As computer builders and modders we spend hours on getting the inside aesthetics of our computers just right. We add things like water cooling and lighting along with whatever else we can think of to make our individual PC stand out from the crowd. In realizing this, the market has adapted offering windows in a majority of today's mainstream chassis, although like most things, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Perhaps you have decided on a case that has exactly the features that you need, but has one downfall - it hasn't got a window. A prime example of this is the BitFenix Prodigy or Cooler Master Cosmo II. Other examples where a window mod may be handy are cases like the Antec DF-85 or Cooler Master HAF-X.
Both are factory installed with a window in the side panel, but these cases have uniquely designed windows that don't really take full advantage of the size of the panels, and instead concentrate on airflow. However, maybe airflow isn't your thing, and you would rather add a huge window showcasing your PC's glorious interior.
Join me as we venture into the world of window modding!
Planning and Design
One of the things I enjoy most about window mods is you are only limited by your own creativity - perhaps you would like a round or T shaped window, the options are endless. When deciding on window size, shape and placement there are a few things one should consider:
- Which parts would we like to be showcased?
- Will I need a side panel fan for GPU cooling?
- Do I want to hide my bays?
- Sturdiness of cut side panel
For this guide I have decided to install a window into the very popular BitFenix Prodigy case. I was going to mount a triangle window for this mod, but it would have obscured the internal parts I was trying to highlight. The other major determining factor here is will the side panels keep their structural integrity once cut?
Luckily most modern case manufacturers have realised we all love to chop up their products, and this is a good thing as most companies now include fairly solid side panels, with the Prodigy being no exception. It is very important to remember to keep sturdiness in mind when designing your own windows.
We will also need a few extra materials for this project. Obviously the most vital piece is a sheet of acrylic. Acrylic comes in a variety of colours with prices dependent on the size of the piece needed. I would also recommend using 3mm thick acrylic for window mods. When purchasing your acrylic I suggest taking the measurements with you as it saves buying more than is needed. Some stores even offer a cutting service which can be handy if you are worried about cutting acrylic yourself.
The only other item you may need to purchase is some double sided mounting tape - I like 3M #4010 as it sticks forever. We will also need some U-Channel moulding for hiding those unsightly edges later.
To start off draw a few shapes on some paper, or if you are feeling adventurous, this is the perfect first sketch up project as it is just a single panel.
Once we have determined the shape it's time to move our ideas on to the panel itself, tape your panel up and mark out your window. For complex shapes where only select parts are shown measure out where the motherboard and front bays sit marking them on the side panel accordingly. This way you will avoid having unwanted bays, PSU's or other less desirable components showing through your window.
Cutting the Case
Now for the fun part - cutting into your beautiful brand new case for the first time is something that is very hard to explain. Not unlike filling up your new water cooling loop or pouring your first LN2 bench session, that initial cut is a mixture of panic, anxiety and excitement.
First off you will need to decide what sort of cutting implement you are most comfortable with. Some people like to use rotary tools and some prefer a jigsaw. I have decided to use a jigsaw with a metal blade as it's a bit quicker for long straight lines.
When using a jig you will have to make four insert holes for the blade, these will need to be made at all four corners. To do this start by drilling a small pilot hole about 10mm from the inside edges of the proposed cuts.
Pilot holes are essential for panel work as it saves the bigger drill bits from straying and damaging the panel. Once you have damaged a panel you very quickly learn that is a lot easier to take the time to drill a 15 second pilot as opposed to hours of sanding and painting to fix a mistake!
I have been a little careless with my panel as it will be sanded and painted after cutting is complete.
After finishing up with the small drill bit it is time to pull out the big guns. We need to create a hole large enough for the jigsaw blade to be inserted so choose a bit accordingly. Following the same techniques as used for the pilot holes carefully bore out your jigsaw insert.
With the insert positions for the blade created we can now begin to cut out the window. Clamp the panel to some scrap wood or a cutting table, prepare your safety gear along with a brand new metal cutting blade. Once completely prepared place the jigsaw blade through the predrilled insert and begin the cut.
When making your first cut work inwards towards the closest line to your starting point, make sure not to twist the blade. Aim this initial cut on only a slight angle aiming for the cutting line, once reached straighten out and continue onwards down the marked line. Remember as long as you stay on the inside of the cutting line you can always re-cut or file off any mistakes or excess. Cut slowly and as always let the tool do the work, take special care when coming into the corners with some patience you can get perfectly joined square corner. Take your time and get the cuts right at this stage and you will save some time with the clean-up.
Once we have made our way around the entire piece the excess metal should just fall away. Now remember the side panel will be hot so give it a few minutes to cool before handling with bare hands. After the panel has cooled grab your trusty file and start working any extra metal back to the cutting marks, also making sure to remove any burs and jagged edges in the process.
