The Penguin Palace Mod

How about a customized clear acrylic case with a frosty outlook and some ‘cool lighting effects’ for a holiday project? This case mod is the end result of what started as a vague idea that it might be interesting to run coolant through the side of the case. This was a "quick" case modification, meaning I spent only 40-50 hours from the time I started to pick up tools.


A friend donated the custom built Plexiglas case he had from several years ago for the core structure. This case is a bit different from clear plastic cases on the market now; for one thing, the entire front bay assembly has to be removed to install drives. Only part of the side panel opens, and this swings on clear plastic hinges. There were no covers on the rear, so I made some clear covers that attach to a couple of brushed aluminum slot covers. While the I/O port cover might fit in the rear opening, it can't not snap in and leaves too much of a gap to attach cables, so was left off. One construction challenge I had to deal with was that the case had numerous 90 mm fan openings in the front, side, top and rear of the case. Since a clear acrylic case with blue or UV lighting will create a cold appearance, it suggested the snow or ice theme to me. In turn, that meant that I wanted to use lots of blue, white and silver wherever possible during the mod and component selections. Oh, and one more thing to fit the theme - The OS is Ubuntu Linux - hence the penguins.


To create a waterfall effect, I built up layers of plastic on the side panel, with openings that would feed the water back and forth. I had a concern that the waterfall effect will generate turbulence resulting in additional air bubbles flowing through the system. Air is not going to conduct heat as effectively as the water, so this is generally bad in a cooling system. Another issue I found during leak testing, was that the water level in the reservoir will rise as high as the highest point in the system unless I can somehow restrict the water flow to prevent it from reaching that level. It's hard to have a waterfall effect if your display area fills up to within a few inches from the top of the case. I could use a valve system to limit the flow to the top, but the catch basin would still backfill from the rest of the system. My final solution was to use two pumps and keep the decorative system separate from the functional cooling system. Of course, using two pumps means that the waterfall does not show flow activity of the cooling system. As a bonus, I can always turn it off if it gets too annoying.


I cut 1/4” plastic sheet to the various shapes and built it up in layers glued together with ‘general-purpose plastic glue’ (from the plumbing section of Lowes.) This gives a slightly milky appearance and may have tiny air bubbles unless you use spring clamps to compress them or force them out between the layers. For most of the work, I cut out the rough shape using a band saw, and then shape the edge using a flexible shaft with metal burrs. To carve the icicles along the bottom edges and cut openings in the center of the shapes, I used a Dremel tool with a high-speed rotary cutter bit. By building up several layers of 1/4” acrylic sheet and carving the edges with irregular scallops and gullies, I create the icy-looking surface that will catch and diffuse the lights in the case.



Top panel construction: A shallow dome with a central depression around the fill port funnels overflows into the fill hole. The Danger Den fill port reservoir is glued to the panel before installation on the case, and is centered in the 90mm fan hole that exists in the top of the case. The frosty edges around the dome conceal the four screw holes. During gluing, clamps prevent the panel from shifting; assorted heavy objects are used to maintain pressure until the glue sets between the panel and the case.



Case feet construction: Feet were created with four layers of 1/4” plastic, which was then carved to create an appearance of many thinner layers. Once these were glued to the bottom of the case, holes were drilled from the inside and wide-angle blue LEDs are anchored in the holes with a blob of clear hot glue.



Waterfall side panel construction: For the waterfall, I created a series of short channels that zigzag down and back and forth through the door. Starting at the bottom of the case door, I enlarged a 90mm fan opening and then created a reservoir from several layers of plastic. Each section has an outside shape that was similar to the opening in the door and an internal hole that followed the bottom edge, but reduced at the top and sides with each layer. With the layers assembled, the reservoir section was glued to the inside of the door and held in place with clamps until the glue dried. A hole was drilled and tapped with a 1/8" pipe thread tool, ready for a brass hose fitting to be attached. This process was repeated by adding a section to the outside of the door, with a slope ending at the reservoir opening. At the top end of the slope, a hole was cut through the door back to the interior of the case. Then, more layers on the inside with a slope in the opposite direction and another hole to the outside of the case. At the top, two more layers create a channel sloping down and a hole for a second brass fitting is cut and tapped at the top of the channel.



Ripple effect lighting disk: To create a rippling water appearance, I carved grooves into the top of a disk of 1/4” plastic then heat-polished the surface. Light from blue and cyan LEDs mounted under the disk is distorted as the disk rotates on a tiny gear motor.


Additional Lighting: Illumination of the waterfall and coolant hoses comes from two 15” ultraviolet tubes attached behind the front of the case, and a third 12” tube at the rear. Sifting through my cyan LEDs, I found three that had a distinctive green tint which I mounted behind the Power Switch on the front of the case. An oversize power button was created with a couple of layers of clear plastic, carved to look like multiple thin layers in a dome-shaped cover that snaps onto the shaft of the switch.

I did not intend this to be my day-to-day system, but I still want it to be fully functional for whatever I choose to use it for. I kept the required components to minimum, not even installing a floppy drive, modem or other expansion devices. (If I need a floppy, I can always connect a USB floppy drive.) I did install a DVD-RW drive, a single 250GB SATA hard drive, and a USB card reader. The video card is an EVGA nVidia 8500 and the system board has the usual 10/100 LAN, serial and parallel ports, USB and sound support. The Intel Core 2 6300 CPU is water cooled as is the hard drive. Since the DVD and card reader were black plastic, I popped the bezels and tray cover off and painted them metallic flake silver. The Thermaltake hard drive cooler is brushed aluminum, so it did not need anything special to fit my designated color scheme. Instead of the typical black radiator, I used a blue one, and installed white Silverstone 120 mm fans on the radiator and in the front of the case.

Reworked drive bays Updated Penguin Profile

Rework: The drives had nothing special done except for the silver paint, and I received more than one comment on their "boring" appearance. I have since dressed them up a bit, which also helps diffuse the light some, making the color more consistent under mixed lighting.