The Navig Exoframe Project

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The Concept

This project began more as a design concept.  I wanted to build a modular and customizable-sized frame case structure.  The frame was to be made from stock square aluminum tube.  However, I did want to make it into a complete enclosure, so I planned to hang translucent plastic sheets for paneling.  Here was my little twist: instead of just having the whole thing covered in plastic sheeting, thus making it look like a standard plastic “cube case” type mod, I wanted to inset the plastic paneling, so that the actual metal framing would be exposed.  Hence, “Exoframe”.

Then, I set about determining the details.

Modular sizing: The design was completely scalable, but I decided to go ridiculously large.  At the time I wanted to dive into watercooling, so I decided I wanted a huge case, an ultimate case, essentially a case that I would never feel cramped in.

Other requirements: Again, I wanted to enclose a watercooling loop, including 2 radiators.

Performance: I always lean towards performance, so I designed in rational airflow.

Here was my initial sketch, with some add-on highlights for the general size and layout of components:

This was a general sketch of my case.  Overall, it is a cube shape with one sloped face, generally bisected with the hard drives and mobo tray in one half, and the 5.25" bays and PSU in the other.

This was a general sketch of my case. Overall, it is a cube shape with one sloped face, generally bisected with the hard drives and mobo tray in one half, and the 5.25" bays and PSU in the other.

The Construction

The construction of the frame was conceptually simple, and comprised of 3 elements:

  1. Square tube framing
  2. Corner brackets to hold the framing together–unfortunately I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to weld aluminum, so this frame will be held together by screws and rivets.
  3. Scaffolding/bracketry to hold the PC components.

Based on my concept drawing, I made a cut list for my square tube framing.  I mitered the ends to hide my seams.

That's it!  This is essentially the whole frame of this project, minus screws and rivets.

That's it! This is essentially the whole frame of this project, minus screws and rivets.

You would think you could find this off-the-shelf, but I scoured far and wide and could only find custom-machining quotes.  So, I went ahead and made these by hand by myself from 1/4″ plastic:

Corner brackets were made from hand cut pieces of plastic then glued together with IPS#3.

Corner brackets were made from hand cut pieces of plastic then glued together with IPS#3.

Put the mitered square tube lengths with the corner brackets and voila:  you’ve got a joint.

The three mitered bars come to a point, held in place by the corner brackets.

The three mitered bars come to a point, held in place by the corner brackets.

Put the square tube framing together with the corner brackets and appropriate mounting frame work and you’ve got a frame.

The frame comes together for the first time.

The frame comes together for the first time.

You may note that one corner is slightly different from the rest.  I didn’t want a complete rectangle case, so one corner is going to have a slant face (which will house the switch panel).  Breaking it up a little for the sake of aesthetics.

This frame is at the whole heart of the design of this case, which is why the project is titled the Exoframe.  All the necessary intrinsic components will hard mount to this frame.  The plastic panels will give the illusion of a fully enclosed case, but they are pretty much just decoration.

For this reason the frame had to be solid by itself (paneling does add some rigidity).  Here is a test showing both the lightweight and stable nature of the case:  Exoframe Structural Integrity

Here I tested the general layout of the components:

Testing the general layout of my pc components.

Testing the general layout of my pc components.

Next, I added an important internal structure shelf.  This shelf serves multiple purposes:

  1. Supports the motherboard tray
  2. Supports the power supply
  3. Supports the 5.25″ bay rack

The curved plastic panels are to accommodate airflow for a radiator underneath.

Notice the floating shelf support. This shelf adds stability, is a support for multiple pc components and accommodates a radiator underneath.

Now you can really see how things are going to lay out:

The front half of the case contains the hard drive cage and motherboard tray.

The front half of the case contains the hard drive cage and motherboard tray.

The backside will hold the 5.25” bay, power supply, and lower and upper radiators. As you can see, the station can accommodate multiple radiators, even quad 120 mm rads.

Fabricated the motherboard tray.

