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:
The construction of the frame was conceptually simple, and comprised of 3 elements:
- Square tube framing
- 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.
- 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.
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:
Put the mitered square tube lengths with the corner brackets and voila: you’ve got a joint.
Put the square tube framing together with the corner brackets and appropriate mounting frame work and you’ve got a frame.
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:
Next, I added an important internal structure shelf. This shelf serves multiple purposes:
- Supports the motherboard tray
- Supports the power supply
- Supports the 5.25″ bay rack
The curved plastic panels are to accommodate airflow for a radiator underneath.
Now you can really see how things are going to lay out:
Fabricated the motherboard tray.
Cut and hung the plastic panels.
Here it is with the frame and panels in place.
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.
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.
I employed almost every trick in the book to organize the wiring in this case. Here were some tricks I used:
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.
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.
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.
Then I went ahead and installed my system components–Abit IP35, Q6600, and 8800GTS.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Although the major heat components are watercooled, airflow is still critical to any case.
In the next figure, I highlight my airflow design.
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.
And that pretty much concludes my tour of my Exoframe. I leave with a few more pics.
- 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
- 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
- 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.