None More Black
Lego Inside
Lego Case
I think that modifying your computer case is vaguely like having a child. There are many uncomfortable months, sweating and feeling uneasy. Then there's usually a brief period of pain and suffering, to find your baby coming out vaguely squished and messy. Finally, you grow to love it, quirks and all. Fortunately, you forget all of this a couple years later only to do it again.

The concept for the Fossil case began many months ago, when the thought of a "Victorian" case made of wood and brass began to appeal to me. I spent several months researching woodworking concepts and sketching things out on paper. There were several design decisions I made early on. Quiet was the mantra, so I'd be buying an expensive quiet power supply, low-RPM fans, and probably no CPU overclocking. Wood is an excellent heat insulator, so I'd have to be very careful about cooling. No floppy drive (I'd pop the case and hook one up as needed, which should be rarely if ever), and only a single CD/CD-R/DVD drive. Finally, after much agonizing, I went with a desktop rather than a tower case. It was purely for aesthetics, so I have no reason for it other than I thought it would look better.

I went down to our local hardware store and picked up a 8" X 1" X 10' piece of oak. The cherry was tempting as well, but they didn't have very wide pieces and much more gluing would be required. There were a few other miscellaneous things that I picked up, only some of which I ended up really using. Lots of changes to the plan midstream.

The second critical piece was going to my dad's house. None of this would be possible without my father. First off, he has an incredible shop, complete with industrial milling machine, lathe, and endless tools. Even more importantly, he has an amazing knack with metal and woodworking. Several times during this construction project, he'd make the tools he needed to get the job done. There was something vaguely VonNewmann about the whole thing.

Once I went over my general plans with my dad, we started cutting oak. The box would have four sides, with the back and bottom open. The plan was to have it fit precisely over the metal top of the case, minimizing electrical interference and making sure it fit well. We had to glue the top part as well, as it was greater than the 8" wide. So, using a smallish table saw, we cut and carefully recut the pieces. We joined the pieces together using dowels, though the alignment was a bit off. Tricky precision work.

The really time consuming part was cutting out the front of the case. My dad, being the crazy guy that he is, carefully measured each light, button, and CD opening and cut them to 1/1000th of an inch with the milling machine. It turned out beautifully done, though it turns out that because the dowel holes weren't quite aligned, everything was precisely off when we started to put in the buttons and lights.

I broke out a belt sander and started sanding away. It was pretty time consuming as there were a couple major misalignments. We didn't get it glued together perfectly either, and there were a few cracks to be patched with using wood glue and sawdust mixed together. I used 220 grit sandpaper for the majority of the work, then 320 and 400 to finish it off. It turns out it was a bit premature, as the case got a bit banged up later on.

Today's project was to work on the buttons, though it turned out we did a number of other things as well. The first thing we did was route out about 1/2" of the inner front of the case, right in front of the fan. It ended up with only about 1/4" clearance when assembled, and I wanted to make sure that the fan could draw air efficiently enough. It was a bit frightening, as the wood split a couple times. I had visions of the case breaking in half. Fortunately, none of it was visible and the broken parts were carefully routed out as well.

When putting the case on and off repeatedly, we also ran into a problem with the front pieces of the CD drive rubbing against the case. Unfortunately, this ended up breaking the stereo jack and volume control, though I've never actually used them. I think we'll need to route out the inside of the case under the CD drive in order to minimize future damage.

We finally got to the buttons, which my dad made on his lathe using a 1/2" brass rod for the main ones and a 1/4" brass rod for the small CD eject button. The big ones were inset, using a spring to keep it pushed out, and an e-ring to keep it from popping out altogether. Very cool watching them be made. We did run into alignment issues, as the button didn't quite match up with the switch inside the case. The power button was close, so we ended up dremmeling off the part of the bottom that blocked it from touching the switch. The lights and reset button were off by about a 1/4", so we ended up cutting the metal front of the original case in order to slide down the plastic holders. Worked pretty well, though we had to make a little sheet metal thingie to hold them in place.

