There are some very interesting off-the-shelf cases on the market, but for a unique one-of-a kind case, you will have to build or modify it yourself. Some of the modifications you can do can be very simple, such as adding a window, installing case lighting, or replacing air cooling with water cooling. You also probably have noticed that some of my case mods have been very elaborate shells over a standard frame or chassis - everything from carved wood with stained-glass inserts like the Art Nouveau Case, to engraved and bejeweled limestone in the EgyptMod Case. My latest case mod project is inspired by the Disney movie "TRON" and the computer game "Tron 2.0." As change of pace, I decided to build one that requires a bit more conservative alterations for those of you that can't run out to buy all sorts of specialized tools to play with.

Build 1.0 - The Shell
[System User: TRaceON]

For a TRON-themed case mod, I started with a Silverstone Kublai case and disassembled the front bezel and side panels for modification. The case is steel except for the solid aluminum front cover.

The Logo Panel

Silverstone Kublai Case

TRON movie poster

TRON 2.0 game box

The Silverstone Kublai Case, the TRON movie poster and one version of the TRON 2.0 game box and inspirational TRON DVD, game and comic books.

The solid side panel was prepared for the addition of a back-lit TRON logo, based on the original TRON movie poster, but updated with the TRON 2.0 game characters. To start, the original poster design was scaled to fit the panel, and the outline transferred to the inside of the steel panel. Using a plasma cutter, I quickly cut out the irregular-shaped opening. The sharp edges were ground down and the large circle outline smoothed out with the grinder. A piece of 1/8" polycarbonate sheet was cut to fit inside the side panel.

logo-shaped hole is cut in the solid side panel

clamped to the inside to trace the opening

The logo-shaped hole was cut in the solid side panel. A piece of scrap 1/4" acrylic was clamped to the inside to trace the opening.

Next, a piece of 1/4" acrylic was clamped inside the logo hole, and the edge of the hole was traced onto the plastic with a colored marker. The outlined shape was cut out on a scroll saw, and then rough-finished with some cutting burrs. The game characters are cut out of another piece of 1/4" acrylic and rough-shaped using a Dremel tool with a router bit and cutting burrs in the flexible shaft. The concentric rings the figures stand on were cut from a third piece of acrylic which was ground down to taper from thick in the front to a thin edge behind the figures. The "TRON" letters were shaped from 1/4" UV-reactive acrylic. All of the shapes were then glued together. Once the glue on the figures had set, the entire logo was glued to the polycarbonate sheet. The surface of the figures was then coated with several coats of black paint; carving through the paint coating exposed the clear plastic, allowing the back-lights to shine through.

The rough-cut pieces

Gluing the figures together

The assembled insert

1) The rough-cut pieces. 2) Gluing the figures together. 3) The assembled insert.

 

Painting the insert black

Panel before detail carving and final assembly

4) Painting the insert black. 5) Panel before detail carving and final assembly.

The Top Panel
The front bezel assembly has a "cap" that contains the power and reset buttons, and an opening for USB, 1394, and front panel audio ports. There is a clear lens through the center section, illuminated by 3 blue LEDs. A single red LED flashes with disk activity. I removed the blue LEDs and created a small oval board with 16 blue LEDs radiating out from the center. I then enlarged a center hole in the clear lens to accept the assembly.

My original idea for the top surface was to create a geometric pattern of plastic shapes out of UV-reactive plastic sheet, but my free-hand sawing and sanding skill just weren't up to it. After wasting most of a 2 square-foot sheet, I ordered a selection of glass tiles and attached these with epoxy to the surface. More tiles will be placed on the side panels and inside the case to carry the theme throughout the project.

Glass tile being glued to the top panel

the nearly-completed pattern

Glass tile being glued to the top panel (left) and the nearly-completed pattern (right).

 

Testing tile clearance with the front bezel in position

Close up of LED assembly

Testing tile clearance with the front bezel in position. Close up of LED assembly.

The Window Panel
I removed the factory-installed acrylic side window panel and enlarged the opening to expose the drive bays. Two holes were drilled with a small hole saw, and shears were used to cut the straight lines. A single piece of acrylic sheet was trimmed to fit over the entire panel and held in place with plastic locking rivets. Glass tile was attached after some paint touch up from the drilling.

The window panel hole in the process of being enlarged

Playing with glass tiles on the un-mounted acrylic window

The window panel hole in the process of being enlarged (left). Playing with glass tiles on the un-mounted acrylic window (right).

[System User: TRaceOFF]

Build 1.1 - The Core
[System User: TRaceON]

Transition

Digital World

Imagery from the TRON movie included a transition from the real world to the digitized world.