Tip - Use some WD40 to help keep the cutting process cool and lubricated which will equal cleaner cuts!
Working with acrylic is one of those things you either love or hate - personally I enjoy working with acrylic or plexi as it always provides new challenges. For this window mod we will be focusing solely on the basics of cutting straight lines.
When measuring the acrylic up for the window take an extra moment to measure everything accurately. Another thing to keep in mind, when using a large panel, try to plan out cuts so you have the least amount of waste possible. The acrylic needs to be cut larger than the panel gap to allow for mounting so add around 1.5" to your original panel measurements. For example, if your case panel is 26x50 inches, your acrylic will need to be cut around 27.5 x 51.5 inches.
Before getting to any cuts I would first like to point out the main problem encountered when cutting or drilling acrylic or any other type of plastic. That problem being when chopping up acrylic the heat caused by power tool blades will cause your materials to melt. This leads to burnt, melted and generally untidy edges and makes to whole process a lot more work. But the answer to this problem is a simple one... water. Keep in mind we are using power tools so proceed with caution keeping in mind that only a MINIMAL amount of liquid is used.
Using a small atomizer (spray) bottle to occasionally mist the cutting surface is an easy way to control the heat. Please note that if beads of water are flicking off your blade you have used way too much - stop what you are doing and wait for everything to dry! Utilising a wet cut method will also polish the edge of the acrylic as you cut giving a finish with a closer to clear optical clarity.
Over the years I have tried using all types of different jigsaw blades for cutting acrylic, from metal and wood blades, with combinations of blunt and new. Nowadays I use a slightly blunt metal blade which seems to cut the best for my needs. You may want to try a few different blades yourself on some scrap to test results. So for my cut I will continue to use the same blade I used to cut the case panels. Spray the sheet with some water from your sprayer and proceed to slowly start cutting the acrylic. Cut slowly letting the tool take the entire work load, making sure not to apply too much pressure to the sheet or blade.
Like most long cuts aim for one long single cut paying careful attention to your guide lines, while at the same time being mindful of melting and countering with a misting of H20. If enough water has been used and you have taken your time you should end up with a nice clean, clear cut. However, if you do end up with some less than desirable edges, they are relatively easy to clean up. Using some low grit wet and dry sandpaper give those haggard edges a once over, again it pays to keep the surfaces wet as the acrylic will be a lot more manageable.
Fitting and Finishing
We are ready to mount so it's time to pull out the ever trusty double sided mounting tape. Like always I would suggest 3M mounting tape. 3M is a lot thinner than standard mounting tape which gives a closer to flush finish when adding things like windows. Like normal my 3M tape eludes me so you may notice the tape I am using is a slightly thicker dimension and requires a bit more patience to achieve an acceptable finish with. Run some strips of tape around the inside edge of your case panel, leaving a small 10mm gap between the edge and tape placement. This gap is so we can fit the U-Channel easily in the next step.
Next remove the protective film from one side of the acrylic window, also remove the backing from the exposed side of the case tape. Carefully line up the top of the sheet with the tape at a 45 degree angle and slowly apply the sheet to the tape working your way towards the bottom till the surfaces are joined.
We can now take care of those unsightly edges as well as clean up the ugly join between the metal case panel and acrylic window. I have mentioned it before that U-Channel is great for hiding edges and should be a permanent fixture in everyone's mod arsenal. Measure out the amount of moulding you need and add a few extra mm's just to be safe, concentrate on cutting the U-Channel ends straight as this will make joining up later a lot simpler.
Before starting you must remember that you will have to join the moulding up at one point - for this I like to place the join around an inch out from a corner. Joining on the corner may seem like the easiest method, but you will end up having an untidy L shape join instead of a clean fluid join.
Installing the U-Channel after the window is a touch fiddley as the back lip of moulding will need to be pushed between the case and the acrylic. This may seem like the harder way to apply the moulding, but with the panel in place providing compression, it helps to hold the u-channel in place as you work your way around. Once the moulding is in your desired location you may find that a few sections are being bothersome and moving out of place. If this is the case use some epoxy glue and apply a small amount to the inside edge of the channel. Use some clamps or tape to hold the moulding in place while it dries and you should end up with a nice straight finish.
Success! We have a window - flip your panel over and admire your work. At most this mod will cost around $25 which when compared to a lot of the aftermarket window panels that some manufacturers offer, it is a cheap solution.
Although this guide goes over the basics of window installation and modification, we are not limited to the ideas I have suggested. With extra mods like adding cooling vents or fan holes adding personalized etching or even experimenting with colours and cold cathodes the humble window mod can become much more complicated and unique.
So, why not experiment and see what you can come up with for yourself!
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