I've been spending time trying to get the "Fossil" plaque prepared. I wanted to get the letters dark with the rest of the surface fairly shiny. I tried assorted chemicals, with vinegar working the best. The acid oxidized the surface quite nicely when left overnight. The only problem was removing the black on the surface without getting it from the letter's grooves as well. Steel wool managed to take it all off, so no luck there. I even tried permanent marker, but even that came out of the grooves. Oh well, I may just call it good.

In only 3 hours, the last of the hardcore construction was finished. My dad and I finished the last of the parts that required a full-featured shop. We routed out more of the front part of the case, in part to assist with airflow if I add another fan, but more importantly to avoid damaging the front of the CD-ROM drive when the case goes on and off.

Much of the day's work was focused on the CD-ROM drive, gluing shims in place so that the drive would nicely line up with the hole in the case. The drive eject button was finished, and we made a front panel (brass, of course) for the front of the CD. A quick Dremel job routed out the holes for the amber light covers.

Later that day, I drilled holes for the front label and side handles. A little glue was needed around the light cover holes, as my father was a bit overzealous with the Dremel. At this point, it's all ready for stain and varnish.

After tucking my son to bed, I snuck down into the basement and put on a coats of stain. I've stained wood before, but I'm always amazed at how big a difference it makes to the color of the wood. I may just skip the varnish, as I like the more matte, natural look. I also picked up some Altec Lansing ADA885 speakers. Dell's website was having a deal, and they're pretty highly-rated THX speakers. It's a 4.1 setup, which seems more suited to gaming than the 5.1 setup I have upstairs. I'm still waiting for the nForce motherboard and the new AMD chip to be released. Should be any day now.

I jumped the gun a bit and started to put hardware on the case. I stained it, which went well, then put on a coat of Verithane, which didn't go well. It was old, so it took forever to dry. After several days, it was still a little sticky. Though over time, it hardened up okay. The brass looks very nice on the case. I had to get some new screws, as for some bizarre reason the screws for the handles didn't match.

I made a side trip to Jerry's this morning and put the final touches on the exterior of the case. There's still much to do inside, but the outside of the case looks beautiful. I put the CD cover on over the case, using the new screws I picked up.

Now I've just got to hold off for a month or so until they release the motherboard and cpu that I want. I've been playing a lot of the Diablo II expansion, which is jolly good fun.

The new 4.1 speakers arrived, which I hooked up to my current PC. It makes a huge difference in the sound quality. Lots of subtle game noises are now noticeable. The new Fossil PC should be much quieter, and hopefully won't drowned out the speakers as much.

The tension is palpable. My GeForce Ti200 arrived last night. I had nothing to plug it into, so I just rubbed it lovingly. The rest of the parts should arrive today, except possibly the Audigy sound card which was briefly backordered. I'm going to try to install Windows XP as well, though I'm nervous about driver support. I'm not sure if my DSL modem will work properly, as I only have a driver for Windows 2000. I'll cross my fingers.

Lots of shipping hassles. Multiwave Direct sent the wrong motherboard and the sound card was on back order, but they didn't ship it until today. The correct motherboard should arrive tomorrow, which will hopefully be enough to get me started assembling it. If I can get the OS installed by the end of the weekend, I'll be a happy camper.

While not perfect, it's assembled and approaching perfection. I started Friday night, putting the pieces together while watching my son and nephew play with Legos. I think that threw me, as I ended up doing a number of things wrong:
  • I forgot to switch the power supply to 110v
  • I didn't plug power into the CD-ROM drive
  • I had all the power, LED, and speaker wires hooked to my motherboard backwards

The next morning, I sorted out these issues and got it up and running. I even accidentally overclocked it to 1.65 Ghz while setting it up, though I dropped it down to 1.5 just to be safe. It took over two hours to format the 80 GB hard drive, and installing XP was vaguely annoying.

