Planning your acrylic case

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So you want to build an acrylic case….

Modifying cases is a great way to make your system stand out. But a custom-built enclosure goes even further–your system can become truly unique. Wood, sheet metal and plastics are all materials used to make cases, but transparent acrylic plastic (Sold under the brand names Plexiglas, Perspex, Acrylite, Rohaglas, and others) offers a case builder a few distinct advantages over other materials. The combination of transparency, durability, and relatively low cost make acrylic stand out as a material.

Note: I’ll be talking about acrylic throughout this article, but polycarbonate (Lexan is a brand name) is almost the same in terms of working with the material. Some of the recommendations for construction techniques might need to be slightly modified for working polycarbonate.

You’ve probably already decided to try building an acrylic case–that’s where this series of articles aims to help. In the first article, we’ll look at the problems of building a case from acrylic, and how your case design will be a reflection of how you chose to solve these specific problems. In the second article, we’ll discuss fabrication techniques in detail. The third article will be a full walkthrough of how I built my acrylic case, with a discussion of the challenges along the way, and how my design evolved to address those challenges.

If you’ve modified a case, you’ve probably given some thought to its specs, but there are a few things you may not have given a lot of attention. Because form factors have been fairly well standardized, you likely have never paid attention to the dimensions of a power supply for instance, or how the air is forced to circulate through the supply.

An excellent place to start your planning is selecting a specific motherboard. You may be tempted to design to a particular form factor (such as ATX or mATX) instead. This can work, but you may sacrifice certain design optimizations in favor of the ability to support other motherboards.

With your motherboard selected, you should be able to develop a rough idea of the footprint your case will have (the area it will occupy when sitting on your desk or work surface). Consider this an estimate at this stage–other factors can drive increased size even when the motherboard is small. Deciding on your motherboard’s orientation within the enclosure will lead you to a decision on where the peripheral connectors will enter the case. (I’m going to be assuming that the enclosure you plan to build is more or less a rectangular solid–the edges are parallel. If not, a variety of new issues come into play. I’m just choosing to ignore those so that this article doesn’t become a book.)

A minimal system will have one hard drive, but you may want additional drives depending on your needs. Hard drives, CD-ROM drives, CD-R drives, DVD-ROM drives, and even floppy drives can be bought in slim versions, designed for use in laptops or rackmount server equipment. You can use these smaller, more expensive versions, or the standard desktop equivalents. Make sure you understand the impact that the decisions will have on your design and budget.

Power supply units (PSUs) are available in a variety of sizes and power ratings. MicroATX form factor power supplies are inexpensive, medium-powered alternatives if your system is not too power hungry. Higher-end or overclocked systems may need a rackmount server PSU to provide stable performance. And ATX power supplies can be used as well. You may want to remove the PSU from its enclosure, either to make better use of space or to achieve a design effect.

Standard cases offer removable drive cages for convenience in installing and upgrading hardware. Your custom case can either be designed to accommodate a specific set of components, or you can choose to make the case upgradeable by using a drive cage with appropriate mounting holes to accommodate generic components.

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