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Case Smithing: The Mod Workshop - Case Modding Tools You Need

John Williamson aka Pwnography6 joins TweakTown to bring us up to speed on the world of case modding. In his first article he tells us what sorts of tools are a must for the modding toolbox.

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Published Wed, Nov 14 2012 1:40 PM CST   |   Updated Tue, Nov 3 2020 7:01 PM CST

Introduction

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As long as humans have walked the earth we have felt the need to express ourselves through modification and customisation of our appearance and environment. In ancient times people modified their bodies with piercings and tattoos, although these practises have continued to this day the term "Modify" can now apply to a much broader range of activities. Now days we choose to "Mod" everything from cars, guitars and Nerf Guns, throwing manufacturers warranties to the wind in the search for that unique head turning masterpiece.

This brings us to computer modification which in recent years has become a big Industry, producing stunning rigs and some great builder success stories. PC customisation has definitely become more than just a niche in the PC market, and no longer just revolves around transforming the hideous beige box cases of yesteryear. The beauty of computer customization is it can bring that old PC back to life at a fraction of the price of purchasing a new case.

So, maybe you have been inspired by a favourite game, movie or peer build and want to delve into the world of PC modifying. You may have decided on a few ideas and want to take the next step. First things first, what tools do you need for the job? From amateur to pro and competition builders, a modder's tool box consists of some universal components.

Let's have a look at what tools will help make those mods go smoothly and exactly to plan. I have provided a rough price guide based on prices of average quality tools.

Planning and Safety Gear

Planning

Although this is an obvious first step to any mod it is also the most vital. A good plan should consist of accurate measurements, colour schemes and whatever other important information your mod is going to involve.

Writing out a build log is a useful way of keeping track of what you need to do as well as saving you overlooking any essential build details. Another useful tool for more advanced project planners is Google Sketch up or Adobe Illustrator. This software allows users to create 3D "Mock Ups" of projects helping determine end results and measurements with perfect accuracy.

Safety Gear

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An often overlooked aspect of modifying and using power tools is using the proper safety gear. After working around building sites and carpenters for years I have seen quite a lot of power tool related injuries some of which involved tradesmen with 30 + years of everyday experience.

This being said, use your safety gear, even a one inch cut into the softest material is enough time to mess up and loose a finger. Remember what your mother told you, "your greatest tools are your hands and eyes."

Glasses - $5

Get in the habit of putting these on when you enter your work area, there is nothing worse than cutting or grinding something only to be reminded that you aren't wearing your protective gear when you have a really close "shave".

Safety glasses are inexpensive and easy to find a pair with good safety standard. I own a clear pair and a tinted pair (which are useful for jobs with sparks or bright lights.)

Gloves - $5

Hot surfaces, jagged edges and sharp cuts can lead to some nasty injuries. Grab yourself some lightweight leather gloves. I cannot count the amount of times my gloves have saved my hands from injury.

Power Tools

With such a wide range of power tools it is sometimes hard to decide what tools you really need. Fortunately there are three common tools that are capable of most tasks - Drill, Rotary Tool and Jigsaw.

I try to stick with corded tools over cordless as batteries have a nasty habit of not being charged when you really need them. Remember that most metals used in a majority of cases aren't very thick, so you don't need the most powerful and expensive tools on the market.

Drill - $40

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Most people will have a drill already, but if you don't and are planning on buying one, do some research first. When purchasing a drill you first need to decide on corded or cordless, remember to check each units drilling capacity through desired materials.

Drills are useless without some drill bits. A basic set will suffice for most people, but for more extreme mods like adding large case fan holes a set of Hole Saws may come in handy.

Rotary Tool - $40

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Probably the most commonly used, multi-faceted tool in any modder's toolbox. With the ability to cut, polish, sand, file, etch and countless other applications the rotary tool is used in almost every cutting or grinding related task. Some people confuse the name of this tool with Dremel, which is in fact just a brand of rotary tool.

Rotary tools come with an almost endless range of attachments and extras and you may find yourself a bit overwhelmed. I usually just purchase a rotary accessory kit when I need to stock up as they tend to be a bit cheaper and are an easy way to stock up on multiple attachments at once.

The only recommendations I have when it comes to rotary tools are choose one with multiple speeds, this will allow for a much wider range of applications. Also when purchasing cutting discs it is usually better paying a bit more and getting diamond cutting wheels. Diamond wheels are a lot more durable and will save some time and frustration with standard broken discs.

Jigsaw - $50

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The most practical tool for cutting case panels and acrylic the jigsaw has some very diverse uses. Whether cutting out venting, creating a complete window modification or with some practise cutting out fan holes, a Jigsaw with the right blade will get the job done. When purchasing a jigsaw check that your preferred saw can handle cutting the desired materials and thickness's that your mods may involve.

Jigsaw blades come in many different types for cutting through different materials. I like to have blades suitable for plastic (acrylic) and metal at hand at all times.

Sander - $50

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Palm or orbital sanders are not an essential power tool, but are good for lazy modders or larger sanding jobs. You can pick a good name brand palm sander up for around $50 - the last tool I purchased was a great little palm sander. I was amazed by the features for the price; it included a dust filter and a micro corner sanding tip making it perfect for even tiny sanding tasks.

Palm sanders have a large variety of different grit sanding pads available. Pick your grit and sanding pad size according to the job at hand and the brand of sander you own.

Hand Tools

Sometimes a bit of elbow grease is needed and we need to trade in the convenience of power tools for the accuracy of good old fashioned hand tools. Most hand tools are cheap and can be purchased from a variety of stores, a thrifty shopper should be able to pick up all the tools on this list for around $50.

Measuring - $5

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Perfect cuts and measurements are impossible without the right tools. Sure, a straight stick is nifty, but will never get things perfect.

A good metal ruler and set square will solve any accuracy issues you might face. I suggest the metal ones as wood and plastic tend to get damaged easily when used in conjunction with knives. A compass and protractor can also come in handy when marking out or making patterns for fan and blow holes.

Files - $15 for a set

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Files are great for finite jobs that involve cleaning up edges or shaving off those tiny pieces of excess metal or acrylic.

I like to have a larger set of files in various shapes and coarseness ranges alongside a set of needle or jewellers files for small intricate jobs. I would also recommend getting a set of wire brushes for cleaning your files. Clean debris free files are a lot more effective than poorly maintained sets.

Screwdrivers- $15 for a set

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There is no such thing as too many screwdrivers.

Any good toolbox should have a set of large, medium and mini screwdrivers consisting of a mixture of flat and Phillips head. I also like to have a magnetic set handy for retrieving lost screws and installing awkwardly positioned items.

Pliers - $10

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Pliers are one of those tools that are hard to explain their purpose. Personally I use them for everything from removing cut panels and large burs to holding wires in place and managing hot materials. They have a myriad of uses and are one of the most multipurpose tools I own. Choose sizes and styles to match your individual needs.

Cutting Tools - $5

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I like to have a variety of cutting knives and utensils in my arsenal. My personal favourite cutting tool would be my X-acto knife set consisting of a large choice of blades. I know these sets can be a pain to find in some places, but substitutes like box cutters and Stanley knives are a decent and easy to find alternative. Another principal cutting tool is a good pair of scissors these are ideal for wiring/sleeving jobs as well as cutting those pesky packaging cable ties.

Like all pointy tools keep your blades sharp, dull edges will always make an easy job twice as hard, and usually with sub-standard results. Keep your blades sharp and guarantee yourself a near perfect finish every time.

Nibbler - $20

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Nibbler tools are designed for more precise sheet metal cutting and are a great for modders who aren't so confident with power tool cutting. They do not cut fast meaning they require some patience, but the end result speaks for itself, clean precise cuts.

If you don't yet own a nibbler I would suggest going and picking one up they sell for around $20 and offer amazing results. A must own for any mod box.

Hand Tools Continued

Clamp - $5

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Clamps come in a huge range of size and styles and chances are will be reused across a number of different jobs. Small clamps can be used for smaller wiring and solder tasks. Whereas medium and larger clamps are useful for holding components in place when cutting or even painting things like PCI and 5.25" bay covers.

Paint Applicator Gun - $10

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This ingenious tool makes using spray packs a little bit easier. This device fits onto spray cans and uses a trigger handle that makes even consistent painting graspable for even the worst painters. I have also found that these types of paint applicators prevent hand cramps from extended painting sessions.

Sleeving

One of the most common and price wise mods today is cable sleeving. Cable sleeving is one of those tasks that is easy to learn and impossible to master. A low cost way of instantly changing you cases interior looks and although being time consuming the end result can be the make or break factor on larger builds. Sleeving requires very few tools besides your own two hands and tools that do have to be purchased are fairly inexpensive.

Crimping Tools - $10

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Whether you have a broken connection or are extending wires you will need a tool for crimping on the connectors. It's a simple to use tool, which can be substituted with some small needle nose pliers for modders on a budget.

Wire Strippers - $10

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Used for removing the plastic casing on wires. Sure, you can fluke a perfect cut with your scissors or knife, but for the sake of a few dollars, why would you risk damaging wires? Available in a range of styles my personal favourite is the old school clamp style.

Heat Gun - $35

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Heat guns are used for heating up heat shrink allowing it to shrink down and hold sleeving in place. They are fairly cheap and usually have settings for two temperatures. I have seen girlfriend's hair dryers and lighters used for heat shrink before, but you just can't beat the control of a heat gun.

The other benefit of a heat gun over other "tools" is you can use it for acrylic work like bending if you ever plan to travel down that mod path. Re-enacting scenes from movies with heat guns is another favourite of a few modders I know - only when they think nobody is watching, of course!

Soldering Iron - $15

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Essential for joining or re-attaching mistreated wires, soldering irons are readily available from most hobby shops and deceivingly easy to use. Paired with some good quality solder wire and some old PCB's, soldering is a skill you can teach yourself from a guide in a few hours, and is invaluable for cable modding.

Multimeter - $10

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As with all mods and customisation work there is always a risk of damaging your components. If you have previously learnt to solder, chances are you can fix the problem yourself. A multimeter is a handy tool for monitoring voltages and electrical values on components. Most multimeters are straight forward to use and give you a range of readings and outputs for whatever components you suspect are faulty from wiring to LEDs.

Supplies and Final Thoughts

Supplies

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There are a few more crucial items that no good tool box should go without. Remember to keep your stocks up on all the following must have supplies.

Tapes - $2

Tape is a necessary element in most mods with a huge selection on the market. A lot of people recommend 3M tapes as they are of a professional grade and do exactly what the package describes.

Masking tape is great for marking out cases with straight lines and screw holes. Low Tack tape is ideal for painting as it peals of very easily without damaging paint or other delicate surfaces.

Double Sided Mounting tape can be used for mounting components like water pumps, lights and can even be used to hold acrylic case windows panels in place. Electrical tape is handy when cable sleeving I use different colours to identify my wires and for taping off plugs for easier sleeving.

Glues - $5

Glue isn't the most commonly used adhesive when it comes to case modding and types will vary depending on what surfaces you are trying to stick. The most common type used is the glue gun - these are very cheap and refill sticks are also inexpensive. I also like to have good epoxy glue like araldite handy for stubborn glue jobs.

Sandpaper - $3 for a pack

Tasks like lapping CPU's and painting use a wide variety of different grit sandpapers from the very course 200 to the very light 2400 grit. It is also a good idea to have a selection of wet and dry sandpaper as different finishes requires different paper.

Cable Ties - $2

Cable ties are the ultimate tool in any modders arsenal allowing for mounting anything anywhere. Available in different colours, lengths and even reusable Velcro ties, the humble cable tie has come a long way. Easily the most essential tool for cable management allowing even the most experienced builder to get the ultimate clean and airflow friendly case.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion you don't need to spend thousands of dollars on the "best" tools.

In the past I have put off buying necessary tools and just getting by with what I had at hand, instead spending the money on other build components. But after two or three mods I quickly learnt that the proper tools are an investment, as chances are you will use the aforementioned tools for numerous projects not limited to just your modding hobbies.

Take your time, research tools and prices thoroughly before you purchase and in no time at all you will find yourself equipped for any job!

Mod now, sleep later.

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John Williamson aka Pwnography6 joins TweakTown to bring us up to speed on the world of case modding.

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