The latest status is that XP is installed and running. I think I like it, though it's taking some time to get used to. The big downside is that I can't get my Intel DSL modem to work, as the drivers haven't been released yet (Qwest is promising they'll be done soon). I can't even get Internet Connection Sharing to work through my other machine, though the LAN is fine. I think I'm going to wait until the drivers are released rather than buy a broadband router.

It's pretty quiet, especially with the case on. There's a fan on the video card that's a bit loud, as well as a funny high-pitched noise that I haven't been able to track down yet. Other than that, it's pretty silent. The power supply, cpu, and case fans are barely audible. Even the hard drive is fairly quiet.

The temperature is a little higher than I'd like. I think the CPU runs around 54 C with the case on. It's probably okay, as those CPUs can run as high as 90 C before they're really in trouble. The thermal paste also takes a couple days before it's burned in. I may try overclocking the CPU and see how high it goes, though the temperature issues make me a little nervous. Most of the 1.5 Ghz chips make it up to 1.8 Ghz, a 20% performance increase.

I also had a small physical problem with the case. The CD-ROM drive wouldn't eject. Because of the way it was manufactured, the corners were rounded and the tray was catching on it. I popped it off, filed them down, and it worked just fine.

The sound card arrives tomorrow. I'll be happy to get all four speakers working. Once the Internet connection issues are resolved, I'll be a happy camper.

I've made significant progress lately. The soundcard is in. I haven't been able to use the digital output and get all the speakers working properly, so I gave up and switched to analog. Some day I may make the attempt again, but it sounds pretty much the same to me.

I also fixed the high pitched whine coming from my hard drive. I was all ready to return it to the manufacturer, when I came across this thread in a discussion group. There's evidently a software issue with the drive. When idle, it performs "housekeeping" which results in an occasional high pitched whine. Fortunately, there's a utility I could download and it did the trick. Now, my computer is very quiet.

I need to wait until the DSL modem drivers are released so I can install the modem. It feels like half a computer without the ability to connect to the Internet. Hopefully Qwest customers are putting the heat on and it will be released shortly.

It turns out there was a fairly serious heat issue with the case. When running a CPU-intensive application (Return to Castle Wolfenstein) for awhile, the CPU temperature would get over 60 C. This wasn't acceptable, so I headed back over to my dad's house for some case-cutting goodness. After an hour or so, we had one of the quiet Papst fans mounted in the side, right above the CPU. The case is now running with a CPU fan and the rear case fan only, but it runs around 42 C even under load. Quiet too.

The only other piece I wanted to work on with my CPU is to go the overclocking path. Partly just to see how far I could push the CPU. The overclocking process was tedious, filling the gaps with super glue and bridging the contacts using a rear-window defogger repair kit. It was one of the times when I was glad I'm nearsighted. I popped out a contact, then held the CPU an inch from my face while I put on the conductive paint. For those curious about the entire process, you can read about it here.

The results were okay, though not as impressive as I'd like. For some reason, the multipliers 13x and above didn't take, which I'm hoping was a BIOS issue. The 12x multiplier worked as 12.5x, resulting in a CPU speed of 1.67 Ghz. Unfortunately, Unreal Tournament didn't appear to be stable at that speed. Since the speed difference wasn't that great, I dropped it back to the default and I'm running 1.53 Ghz again.

Still waiting for the Windows XP drivers for my Intel DSL modem. Qest released drivers for the other two modems they have, so you think mine would be soon. 13 days left in my Windows Activation thingie. Annoying.

Back to case modifications

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Enlight 7200 Desktop case
HP 9900ci CD/CD-R/DVD drive
Altec Lansing ADA885 TXH-certified 4.1 speakers
AMD 1.53 Ghz Palimino
EPOX 8KHA+ motherboard
Alpha PAL8045 heatsink
2 Papst 8412 NGL fans
80GB Seagate Barracuda ATA IV
Ultra Quiet 300W ATX730 power supply
Leadtek GeForce3 Ti200
SoundBlaster Audigy Gamer
Microsoft Internet Keyboard
Microsoft Optical Mouse