A completely custom motherboard tray.  Back panel is 1/8" bronze plastic (to match the exterior), base is made from 1/4" clear acrylic.  Accommodates a 120 mm fan and has a thru-panel to access the backside of the cpu socket, often critical for mounting waterblocks.

A completely custom motherboard tray. Back panel is 1/8" bronze plastic (to match the exterior), base is made from 1/4" clear acrylic. Accommodates a 120 mm fan and has a thru-panel to access the backside of the cpu socket, often critical for mounting waterblocks.

Cut and hung the plastic panels.

Here I am cutting and hanging one of the large face panels. Of course, there are many sub-cutouts for fans, 5.25” bay bracket, PSU brackets, etc.

Here I am cutting and hanging one of the large face panels. Of course, there are many sub-cutouts for fans, 5.25” bay bracket, PSU brackets, etc.

Here it is with the frame and panels in place.

Here the solid rough panels are hung.  I went with the 2 picture window sides blue, and the front, top, back, and bottom are dark bronze.

Here the solid rough panels are hung. I went with the 2 picture window sides blue, and the front, top, back, and bottom are dark bronze.

Although it may seem mostly complete, there was still a lot of work to be done.

First, I had to make the cutouts in the panels for my 5.25″ bays, fan and radiator ports, power supply port.

I had to carefully make all the cutouts in the large panels.  For example, this is the back panel, so it has cutouts for the motherboard tray and power supply unit.  Other cutouts included ones for fans, radiators, 5.25” bay stack, switches, and so on.

I had to carefully make all the cutouts in the large panels. For example, this is the back panel, so it has cutouts for the motherboard tray and power supply unit. Other cutouts included ones for fans, radiators, 5.25” bay stack, switches, and so on.

Wiring this beast was an enormous undertaking itself.  As I had it planned, I had to a create a wiring harness to accommodate 13 fans, 5×5.25″ devices, 9 hard drives, and 4 cold cathodes, sometimes components separated by 4 feet of wire.

Wiring madness.  Here I've highlighted the route of wiring just for the cold cathodes--some of these wires are 4 foot long.

Wiring madness. Here I've highlighted the route of wiring just for the cold cathodes--some of these wires are 4 foot long.

I employed almost every trick in the book to organize the wiring in this case.  Here were some tricks I used:

Fan Wiring

There were some 13 fans mounted in the case, 8 alone for the 2 2×120 radiators.  Most of the fans were put on 2 banks of connectors, which I fabricated from some off-the-shelf components.  I took these 6 fan PCI rack pass-thrus, cut them up, mounted them internally, and now I could control 6 fans simultaneously.  It’s important to use low amp fans and a hi-capacity fan controllers to avoid burning anything out.

.  Started with a standard 6 fan (3 pin connection) PCI pass thru component.

. Started with a standard 6 fan (3 pin connection) PCI pass thru component.

Cut it up a bit, and mounted it to an internal frame bracket.

Cut it up a bit, and mounted it to an internal frame bracket.

Here is that fan multiplier in action.  It is so inconspicuous that I've had to highlight it in orange.  Yet it is powering 6 fans on a controlled line, organizes the wires, and makes their plugs easily accessed.

Here is that fan multiplier in action. It is so inconspicuous that I've had to highlight it in orange. Yet it is powering 6 fans on a controlled line, organizes the wires, and makes their plugs easily accessed.

Switch Panel Wiring

The switch panel contains 3 switches (power-on, reset, and cold cathode power) and 2 LEDs (power-on and HDD activity), which represents 8 wires, some stretching over 4 feet.  To just run the lines around, the case would look like it was strewn with jungle vines.  So I employed one of my neatest tricks.  I ran large lengths of the cables within the tubular framing itself.

For example, if you look closely back at my wiring diagram for the cold cathodes, you will notice that large lengths of the wire run within the frame itself.

The switch panel is at the top left of the picture, but the devices it controls are feet away.  Here I've removed 2 members of the square tube frame (red arrows indicate where they came from) and drilled in some access holes (blue arrows).

The switch panel is at the top left of the picture, but the devices it controls are feet away. Here I've removed 2 members of the square tube frame (red arrows indicate where they came from) and drilled in some access holes (blue arrows).

