Under The Hood: Everything You Need To Make Kick-Arse Custom Case Mods

Under The Hood: Everything You Need To Make Kick-Arse Custom Case Mods
To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Gizmodo Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

If you’re in the habit of giving credence to tired clichés, you’re probably aware that a good chef never blames a mistake on his tools. That’s not quite true when it comes to modding cases.

Anybody who’s ever tried moulding metal or anything else into newfound shapes knows that skill is definitely a factor, but even Modderati masters can’t turn ducks into swans if their tools aren’t up to snuff. On the flip side, solid tools can help novices pump out professional-looking mods.

But just what tools does a modder need in his toolkit? We’re glad you asked. If you found yourself flipping through our kick-arse case mods gallery and wondering how you — yes, you — could craft such beautiful works with your own hands, this handy-dandy guide will get you going in the right direction. Everything from beginner tools to advanced tools to sources for super-advanced services can be found in this lengthy tome… and most of the basic tools could already be sitting in your garage.

Expert Modders Drop Knowledge Bombs

None of this would have been possible without the help of three Modderati maestros whose innovative builds have been blazing trails and wowing onlookers for years:

Bill Owen of Mnpctech rose to fame on the back of his mod-making prowess, but he’s since expanded Mnpctech into a true resource for case craftsmen, selling tools and custom-made modding accessories. Mnpctech has an extensive series of video tutorials covering basic modding techniques, and Bill’s Case Mod Blog is a frequently updated resource. On the right is the “DiRT Showdown” mod he recently made for an AMD giveaway.

Ron Lee Christianson of BHSTECH created the awesome Iron Man mod that was on display at ThermalTake’s booth at Computex. He’s currently working on a Captain America-themed mod and provided a lot of the pictures of basic modding tools.

Sander van der Velden (aka Asphiax) recently took Tatooine by (sand)storm with his Imperial AT-AT mod. His current work in progress, the VENATOR Class Republic Star Destroyer, is gearing up to be just as impressive. Sander’s a scratch build fanatic who dropped a lot of knowledge about advanced techniques.

Thanks for the assistance, guys. Now on to the show!

Safety First, Kids

Before you pick up your first file or plug in a drill press, make sure you’re dressed up in gear that’ll keep you safe. Work gloves are a must, as are latex gloves and a respirator if you’re working with paint or other chemicals. Doing some heavy machining? Wear some ear plugs. Anti-static straps are a good idea if you’re poking around electronics. Then, there are safety glasses, which should be a mainstay on every modder’s face.

“My most important tool is my safety glasses!” Bill says. His favourite pair is the “stylish and comfortable” Smith and Wesson Elite safety glasses, which he sells through Mnpctech. But what if stylish and comfortable isn’t your thing? “No matter what brand or type of safety glasses you use, your safety glasses should meet the High Impact level of the ANSI Z87.1+ safety standards.” (The equivalent standard in Australia is AS/NZS 1337.)

Got it? Good! Now let’s crack open this toolkit.

Before You Mod: Planning Out Your Build

Most modders recommend formally planning out your build in some way, especially if it requires a lot of precision work. Even a simple drawing on the back of a napkin provides a solid guideline to a basic build. Our Modderati experts go for more intricate planning, however.

“A computer program like Adobe Illustrator or SketchUp is great for R&D to get your ideas on a visual scope before to hit the workbench,” Ron says.

Sander takes a different approach. “I like to build my computers like the Russians built their spacecraft: Trial and error. Try something. If it works, continue, and if it doesn’t, go back to the drawing board and start again. That’s why I always build a mockup of the object first from MDF or EPS foam to visualise the work I need to do and get paper design impossibilities out of the way.”

Finally, if you’re going to be building anything from scratch — be it a case window or snakes slithering out of a hard drive bay — decide which materials you’ll want to use for the job, as some materials require special tooling. Sander the scratch modder started out using MDF on his wholly custom builds, but he has since converted to aluminium, while Ron prefers using ABS styrene plastic for his homemade accents to premade cases.

“It’s rigid, durable and it’ll stand up to much abuse,” he explains. “You can sand, drill, shape and mould it to most any shape, and all ranges of paint — from water based to urethanes — will adhere to the surface.”

Acrylic or Plexiglas is another very popular modding material. It’s a bit finicky though; if your saw blade is too coarse or moving too fast, Plexi cracks and melts like nobody’s business. Check out this insanely in-depth article about working with acrylics if there’s a new window in your case mod’s future.

Basic Tools Do Most Of The Work

“I don’t want to discourage up-and-coming modders into thinking that they need a shop full of high-end tools and machines to mod,” Ron says. “Ninety per cent of the Iron Man and Biohazard builds were made from a straight edge, an X-Acto blade and the Dremel multitool.”

Rotary tools are widely considered the most-used tool of the modding trade; they’re relatively inexpensive, with swappable accessories that are perfect for drilling, sanding, cutting, polishing and a lot more. Most modders love their trusty Dremel — in fact, “Dremel” is pretty much a verb when it comes to modding — but it isn’t the only rotary tool out there.

