiglass from a local glass shop - $30
(20) brass nuts, (20) bolts, a buncho' washers, and (10) 'L' brackets from Homeless Despot - about $10
(1) brass drawer handle - $1.29 (OK, maybe it's plated?)
(1) Jetway MATX mobo w/audio, LAN, video, USB - $69
(1) 60GB 5400RPM Maxtor (which is too loud) (can't remember what i paid, but i found it the bargain bin at MicroCenter)
(1) 150W ATX power supply scavenged from a  cheap $29 case
(1) FD/HD aluminum chassis scavenged from the above case
(1) VIA C3 866MHz CPU and copper cooler - about $35
(1) Addtron 750 PCI PCMCIA adapter, providing (2) Type II slots - $69
(1) spare D-Link DWL-650 802.11a PCMCIA card - about $49 now
(1) can Rustoleum Gold spray paint
(1) mobo connector panel (included with the mobo - you know, the little aluminum sheet w/holes that slice your fingers?)
(1) Matrix Orbital 16x4 backlit LCD w/RS232 connector
(1) RS232 internal mobo connector
(6) brass mobo standoffs - $1.99
(1) Zalman fanmate - $4.95

Tools included a felt-tip pen, my Tim Allen Ryobi cordless drill, a dovetail saw, a metal rasp, and the ultimate case mod tool, a Dremel.

Building

Only four critical cuts are needed. MATX mobos are smaller than 9.5"x 9.5" so I said, "What the hell, let's just make four cuts." Cut two 16x20 sheets to 10x16 for the four sides, then make two cuts to create two 10x9.5" pieces. I'm not one of those freakin' tweakers who will spend three months trying to figure where things should go, and I've got more important things to do, so I just cut some foam pieces to approximate the power supply and hard drive for test fitting.

The mobo went on the bottom with countersunk standoffs. The power supply was opened up, two holes were drilled in its case, and two brass bolts glued through the holes. The power supply is bolted through two holes in the side of the case.

I only cut one 3.5" slot in the front for the PCMCIA adapter, although I didn't have to. Since the box is a wireless server, I don't need a CD-ROM or floppy, although there's room for expansion (I usually stick my Tux penguin inside the case, along with my Ximianmonkey if they get out of control and need a timeout).

Two holes were drilled to hold the Matrix LCD in place. Using the LCD is nice, and I use lcdproc to display stats, such as date, time, CPU load, disk usage, uptime, network info, wireless connectivity info, etc. A square section was cut for the mobo connectors, and two holes drilled for the back plate.

Building with plexiglass is easy, and a sharp saw will cut the plastic like butter - don't use Lexan - it's a you-know-what to work with. Keep the paper on the plexiglass until final assembly - God knows what you've got on your hands, but you'll schmear the crap out of the plastic by the end of the job unless you protect the surface.

When drilling holes, drill straight, let the weight of the drill do the work, and use fresh bits. The slow setting of a cordless drill is excellent for drilling plexiglass. If you've got a Mammy-made toolbox, grab a set of fresh bits from the hardware store and don't be a wussy - invest in good tools and you'll use 'em forever - don't use your wife's set of pink plastic-handled tools - it may be OK if you're fooling around in the basement when no one's around, but if your buddies see you doing that you'll catch a load and have to buy beers all night.

Hint: Use masking tape to hold the sides together for test-fitting or when doing final assembly. It won't stick to the paper like my other favorite medium, duct tape (which can be used as a restraint device, among other things).

I then took the back plate and drive chassis out to the back deck. Placed 'em on our new teak deck table and spray painted them. Oops! Did I forget to mention to use newspaper to protect the table? The gold paint dries very fast. I was a little concerned about particle flaking, but I put on two coats (drying thoroughly between), then brushed all the excess off. The gold-painted components nicely match the brass hardware used to bolt the box together. If I were one of the freakin' pc mod freaks, I would have also taken apart the power supply and spray painted it too - but I'll leave that for another project and when I have the time (yea, right!).

When all the holes are drilled and the pieces are ready, peel off the paper on the bottom, and mount the mobo - see, doesn't that look cool already? Peel off the inside paper, then peel back edges on the outside of the box in order to thread and tighten the bolts.

Hint: Use Loctite after final tightening to hold the nuts in place; otherwise your nuts will fall off, err, they'll loosen, err, you know what I mean.

I left the back as a single friction-fit sheet, except for a hole for the power supply case and plug; since i don't use any external PCI adapters, no slots were needed (I removed the PCI mount bar from the adapter card, as it is not used, and card is internal).

After assembly, and attaching the handle to the top of the case, I connected the fanmate to the CPU and power supply fans, and powered up. Linux was installed, and the system configured for wireless ops and lcdproc; I mean, why soil perfectly good hardware with a virus operating system from Satan?

Hint: If you don't want to use a momentary power switch to turn on the box, short the power pins, then set the mobo's BIOS to start after power failure.

Conclusion

It was a fun weekend, and now I have a wireless server that I can tote around the house and simply plug in and fire up. I do ssh backups to it, and the ancient 60GB drive is a nice tertiary backup device (I encrypt and burn my important stuff on CDR or CDRW and give the disks to my wife to stash at work in case the house burns down - I'd drop a fishcake in my pants if I lost seven years of work).

Oh, and in case you were wondering about not using glue? The bolts work just great. For some reason, I must have been sober that day, and my cuts were perfect. The back is a nice and tight friction fit.

Happy hacking!

Links

My homepage
Building a 2.4GHz Vertical Collinear Antenna
Installing and using NetBSD UNIX on an IBM Z50 WorkPad