This is actually one continuous cable bundle being fed thru the access holes and snaked within the square tube frame--the route is indicated by the blue arrows.

This is actually one continuous cable bundle being fed thru the access holes and snaked within the square tube frame--the route is indicated by the blue arrows.

The end result is a super clean switch panel where the wires seem to just disappear.

The end result is a super clean switch panel where the wires seem to just disappear.

Once the frame, panels, and wiring was complete, it was time to start installing components.

First, I laid out my watercooling elements.  I went with clear 3/4″ OD tubing with black anti-kink coils, Laing pump, suspended EK reservoir, and 2 2x120mm Swiftech radiators and blocks (more details later).

Here I am filling the system and leak testing.

Watercooling circuit is complete and I'm filling and bleeding.

Watercooling circuit is complete and I'm filling and bleeding.

Then I went ahead and installed my system components–Abit IP35, Q6600, and 8800GTS.

Components are installed, and it is time to fire her up!

Components are installed, and it is time to fire her up!

And that concludes the summary of how I constructed this case.  It was a lot of fun, mixing all kinds of techniques.  The framing and case construction went well and quickly–it truly is a versatile design.  The details, especially wiring, took the majority of the effort into this build.

Tour of the Completed Project

Now that you’ve seen the system in construction, I’m going to jump to the completed project and show you what I’ve built and why!

Here is the front of my station.  Although mostly a cube type case, I hung the top front panel at an angle to give it some architectural interest, while maintaining the exoframe.  This panel houses the power button (with LED for power-on), reset button (with LED for hard drive activity), and cold cathode button.  There are 5x 5.25” bays, one has my DVD burner and the other a high capacity Sunbeam fan controller.  Also there are 2 120 mm fan intakes, dust filtered, which move air across the hard drives.

Here is the front of my station. Although mostly a cube type case, I hung the top front panel at an angle to give it some architectural interest, while maintaining the exoframe. This panel houses the power button (with LED for power-on), reset button (with LED for hard drive activity), and cold cathode button. There are 5x 5.25” bays, one has my DVD burner and the other a high capacity Sunbeam fan controller. Also there are 2 120 mm fan intakes, dust filtered, which move air across the hard drives.

This is the motherboard side of the case.  Again, I chose translucent blue panels for the 2 large picture window side panels, then dark bronze plastic for the front, top, bottom, and backs.  Unlit, you get a hint of the components within.

This is the motherboard side of the case. Again, I chose translucent blue panels for the 2 large picture window side panels, then dark bronze plastic for the front, top, bottom, and backs. Unlit, you get a hint of the components within.

Hit the cold cathode lighting and now you can see the details of all the components.

Hit the cold cathode lighting and now you can see the details of all the components.

Better yet, the side panel is only head on by several screws--remove the panel completely and you have access to all the motherboard side components.

Better yet, the side panel is only head on by several screws--remove the panel completely and you have access to all the motherboard side components.

In the bottom right figure, I’ve removed the side panel for best viewing of the motherboard side components.

I’m running a Abit IP-35E with a Q6600 clocked at 3.6 GHz, 2 GB of Crucial RAM, and a G92 8800GTS.

I kept my watercooling simple: inflow and outflow to the CPU, inflow and outflow to the GPU.  Gives it a simple clean appearance, with low restriction to flow rate.  I’m using a Swiftech Apogee GTZ and a MCW60 waterblocks on the CPU and GPU, respectively. To give it a sleek look, the tubing appears to run parallel to the surface of the motherboard, with the last turn-ins done by Bitspower rotary adapters.  No giant loops of tubing (at least on this side).  The tubing itself is standard Tygon ½” ID ¾” OD tubing with black anti-kink coils.  You can also see the hard drive rack with 1 TB and 300 GB Seagate drives.  The racks are borrowed from Lian Li components, with tool free slide-in slide-out mounting.  I’ve got room for 9 drives.

You can also see the Pump-Reservoir column. I’m using an EK reservoir and a Laing DD5 pump with a Petrastechshop top.