To create a similar effect inside the case, I did something really nasty to a motherboard - I painted it black. (Because I was not sure if this would work, I pulled a system board out of one of my previous units that I was using a couple of years ago. I was not going to do this to a new, high-end system board.) My reasoning was that flat-black paint needs a high pigment content to achieve the appearance when dry. If the manufacturer used a plastic-based pigment, there should be no issues. However, if the pigment was an inexpensive carbon-based material (i.e. "lamp black"), then the resulting paint could be slightly conductive. It seems to me that the idea of spraying a conductive paint over the complex electronics of a system board would probably be a bad thing.

If you examine most circuit boards, you may see a protective lacquer over the surface of the copper traces. However, there are usually many exposed solder pads, diagnostic points, and exposed circuit pins that could still short out. Before painting the board, I used masking tape to cover all open sockets, card slots, and pin headers. As an added precaution, I first coated the circuit board with a couple of coats of clear, non-conductive paint, and then I applied the flat back paint.

Masking

Masking

Masking

The system board masked out with painter's tape. Paint it black (done to Black is Black by Los Bravos), and the board with masking removed.

The next step to recreate the appearance is to coat each of the chips on the board with UV reactive paint. I used some AC Ryan reactive paints, although about any day-glow paint should work. The water-based paints tend to dry slightly translucent, allowing the black undercoating to show through. Several coats had to be applied to get a reasonably uniform coating. For viewing in normal light, a base coat of white or silver would probably be recommended. Under ultraviolet lighting, the paint appears much more uniform then in daylight. A dry-brush approach was used to lightly coat the tips of the heat sink fins. All of the chips were coated and many of the small surface-mount components also received a tiny dot of paint. Blue for the rear connector shields, green for the larger chips, and orange for the surface mount components or other enhancements like the parallel printer port and corners of the system board heat sink.

AC Ryan UV Paints

Thermaltake Blue Orb

AC Ryan UV reactive paint set

Thermaltake Blue Orb CPU cooler

 

Regular Light

UV Light

The painted system board as it appears under "normal" and ultraviolet light. (UV reactive slot covers were installed for the picture.) Before mounting the Blue Orb CPU cooler, I attached the fan to a power supply and added some rings on the central hub and little paint on the fan blades while spinning. The tips of the cooling fins also received a touch of blue UV paint.

 

LED Strip
Adhesive-backed LED strip. This came as a single 24 inch long strip, but can be cut down in shorter segments of three LEDs with a resistor. Copper foil had to be exposed to solder the wire, and hot glue covered and secured the wires in place.

 


 

The paint effects are interesting, but I also want some bright points of light mixed in. I replaced the memory slot covers with memory, installing four 1 GB Corsair DDR2-800 modules (SKU 258756). To contrast with all of the blue and green paint, I cut some surface-mount red LED strips down to the fit the top edge of the memory. LED strip typically comes with double-stick tape on the back, and can be cut into smaller lengths as long as you sick to the marked segments of three LEDs and a resistor. Two groups of three LEDs are just about the same length as the DDR2 modules. This particular strip came with a clear, waterproof covering that I removed. Using the exposed end to identify the location and polarity for the wire attachment, I scraped through the coating to expose bare copper, and then soldered wires to the points. Black hot glue covered the solder and anchored the wires to the strip for strain relief. Three LEDs were wired in a series in each segment, with a current limiting resistor. These can operate with an input voltage from about 5v to 15v DC. (Remember the power connection on a Molex style connector is either 5v for red-black, 12v for yellow-black, or you can be sneaky and connect between the red and yellow to get around 7v DC. -- treat the red as negative and yellow as positive to get a resulting 6.5-7v.)

Slot Protectors

Night Lights

Attached LEDs

For the PCI slots, I picked up a black slot protector kit and ripped apart some LED night lights for the clear acrylic diffuser. The diffusers had three indentions in the base, so I soldered three blue LEDs in series, and added a 150 ohm resistor. Hot glue held the LEDs in place. An opening for the diffuser was cut out of the slot cover using a jeweler's saw and then the LED assembly was inserted in the opening. Hot glue prevented the assembly from getting knocked out, and anchored the wire for power in place.

POST
The system board set up for POST testing. (Cool! I didn't kill it!)

