Art Nouveaux Case Mod

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, trying my hand at a little wood carving. Besides, with the warm weather, it is much nicer being down in the nice cool basement...

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 relies on an existing case shell to provide support and the mechanical functionality of a desktop case. My latest project is inspired by the flowing drapery and organic aspects found in art nouveaux design. 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 where you can install most of the components without the need of any tools at all. The 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 & 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 are designed to position the drive out through the front of the bezel, I need an extension to the case for the same purpose. I want a solid door to cover the front bays, but also decided that making the drive and front panel openings decorative should be and integral part of the project. To support a new bezel, I added a rectangular frame and anchored it 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 grid of wood is glued together to fit snugly into the opening and provide support to the bezel. Two wood screws on either side prevent the bezel from shifting or being pulled out. The grid work is glued to the front panel before carving the flowing design on 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 attached to the bezel board with rubber cement and the design was then trace-cut with burrs and a Dremel tool. For the open-work dogwood blossoms, a high speed rotary cutting bit was used, and then a variety of burrs to shape and cut the details. I could not do much with the sides, top cap or base until this step was complete, since I did not know the exact dimensions until the bezel was installed and at least roughed-out.

Integrated into the bezel design are a wood-capped 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 can start working on the other 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 opposite side of the case will also have a window treatment, but not quite so detailed. The reason 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 the opposite side panel. I am thinking that the sheet metal may allow for some specialty back lighting in this narrow gap that can show off a second art glass window.

To create a large solid wood panel, 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. With the paper removed, a more detailed drawing is then made on the paper; the paper is now a template that will be used as the pattern for the window. Petals of pink glass are cut and shaped for the blossoms, green for the branches, and a clear frost pattern for the background. 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. Tin-lead solder is used to cover and bind all of the open copper foil edges on both sides (and to conceal the small gaps that we amateurs make with this type of work.) Brass plated tacks are soldered to the center of the blossoms and then the glass is cleaned and mounted into the side panel.

The second case window was assembled by the same process I detailed last month, starting by cutting a paper template that fits inside the recessed opening on the back of the wood panel. The edges of the panel openings are marked, and a flowering dogwood design is roughed out on the paper. Glass pieces are then cut and ground to follow the resulting design, with pink for the blooms, caramel color glass for the stems, and clear frosted for the background. All pieces are edged with thin copper foil and tacked into place before the final soldering. Using a heavy-duty soldering iron, tin-lead solder is used to cover and bond the segments together into the assembled window. Upholstry pins are used to cover the small openings at the center of the petals and suggest the dogwood blossom detail. The finished window is cleaned and installed into the wood panel and held in place by several screws. The metal side panel is then attached to the completed wood panel with wood screws.

From left to right: (1) Glass cut and trimmed with foil. (2) The completed window. (3) The window installed in the side panel with the metal side reattached.

Feet were finished out and glued onto the bottom plate. Once the wood glue had set, the bottom panel and feet were lightly sanded and sealed. I removed the panels to cut a fan hole in the top, but left the bottom panel in place since the opening has to pass through the wood. A photocopy of a fan is used as a template which is positioned between the power supply and front drive bays, and held in place with a bit of tape. Holes for mounting screws are drilled at the corners, and a circular opening cut using a hole-saw. The process is then repeated through the bottom of the case, cutting directly through the wood base panel and sheet metal beneath it. The bottom fan is positioned to direct air across the hard drive cage.

After cleaning the case again, the power supply and drives are installed in the bays. Some shuffling occurred before I was done, but this is necessary to figure out cable runs and get the system ready for the first POST. I installed the motherboard in the tray after changing out the North Bridge heat sinks and attaching the frame for a Zalman CPU cooler. If I was using the factory heat sinks, and Intel CPU solution, everything could be attached with the motherboard installed in the tray or case. Keep in mind that you put a fair amount of pressure on the stock Intel heat sink when you are snapping the retaining clips through the motherboard. I prefer to install the CPU and heatsink into the board before mounting it in the case to avoid stressing or damaging the motherboard later.

Air cooling considerations
The Zalman CPU cooler requires the installation of a two-part mounting bracket with one piece behind the motherboard, and the mounting bracket screwed through the board from the front. The Gigabyte motherboard uses passive (no fan) cooling for the North Bridge, South Bridge, and voltage regulators. The power supply leads are not sleeved except for the motherboard connector, so I used some blue split-loom tubing to cover the multi-colored wires running around the case. To add a bit of blue color on the motherboard itself, I replaced the yellow North Bridge heatsink with one of the Zalman North Bridge heatsinks.

(1) A top vent hole is cut using a photocopy of a fan as a template. (2) The system configured for Air Cooling with a 120mm fan positioned in the bottom and the rear of the case. (3) What is in the Thermaltake BigWater kit? Clockwise, starting with the drive bay reservoir in the top center, pre-mixed coolant, the radiator, the CPU cooling block, the pump, two lengths of UV-reactive hose, instructions, and an accessories package with nuts, bolts, washers and mounting plates.

Water cooling considerations
Water cooling usually requires some sort of bracket or nut-and-bolt configuration mounted through the motherboard first. To install a water cool kit, most everything has to come out of the case again. Other considerations include where to mount the pump, radiator, and reservoir, and any other custom liquid cool components such as hard drive cooling blocks, flow indicators, thermal sensors, etc. You may need to consider where water hoses must be able to run, especially if you choose to mount the radiator or other component outside of the case. Mounting everything internally to the case is probably one of the more difficult projects, only because most computer cases are not designed with enough clearance around the fan opening to mount the radiator. You might be able to make room to mount it on the top or front if you are willing to give up drive bay expansion or are ready to rearrange their placement.

Water cooling in this particular FoxConn case would be difficult without totally removing the plastic hard drive assembly, or mounting the radiator outside of the case. Of all the challenges you would encounter attempting your first water cooled system, hose connections are probably at the top of the list. Not only in terms of how much hose you need, but getting all of the necessary parts, getting the correct fittings, and also in what order to make those connections. One way to minimize these issues and reduce or eliminate your anxiety might be to start with one of the water cooling kits for your first project. This is probably the easiest way to make sure that you are not leaving anything out, and that you have a series of step-by-step instructions to work from. Don't get me wrong, even with a kit you still have to make some choices, like where to mount the radiator and pump, and you will still have several opportunities to cut the hoses too short or too long.

To give you a better idea of what this means, I chose to use a Thermaltake BigWater kit in the Nouveau Mod case. This worked out for internal mounting, only because of the severe modifications I made to the side panel and latch. The latch mechanism would have been visible through the glass side panel, so I removed it. To make the radiator fit, I had to take out the small hinge and lock tabs as well. Finally, the only reason the Thermaltake radiator can fit inside is that the clearance around the edge of their radiator is much smaller than those found in the Swiftech, Danger Den, or similar radiators. A disadvantage of this kit is the small hose size and reduced water flow from the pump as a result. It would be easy enough to add additional components like a flow meter or other cooling blocks, but for this project, I chose to keep it simple by only using the parts included in the kit for cooling just the CPU.

The instruction manual that come in the kit are tiny, but are illustrated and contain the detailed step-by-step process for installing the components. They start with mounting the CPU cooling block using a metal back-plate, insulated with foam and Mylar pads, and held in place to the system board with a series of bolts with insulating washers and nuts. The CPU is installed, thermal compound spread over the surface, and then the copper water block placed in position. Another bracket holds the block centered and is held in place with four more nuts.

The manual shows you how the radiator can be mounted, either inside the case or outside. In either configuration, the cooling fan is attached to move air from inside the case across the radiator's cooling fins. The reservoir included in the kit is installed in a spare 5.25" drive bay, although you will need to be able to slide this part way out of the bay to fill with fluid later. The pump can be installed most anywhere, so I positioned it in the relatively clear space above the expansion card slots.

(1) Components are installed into the case or drive bay as close to the final positions as possible. (2) Attach hose from CPU to radiator. (3) Hose from radiator to reservoir.

(4) Hose from reservoir to pump. (5) Hose from pump to CPU. (6) Fill the reservoir and connect the pump to a power supply to flush out the air in the lines.

Once the kit components are in their approximate positions, hoses can be cut and attached. The directions lead you through the process in this order:

1.       Cut and attach a length of hose from the CPU block to the radiator. I chose to connect the hose to outside connection to minimize the curve of the hose. If bent too sharply, it will eventually kink unless you have something like a spring or external spiral wrap to keep the bend gentle.

2.       Connect a section of hose from the radiator to the reservoir intake. The reservoir has two connections; the intake is located higher on the tank, about even or slightly above the recommended "full" water line. The output of the reservoir is lower, and well below the recommended fill level.

3.       Connect the reservoir output to the pump input. This connection order means that the reservoir supplies a constant source of liquid to the pump, and water returning to the reservoir can release any trapped air bubbles before returning to circulation.

4.       Connect the pump output to the remaining CPU block connection.

5.       Fill the reservoir, looking for any leaks at the connections. Connect the pump to a power supply and briefly start it to begin moving fluid through the lines and radiator. Add more fluid and repeat.

The actual order of flow through your cooling blocks and radiator is not too critical, but there are some common sense rules, such as passing the hottest water (from a block) into a radiator before going though another block, or at least cooling the hottest parts first. If you were to add graphic card, chipset, memory or hard drive cooling, you might want to use more than one radiator to have the coolest possible fluid passing through the blocks. I would also arrange the flow through the greatest heat sources first, meaning CPU, then graphics card, then chipset, memory, and hard drives. Hard drives may generate more heat than chipset or memory, but since they usually are air-cooled without any fins, and should be less critical.

Special Lighting
When I used the bench light to illuminate the glass window from the inside of the case, I realized that just illuminated fans and other LED lighting were not going to show off the case to the best effect. To give a uniform white-light illumination on the system board side, a dual-lamp Cold Cathode Fluorescent kit was installed with one tube at the top and the second along the bottom edge. The CPU block and pump have blue LEDs, and the two 120mm fans I have installed on the radiator and in the bottom of the case are lit with green LEDs.

The second side panel and the glass panel in the front bezel get a custom LED treatment. The gap between the side panel and the sheet metal behind the motherboard is not wide enough for a fluorescent tube to fit (at least not while still in its protective plastic tube). I saw a lighting kit called "The Chameleon" that consists of three potentiometers (variable resistors) that connect to four small multicolor LEDs. The red, green and blue LED in the package each have a single connecting pin, with a common ground. By adjusting the red, green or blue knobs, you can achieve any color illumination you want. To this end, I assembled four LED light bars, each with three red, three green, three blue, and three white LEDs. (I added the white LEDs so I can dial up pure white illumination instead of the rainbow-tint white, and to get washed-out colors like pink, lavender or sky blue). This many LEDs are going to draw much more current then the four in the Chameleon kit, and rather than build four adjustable voltage circuits, I used a Sunbeam Tech Rheobus fan controller. Each of the LED color clusters is connected in series with a 240 ohm resistor to limit the current, and I alternated the colors across the bar to diffuse the light more (red, green, blue, white, red, etc.). Wires from each color group are connected together and then attached to a single output of the fan controller. (I replaced the dual-color LEDs in the fan controller with a single-color red, green, blue, or white LED to indicate the color you are adjusting.) Three of the light bars are placed around the edge of the case behind the second side window and the fourth light bar is behind the front bezel.

There is no lighting in or behind the Thermaltake water reservoir. This makes it difficult to view the fluid level, so I created one more LED bar that connects directly to a 12v Molex disk drive connection. This bar has 12 ultraviolet LEDs that are directed at the rear of the plastic fluid reservoir and create a bright green glow.

(1) LEDs connected in series. (1) Multicolor LED light bars attach to the fan controller outputs. (2) Three of the light bars are installed behind the second glass window on the left, right and bottom edge. (3) Light color of the side panel and front bezel is controlled with the Rheobus in the upper drive bay.

(4) Front view with door closed. (5) The right panel is illuminated by three LED bars. (6) Top panel with white glass insert.

Project summary for Nouveau Mod

Time: 119+ hours

Click for large view