“Don’t be predictable and list Dremel!” Bill Owen says. “Black & Decker’s RTX Rotary Tool is equally as good as Dremel — for less money — and it accepts all Dremel brand attachments, including Dremel’s #225-01 Flex Shaft Attachment.” Don’t bother buying a cordless rotary tool either; Bill says they aren’t worth the money. [clear]

Whether or not your power drill — another must-have case modding tool, perfect for making small, clean holes in computer cases and other things — needs a cord is up for debate. Some people prefer the consistent, hassle-free oomph a cord provides, while others like the flexibility of a battery-powered cordless model. Sander van der Velden falls firmly in the former camp.

“(With cordless drills) I always run out of power when I need it and forget to unplug the charging battery, causing it to go lazy,” he says. “So I use a wired power tool/screwdriver. Always enough power at your service.” Either way, don’t forget to buy bits!

Here are some other basic, fairly low-cost tools that belong in a modder’s toolkit:

Squares, straight edges, measuring tape, markers and pencils: Squares and straight edges are a must-have for lining up straight cuts, while measuring tape and writing utensils to mark measurements off with help with that whole “cutting once” thing. [clear]

Basic varieties of all of the above will do, but Mnpctech offers an interesting little straight edge called the “PC Modder Ruler“. It includes thickness gauges, template locations for both 2.5-inch, 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch drives, and references and templates for common fan sizes, screw threads, vandal switches, and water-cooling barbs and tubes. There’s a tap and drill size chart, as well as a list of common fraction/metric/inches conversions. The ruler’s available in either aluminium or an eye-catching copper, although the copper version costs twice as much.

Bill sent us one to play around with and we have to say that this handy tool could save modders some time and measurement-related headaches. The amount of information on the 12-inch body is kind of amazing actually. Plus, it’s hefty enough to deter would-be robbers if you swing it at them.

Centre punch: Punches a guiding dent into metal so that your drill bit doesn’t jerk around crazily like your grandma doing the chicken dance.

Hand files: Good for quickly deburring the edges of said cut when you don’t want to bust out your rotary tool’s sanding attachment, especially in small areas. [clear]

Hobby knives with mitre box: For fine detail work, nothing beats the precision of small hobby knives. The mitre boxes found in many hobby knife sets have carved channels for 45-degree and 90-degree cuts.

Glues, hot glue gun, epoxy: For, um, gluing two things into one thing. Hot glue should be good enough for most things, while Gorilla Glue ensures a more permanent bond. Epoxy is good for gluing plastic to metal. Acrylic glue actually fuses separate pieces of acrylic (like Plexiglas) into a single piece.

Table clamps and vises: These allow you to secure materials to your workbench, ensuring things won’t go screwy at the last second when you’re making a critical cut.

Pliers, screwdrivers, Allen keys, spanners, tweezers, etc: All the tools you’ll need to fiddle around with cases, drive bays and the like. A set of precision screwdrivers is a worthwhile investment since many cases use smaller screws.

Wire strippers and cutters and a soldering iron: Plan on installing LED lights or any other electrical work? You’ll almost definitely need these tools. Some Molex tools probably couldn’t hurt either. Just make sure you double-check the law in your state as some types of electrical work require a licence.

Image: mignonette-game.com

Tin snips and a nibbler: Rotary tools are wondrous things, but their rapidly spinning heads cause metal to heat up and possibly warp if you’re not careful. Tin snips and nibblers also make solid cuts, only without the thermal effects. Tin snips work as expected; nibblers (both manual and powered version are available) take small, circular bites out of metal and require a starting hole. Both leave cuts that often need to be filed down for smoothness.

Now on to bigger tools that make bigger cuts! [clear]

Banging out holes

Whether you’re making a new exhaust fan or the open mouth of a fiery demon, poking a hole through a case is almost inevitable during case modding. There are several options available for making said holes, but start with a bi-metal hole saw set.

Bi-metal hole saw sets are specialised attachments that turn everyday power drills into badass machines capable of cutting holes of various sizes, although you’ll need an arbor that fits your drill in order to use them. Most can also be used for cutting wood or plastic. “I use these to cut out fan holes and scratch-build pieces like the arc-reactor on the Iron Man build,” Ron says.

That’s right — this badass Arc Reactor was built using a simple hole saw set. (And some additional techniques, of course.) Bill Owen’s actually made a video guide to using hole saw sets for case modding. He also supplied us with this handy-dandy list of conversions:

  • 80mm = 3-inch hole saw
  • 92mm = 3.5-inch hole saw
  • 120mm = 4.5-inch hole saw
  • 140mm = 5.5-inch hole saw

For fan screw holes, Bill suggests using a Roper Whitney No. 5 Jr Hand Punch. It works fast and comes out clean.

If you’re super-serious about making clean holes and have a lot of money to throw at modding, Bill recommends investing in knockout punches, specifically knockout punches made by Greenlee. “No need to deburr the edges of a hole saw or jigsaw cut anymore!” he says.

Knockout punches use elbow grease and the slow, steady pressure of tightening the punch using a screw to knock holes through metal. Various-sized sets and standalone punches can be found online, but be warned: they often cost several hundred dollars. You’ll also need a socket wrench to use a knockout punch, and Bill recommends a wrench at least 19 inches (48cm) long. (It takes a lot of oomph to punch through metal!) He’s also made a video guide for using knockout punches.

Ultra-precise holes need a drill press. Drill presses remove any chance of either the drill or the material shifting, and they also work with the same accessories as a standard drill, including hole saw sets. Small, basic models can be found for less than $US100 online.

“To make sure the holes are perfectly perpendicular to the material I use a drill press,” Sander says. “Not a professional one, but a low end one, which is more than enough for this kind of work. Also, drilling a fan hole into a piece of Plexi is so much easier when you use a drill press as it stabilises the drill, which stops the blade from biting into the Plexi and causing it to crack.”

Cutting Things

Rotary tools are nice, but sometimes their cutting attachments just won’t do the trick. When you’ve got a big, long cut lined up, saws are the best way to go. Modders tend to use band saws and jigsaws. Note that different materials require different cutting speeds and saw tooth density; Plexi requires a slower, finer cut than metals, for example.

Bandsaw – “I find myself using the band saw for long straight cuts into various materials, and use a 14tpi (teeth per inch) blade for most my work,” Ron says. He, like most modders, considers the tool a must-have. [clear]

Jigsaw: Jigsaws use thin, fast-moving stroke-action blades. A jigsaw can cut straight, sure, but its real advantage lies in its ability to handle curved lines and scrolls as well as its overall versatility; jigsaws work well on almost any case as well as Plexi. They’re also much more portable than bandsaws.

Proxxon DSH Electrical Fret Saw: Scratch modders take note — “This thing is its weight worth in GOLD!” Sander says. “It’s my most-used and versatile tool. I use it to cut MDF up to 20mm, Plexi up to 12mm and aluminium up to 10mm.

“The blades are detachable so you can drill a hole in a piece of material and saw from the inside. Brilliant for making fan holes, windows, ventilation slots, drive cages and what not. Also, the cuts are straight and clean and I can set two speeds, slow for Plexi and fast for aluminium.”

We’re almost there! Next we have even more advanced tools and some parting words by a couple of our Modderati experts.

Advanced Tools

Sander: No, not our scratch builder, an actual power sander, which can help you strip the paint off of cases (and other stuff) much faster and more efficiently than sandpaper alone. Lie the case panel flat on the table and let gravity guide the tool to ensure an even finish. Modders on a budget can stick to sanding blocks or sandpaper instead. The higher the grit, the finer the finish, with sub-100 grits working well for rough work like deburring.

Airbrush or paint sprayer: A solid paint job adds a lot to a mod. Paint sprayers are good for flat, solid coats while airbrushes offer a lot more versatility. Check out Airbrush Tutor to brush up on your basic know-how. You’ll need an air compressor to go along with a paint sprayer or air gun.

Hotwire or thermocutting devices: These sport a heated wire and are normally used for cutting through foam or plastic. Sander uses his Proxxon Thermocutter “to cut EPS foam down to the right size and get organic shapes out of the blocks. You can bend the wire in any shape you like and it will cut through the foam like a warm knife through butter. Great for making fins or small extensions to whatever you are building.”

He also uses a smaller hotwire device to create bends in Plexiglas up to 6mm thick. That’s thinking outside the box! (If you don’t have Sander’s budget, a heat gun can accomplish the same thing, albeit with less precision.)

Aluminium bending table (aka a bending break): This is waaaaay more than the average modder needs, but Sander just picked one up and he loves it for scratch builds. “It bends 63cm strips of 1.5mm aluminium with ease and can be used to create almost everything. Custom eye candy that can take a beating!” Under the pic of the bending table is a pic of the VENATOR build’s aluminium base.

Parting words

Whew! That was a lengthy journey. Hopefully you’re just a bit wiser for sticking it out this long. If you put any of this knowledge to good use, we’d love if you shared the results in the Modders’ Workshop section of our forum.

Before we wrap things up, Sander van der Velden (who showed off his USS Eurisko build in the Modders’ Workshop) has some parting words of wisdom:

“The best tip I can give a modder is not to try to save on your tools. Good preparation is half the work and good tooling is another quarter of that work. For example, when I started with aluminium building I got my first tap from a DIY market. It cost €10 ($12), including the oil. I almost gave up aluminium modding right there as it needed Superman powers to work it!

“The blade was dull, the rattler didn’t fit properly, and the oil was like glue. I went to a small hardware store and bought some good stuff; €30 ($37) in total and it just flew! In the time I did one hole with the old setup I did three with the new one using one finger. So if it’s possible try to borrow good tools instead of buying cheap and useless ones — you’ll be happier for it!”

Ron Christianson has something to say about a critical tool too: “The most important tool is your imagination, any thing that you can dream up can be built. With a little hard work and creativity you can bring your ideas from concept to completion.”

With that, we bid you happy modding!

Maximum PC brings you the latest in PC news, reviews and how-tos. [clear]