Back side of the case as the I/O of the motherboard and the power supply.

Back side of the case as the I/O of the motherboard and the power supply.

Left side of the case contains the watercooling circuit, the power supply, and the 5.25” bays.

Left side of the case contains the watercooling circuit, the power supply, and the 5.25” bays.

The left hemisphere of the case mostly contains the power supply and the watercooling components.

You can trace my watercooling circuit:

My flow goes something like this: reservoir –> pump –> top radiator –> CPU –> bottom radiator –> GPU –> reservoir.

Additionally, a lot of my cables are hidden on this side. Two large areas of cable bundling are hidden on the bottom side of the shelf, beneath the 5.25″ bays and the power supply.

More Features

One great benefit of the design on this case is that all of the plastic panels are non-structural, and thus can simply be removed by several mounting screws.  This allows easy access to all sides of the components.

Panels all come off, allowing plenty of access to the internals.

Panels all come off, allowing plenty of access to the internals.

Panels off, even all the watercooling elements are accessible.

Panels off, even all the watercooling elements are accessible.

Although the major heat components are watercooled, airflow is still critical to any case.

In the next figure, I highlight my airflow design.

Blue squares represent the fan intakes (hopefully drawing in cool air), and the red squares outline the fan exhausts.

Blue squares represent the fan intakes (hopefully drawing in cool air), and the red squares outline the fan exhausts.

One aesthetic feature that I like to use for my cases is pairing large dark plastic paneling with bright internal lighting.  In normal lighting, you can get hints of the internal components.  However, turn on the internal lighting, and all the internal components become clearly visible.  Here are a number of random pics highlighting the internal lighting scheme.

Internally lit front view.

Internally lit front view.

Another lit up pic.

Another lit up pic.

Another lit up pic.

Another lit up pic.

Even the backside of the case is translucent.

Even the backside of the case is translucent.

And that pretty much concludes my tour of my Exoframe.  I leave with a few more pics.

Closing pics.

Closing pics.

Closing pics.

Closing pics.

Closing pics.

Closing pics.

Components:

  • Q6600 3.6 GHz
  • Abit IP35E
  • Crucial 2×1 GB RAM
  • Seagate hard drives 1 TB, 300 GB
  • Lite-On DVD burner
  • Sunbeam Rheobus
  • Corsair HX-620 W

Watercooling:

  • Laing DD5 with PTS top.
  • EK Reservoir 150
  • 2x MCR220 Swiftech radiators
  • CPU block-Swiftech Apogee GTZ
  • GPU block-Swiftech MCW60
  • G92 iandh heatsinks
  • Tygon ½” ID ¾” OD tubing with anti-kink coils
  • Distilled water, PT nuke

Approximate Cost:

  • Stock aluminum square tube: $50
  • Plastic sheet stock: $150
  • Brackets, nuts, and bolts: $50
  • Bay and hard drive brackets: $60
  • Switches: $40
  • Custom wiring: $10

Time: 5 months at about 6 hours per week. Total 120 hours.

Must thank:  My wife, supporters at the (now defunct) Abit forums, Overclockers forums, and Xtremesystems forums.

Navig

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Discussion
  1. This is some really nice, high-quality work. The removable, non-structural panels are a stroke of genius.
    One question: because the panels are removable, do they vibrate and contribute noise? I'd be worried about resonance issues.
    Thanks -- Paul
    PS: I miss Abit! My old AI7 motherboard was probably the highest-quality, quietest, lowest-worry one that I've ever had.
    hello sir
    1st of all am very thanks full to u that u upload the information about the mod of casing and water cooling, awesome and great work, i need a support from u that am also interesting to make the same case like u, i need the measurements and case frame sketch if it possible ten pleas shear or send it on email, l am very thanks full to u
    Hamza Shahid
    hamzas, I removed the personal email from your post. Assuming you yourself aren't a spammer, posting your email in an open forum is a recipe for receiving all kinds of fun spam when it gets picked up by roaming bots.
    I'm sure Navig can share some input in the thread or via PM should you want to go that route.
    Welcome to OCF! :welcome: