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Making Computer Cases out of Plexiglass? 30

Posted by Cliff
from the making-familiar-things-out-of-odd-materials dept.
antis0c asks: "After reading many stories on Slashdot about building custom PC cases, I'm highly interested in building one myself. The only problem - I have absolutely no experience working with PlexiGlass/Acrylic/Lexan, basically any plastic type materials. I'd like to learn the basics, cutting, adhesives, special tools, all the skills required to build a PC case out of this stuff. A quick Google search left nothing really good on it, and I can't even find any books on Amazon on the topic. I hoping some Slashdotters might have some insight on good books on the topic, sites, or perhaps just information."
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Making Computer Cases out of Plexiglass?

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  • by PoiBoy (525770) <brian@poiho l d i n g s . c om> on Friday March 15, 2002 @07:20PM (#3170931) Homepage
    Cutting plexiglas can be done several different ways. For large, straight cuts a table saw with a fine blade is best. You can also buy special knives at most hardware stores; in this case you score the Plexiglas several times and then snap it. For small cuts, a drill or Dremel tool is fine; a file can be used to smooth edges.

    There is a special glue, again available at good hardware stores, that basically melts the two pieces of plastic and welds them together. When done properly, it makes a watertight seal. The trick is being very neat about not getting this stuff where you don't want it. Otherwise you'll see it forever.

    The trickiest part of working with Plexiglas is bending it. Tools are available which are really nothing more than a long, straight heating element. You put the part of the Plexiglas you want to bend over the heating element for just a few seconds, then you remove it and bend it. You can repeat this a few times, working a bit at a time if need be. It helps if you have a good, square edge on your workbench to make nice 90 degree angles.

    • If you don't want to shell out the money for a heat bender, you can use a propane torch. It takes a little skill, but with practice you can learn how to move the flame back and forth over the bending point evenly with the correct speed and temperature until the plastic begins to bend with gravity. Don't force the bend or it will have ugly cracks inside the plastic at the bend. Don't hold the heat on it too long or the acrylic will bubble. (Hint, move the flame past the edges on the plastic on each pass) And always work in a well-ventilated area.
  • by b_pretender (105284) on Friday March 15, 2002 @07:27PM (#3170959)
    leave the contact paper on until after everything is glued, drilled, cut, assembled.

    Any saw, power or hand saw will cut through the stuff. Drills make easy work of the plexiglass. Epoxy is the best bet for an adhesive, although some will prefer the look of bolted or bracketed corners. Even if you do use bolts and brackets, then still use epoxy, since the bolts/brackets will loosen over time and epoxy won't.

    Be carefull of which chemicals you use to clean the plexiglass with. I forgot which ones damage the plastic, but some of them do.

    A nice touch is to cut a shape or letters as a hole out of paper or aluminum foil. Tape the aluminum foil to the plexiglass (with contact paper removed) and sand away the plexiglass with some steel wool or sandpaper. This will create a frosted shape of whatever you cut out on the plexiglass. Practice this a few times on a spare piece, but I've seen the results and it looks professional and nice.

    Remember, that with plexiglass, the looks of the internals of your PC will be as important as the looks of the case. SPend a little time replacing LED's with blue LED's. Try putting some reflectors near the internal LCDs so that the light reflects around the insides. Buy a few LED's just to hook up to the powersupply that don't do anything. One nice effect is to have all of the LEDs hidden from view, but the light that they create will cause the innerds of the computer to glow.

    Bundle wires together.


    Remove RF shielding wherever possible (unless you think it will cause 747s to crash in your backyard). If you want an overall RF shield when you are done, then use window screen materials and attach it to the inside or outside of the plexiglass case.

    I would appreciate and other ideas or comments/suggestions on these ideas since I am planning to make one too.

    • by Quizme2000 (323961) on Friday March 15, 2002 @08:23PM (#3171208) Homepage Journal
      Tools: If you have a little cash that Rotozip tool is great for doing plexiglass stuff and includes an attachment to cut perfect hole (for fans)

      Heat and Discoloration: You don't want your case to look like the back window of an old rag top convertable, either vent well or choose a grade of plastic that kind stand higher temps for the MB Backing. Also a big fan with the lights attached to the fins will look cool

      Safety: EYES, Lungs, and Skin when ever your cutting plastics or metal with power tools wear a heavy long sleeve shirt, working gloves, eye protection to avoid spinters. (a plastic spinter in your eyes is bad news) Also if you use a power sander or rotory tool wear a dust mask.

  • I kind of hate to send you somewhere else, but check out the ArsTechnica forums (arstechnica.infopop.net) and go to the Case & Cooling forum.

    There's tons of extremely knowledgable folks there who'd *LOVE* to help you out.
  • by digitalmuse (147154) on Friday March 15, 2002 @07:49PM (#3171071)
    if you're looking for tips and tricks for handling the infamous clear stuff, check out the people who do custom aquariums. I found in my few forays into the field (thank god for a schitzophrenic art education...) that to make really nice seamless structures you're going to want heat, and plenty of it.
    it's fast and dirty to throw some aquarium epoxy on mating edges and call it a day, but a single seamless piece will really stand out in a sea of imitations.
    Buy yourself up a good heat gun (sometimes refered to as a paint-stripping gun), a blowtorch with a removeable fishtail spreader, and some good sturdy sheet steel to use as a working surface when playing with fire.
    note: a medium-level blowtorch flame will alow you to 'flame-polish' the edges of your plexi creation. once you get good at this and can do it with one even pass you'll love the results. it's the same concept as you use when flame-polishing glass. The fishtail spreader is good for applying heat to a larger area if you don't have a proper electric heat gun.
    Expect to make some pretty gruesome mistakes the first few tries. Start making some basic shapes, 90 degree bends and such, with small chunks of plexi. Once you get decent with that, work up to longer bends (not large radius bends, but wider pieces). A friend of mine swears by making jigs out of lengths of thin steel rod (1/8 - 1/4 dia.) and shaping the plexi over it.
    Always work in well ventilated areas and don't rush the process. it's not as difficult as glass-blowing, but it still requires a lot of patience to get even surface temperatures on large expanses of the stuff.
    As a 1st real project, I would suggest taking a PC chassis with removeable side and front panels, and create a single piece of plexi that 'wraps' from one side, across the front (use drill bits and a dremel to cut your drive openings) and around the other side. trim off any excess sheet metal from the chassis, and you're all set.
    Good luck and keep us posted as far as your results.
  • I recently aquired a Cooler Master ATC 210 [coolermaster.com] aluminum case. it has various bits of acrilic bit all over it that look really cool, except I wanted it all in a different color. Thus began MY first plastics project.

    The goal was to be able to reproduce the various bits of plastic on the case. This included 2 side "rails", and a front door. A quick trip to Tap Plastics [tapplastics.com] pretty much got me started with everything I needed in terms of the plastic itself. I left the store with 18"x18" of colored 1/8" sheet of acrylic,, 18"x18"x1/16" sheet of clear acrylic, and acrylic cement as well as a little advice from one of the folks who work there about certain tools NOT to use.

    I found the acrylic machines VERY easily, even with non-plastics tools. the bits were cut to size on an old radial-arm saw (didn't have access to a table saw) with an 80 tooth carbide tipped blade. This worked well enough to get a decent finish on the edges, as long as I was carefull with how the acrylic was pushed through the blade.

    the only part of the project that I had my doubts about was the arc at the bottom part of the door which gives access to the USB ports of the front of the case. This actually turned out to be pretty easy with a cardboard template, the dremmel with a cutting bit and the router adaptor. the acrylic took well to the bit and didn't really chip at all.