At this point, the system board looked pretty - but was it still operational? A quick POST (Power On Self Test) determined this. With the CPU installed, and the CPU cooler attached (with thermal compound applied!), memory and a video card were installed to give us the minimal configuration necessary for POST. (Drives are not required just to test the electronic portions of the system.) The 24-pin power connector and 4-pin auxiliary power connector were attached. The BFG Geforce 9800 GTX OC used a single 6-pin PCI-E power connection, so this was attached as well. For a POST test, the system board does not need to be installed into the case, and if there is a problem, you would just have to remove it anyway. I placed the system board on a non-conductive surface, such as the cardboard box that it came in. With power connected to all necessary parts, I shorted the two front panel power switch pins to power on. (A few system board manufacturers have a tiny board-mounted power and reset button near the front panel connections; these are very handy for this type of pre-test.) If you want to verify the different stages using system beeps instead of a display, you can do a POST without memory installed (usually resulting in a long beep followed by two short beeps or a series of long beeps), and then test without video (beeps can vary by vendor, but you should get something for a "no video" condition).

[System User: TRaceOFF]

Build 1.2 - Core I/O
[System User: TRaceON]

 

Kublai case

Control Room

Transfer Gate

The Silverstone Kublai case included a hinged dual fan assembly along the bottom of the window panel. The pierced openings reminded me of a control-room scene in the movie, and of the transfer gates that appear in the game. Since I replaced the side panel with a solid acrylic window, the fan bracket was not going to be used. I made two disks from UV reactive Plexiglas and attached them to the fan grids. There was not enough clearance between the disks and the side of the case, so they had to be moved to the inside of the bracket.

Cutting concentric rings
Cutting concentric rings in a piece of UV-orange Plexiglas with an adjustable hole-cutter.

Overall Effect
The appearance of the completed disks in the case.

The circuit board pattern (a common theme throughout the movie and the game) on the power supply was made from a piece of "neon" (AKA Day-Glo) paper with the pattern scaled and printed using a laser printer. It was then attached to the side of the power supply with some contact cement. A similar method was used on the top surface of the video card (slightly visible through the lower-left disk).

Still more LED lighting: After building the TRON logo out of layers of acrylic and painting it black, small burrs were used to cut trough the paint to allow light to shine through. To illuminate the logo panel, I mounted a series of LEDs behind the figures and lettering. Starting with the letters, three sets of three ultraviolet LEDs were assembled and hot glued into some shallow channels cut in the back of the panel. I mounted these at an angle to cause the UV-blue letters to glow slightly brighter at the bottom, and to diffuse the light more. Two sets of red LEDs are placed behind the rings, but more had to be added to illuminate the rings across the width of the panel.

Logo Etching

LED Lighting

Channels were cut in the back of the logo, and groups of LEDs were hot-glued in place. Once all LEDs are positioned, the +/- power connections were made to each group connecting all groups to a single power cable.

LED Groups

Logo Insulation

Groups of LEDs were formed by connecting three LEDs in series. Two groups of three were joined by the negative connections, and a current-limiting resistor attached to each of the positive connections. The resistor leads were twisted together, soldered, and then trimmed down to place the connections close together for wiring. Since there was very little clearance between the LEDs and the steel mounting plate for the system board, I covered the entire back of the assembly with hot glue as an insulator. (The pale-white glue also happens to be glow-in-the-dark hot glue, which provides a subtle glow to the carving after it "charges up".

The final LED count for the logo panel:

Door Pattern

LED Door

The case door masked

Finished door

Because the bay door was extruded aluminum and had a curved surface, attaching tiles or other shapes did not seem practical. I finally settled on carving a design into the surface of the aluminum and then adding some surface-mount LED "ribbon". The hexagonal Silverstone snowflake logo was removed and a piece of blue Plexiglas was cut to fill the shallow hole. Masking tape was applied over the surface of the door, and a pattern drawn on the tape. Using a cylinder-shaped burr, I cut through the tape into the aluminum to transfer the pattern. The tape was then removed, and the traced lines were carved deeper and wider. Small holes were drilled to feed power wires through from the inside of the door to the LED strip. The LED strip had a yellow-orange pattern, so I gave it a coat of clear red enamel paint, and then cleaned the tops of the LEDs with acetone.

Organizing cables

Organizing the cables

Two dual-tube, 12-inch ultraviolet CCFT (cold cathode fluorescent lamps) lighting kits were installed to make things glow. The tubes were installed below the side window on the base of the case, at the top edge of the side fan bracket, behind the horizontal support brace, and a fourth tube inside the top edge of the case. Putting it all together involved many power connections for the LEDs and other lighting. Two power distribution blocks were installed inside the case and the different connections made. Drives were installed in the front bays and connections made to power and the system board. Once everything was in place, the power cables were bundled and strapped down with wire ties. After everything was strapped, glued, bolted, or tied down, it was on to the pre-boot and OS install...

[System User: TRaceOFF]

Side Window

Profile

Door

Right Side

Finished Project: TRON (click for large views)

[System User: Logoff]