    After the bits were cut to size came the filing... lots of it. I aquired a plasics file and went to work smoothing out the edges. Once the saw marks were worked out, hit it with 320 grit sandpaper to smooth the edge out. The last trick was jewellers rouge and a dremmel too with a pollishing (not buffing!) wheel at low speed.

    Once all the pieces were polished to a nice shine on the edges came the assembly. This was pretty easy with the help of a little celophane packing tape to hold the pieces together as the cement was applied.

    finally, the little aluminum pieces which hold the hinges and magnets for the door were installed with the help of a 3/16" drill bit and the dremmel cutting tool.

    the project was a great success and a great learning experience as well. I think the best advice I can give is to just go down to your local plastics shop, pick up some acrylic sheets and play with the machining and assambly. I found the stuff really easy to work with. I now have a one-of-a-kind flourecent-red ATC-210 and my friend has a clear-amber ATC-210.
  • by Sabriel (134364) on Friday March 15, 2002 @07:55PM (#3171099)
    There's already been some really useful comments here. I'll in checking out the Bit-Tech articles section at http://www.bit-tech.net/article/

    "linear" has two articles there so far. "Planning Your Acrylic Case" is seven webpages with details on various aspects of acrylic case design. "The Invisible Case" is sixteen webpages on how the author went about making a (rather ambitious) clear plastic case for their computer (amongst other clear modding), complete with plenty of pictures.

    • The bit-tech case is nice, but if you look at this page [bit-tech.net] o fit, you see that the rear cutouts are SUCKY looking. See if you can find a shield plate from another case and cut a NICE SQUARE cutout instead of this jacked up one.
  • I have nothing really interesting to add here, no fancy use the flame` mingion fish cutters or whatever.

    Drew it up on cad, printed the lengths/widths, cut it out with a band saw (some of them on a table saw, however, it can shatter, its good to tape the ends).
    drilled holes in
    and I never actually used screws..
    it fit together to tug, I ended up just keeping a strand of tape on it, until I got my new computer and trashed it

    great project, was fun..
  • EM Radiation? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Trevelyan (535381)
    One thing that concerns me about these plastic case it the lack of metel.
    ie the metal case on ur machine acts as a farraday cage, preventing out side EM noise interfering with it, and stop it give of interfering radiation.

    now with these plastic cases the cage is broken and thus no longer works.

    i beleive there are rules (i duno if law) about the fact ur electrical device most not give of (unreasonable) EM noise, and most with stand EM from other devices (eg in US this set by FCC)

    how does plastic cases address these concerns, if at all?
    • You're correct that the plastic will not shield the outside world from the PC internals, but I have a feeling that a larger concern is that there is no shielding protecting the PC from everything else.

      I believe (in the States at least) that most consumer grade electronics devices must be certified to produce very little, and to "accept" any dangerous interference (read the FCC/CE declaration that comes with just about anything electronic, e.g., handheld, MP3 player, etc.).

      Having said all of that, I don't know that there are any rules that require a home consumer to guarantee that anything they toy around with meets the same rigorous requirements that commercial companies have to follow. Even if there are laws, I doubt that the FCC has the manpower to trawl through neighboorhoods looking for offenders (not to mention that they would likely have to some within about ten feet to get any measurement).

      If I had a plexi case, I would just make sure I kept the PC away from the monitor by a couple of feet or so (so you don't get funny colors, and/or data corruption), and you probably would not be able to listen to a radio that is sitting on top of the case due the fields the MoBo would put out.
  • by shoppa (464619) on Friday March 15, 2002 @10:07PM (#3171531)
    1. Public library. Really. They'll certainly have several books dating back to the 70's about all the neat things you can do with plastic.

    2. Your local plastic dealer. It depends on what brand of acrylic they carry, but all the major manufacturers publish little booklets about basic plastic techniques.

    Even better, your local plastic dealer will also have tools specifically for plexiglass. It's not that ordinary metal or wood tools won't work; they will, but the cuts won't be as smooth and you're likely to jam on the chips until you learn the basic moves and good feed rates. The tools intended specifically for acrylic plastics are much more forgiving.

    Someone else here recommended epoxy adhesives, which are truly a sign of poor workmanship with acrylic. Quality acrylic stuff is bonded by making the gap be very small and using a cement with the consistency of water. Done properly, the joint is optically clear and seamless. It does take some practice.

    Some classic websites:

    • CYRO [cyro.com] Good technical data about their plastics.
    • TAP Plastics [tapplastics.com] Pretty good source of tools and making small orders.

    Rohm and Hass make the "plexiglass" brand of acrylic, but I've never found anything useful at their website [rohmhass.com].

    Nothing beats a visit to a local plastic dealer, IMHO. Especially if you're looking for lively colors or advice about working the material.

  • RF Noise (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dashmaul (108555)
    Plexiglass is going to do nothing to keep out all the interferance from your computer.
    Now to you that might be a big deal, but to me it is a big deal.
    Ever try operating a Ham Radio in the same room as a computer? It's bad enough with the case on.
    One thing you can do is to go buy some fine copper mesh from your local hardware store and put it just underneath the plexiglass, this will capture most/all RF Noise.
  • Don't Do It (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Detritus (11846) on Saturday March 16, 2002 @01:42PM (#3173496) Homepage
    If you don't know how to build a case with proper RF shielding, don't do it. If your computer causes interference to legitimate users of the RF spectrum, you can be ordered not to use it.

    How would you like it if every motorist in your neighborhood removed the muffler and pollution controls from their cars, because it looked kewl?

  • Just a guess (Score:2, Insightful)

    by alex_ant (535895)
    Someone's not getting any.
  • How I did it. (Score:2, Informative)

    by CTho9305 (264265)
    We started by using a dremel + cutting wheel, but that melts the plexiglass where you cut and is pretty difficult to get perfectly straight. For $5 at Lowe's you can get a plexiglass cutter... it works very well for straight cuts.

    To make bends: propane torch until it gets soft.

    We used metal brackets to hold it together, but epoxy also works fine.
  • Static electrisity is a big killer of comptuers. Plastic is good at making static electrisity.

    I'm not saying you can't do this. I'm not saying it won't be cool. But there is a good chance you will ruin your comptuer sometime when you are trying to modify it. Keep this in mind, and make sure it doesn't happen.

  • Heat (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Overphiend (227888)
    One thing to keep in mind when you have a plastic case it the importance of good airflow. In any computer case there are areas of the machine in which air pockets occur, areas where hot air will just sit around. In a normal metal case these areas are usually in the corners, behind the MB, HD's and such. One side effect of a metal case is that the case itself acts a simple heat sink for these areas dissipating the hot spots a little bit. With the amount of heat today's high-end systems put out these hot spots can stay pretty warm over long periods of time, especially if your anything like me and you machine hasn't been off for more then the time it took to install a video card and some memory in the past year. Now in a metal case these spots are mostly harmless, metal can take the heat, however plastic when exposed to certain levels of heat for long periods of time, depending on the plastic, can start to discolor, or warp. So keep this in mind when you are designing the case. One thing I'm surprised we don't see more of is redirecting the airflow through you case much like an air-conditioning vent directs the airflow through a room. The fan that blows air into you case, on the edges of the fan put fins directing a little bit of the air towards the sides and corners of your case, it doesn't have to be much air, just enough to get it moving.
  • www.acrylicpc.ca they have choice of different colors and comes with the power supply, mounting accessories etc. They just don't tell you the price, emailed them last wk, haven't heard back.
  • I've used lexan for making a robot chassis.
    It can be cut easily with a handsaw and does not melt due to friction.
    It can be bent easily by hanging over a table edge and waving a blowtorch after it.
    It is light and strong.
    It's a little more expensive than plexiglass I think, but worth it.
  • get a small sample first and practice doing bends and joins and stuff

    You might find its too hard , then you've wasted your cash.

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