In honour of Custom PC being kicked off Twitter for being underage, we’re shining a light on one of our favourite regular features from the magazine. Each issue, a reader shares the story behind their custom-built PC. And this one is a beauty.
Inspired by Japanese Kumiko woodworking, Nick Falzone made this exquisite wooden scratch-build with a custom hard-tube water-cooling system.
What inspired you to build ‘Ikigai’ – what were your design influences and what look were you trying to achieve?
Nick: I wanted to make a compact, scratch-built case with a clean look and a small desk footprint. As for the aesthetics, I really wanted to combine my love of Japanese woodworking and design with my new CNC machine’s capabilities. I really wanted to incorporate Japanese Kumiko woodworking into the design and the wood choices were based on that decision.
The wenge wood that I used for the rest of the case has a modern look that helped contrast with the light-coloured Kumiko wood. I also wanted every aspect of the case to have a purpose, which helped to keep the case and wiring as clean as possible.
I chose the name ‘Ikigai’ firstly because I thought it sounded cool, plus most of my mods have Japanese names and I liked how the kanji (written characters) looked. The main reason, though, was because the term ‘ikigai’ means to find meaning in one’s life and, for the months that I worked on this mod, this is mostly what I thought about and spent my time doing.
How did you go about planning and designing this build?
Nick: I’m not very good at sketching, but I did a couple of rough sketches before I took it to CAD. The Cooler Master Case Mod contest for which I made this case has size constraints (under 20 litres), so I really had to squeeze it all into a smallish envelope.
It turns out I’m not great at using CAD either, so I made several full-scale models of the case out of cheap wood to see how it would all fit together in real life. The case design changed a lot with these models, as nothing seemed to turn out in real life like it did in CAD. This process also helped me work on the CNC G-code.
Tell us about the basic chassis. What materials did you use, and how did cut and shape them?
Nick: The case is a full scratch-build. Most of the hardware is centred around a sandwich layout, with most of the wiring in the centre panel of the case. The centre is made out of acrylic and contains most of the guts of the wiring and lighting, plus it had a distribution plate for the water-cooling system built into it. This piece alone took a long time to get right, as there were many different parts of it and I hadn’t made a distribution plate before.
I made several test iterations out of wood, which allowed me to check for fitment, check my G-code files and learn the process I would use to make the final product. The CNC mill does a lot of the work, but it still takes a lot of practice to anticipate any issues that might crop up with the manufacturing of the plate, and to optimise the order of operations.
In terms of layout, I have the I/O plate on the bottom. This is because I envisioned making a custom desk for this case, which will have a plate on the desktop to allow cables to be routed under the desk for a clean look. This also gave me the freedom to make the other sides of the case more decorative and in line with the rest of the case design.
That’s some amazing detail in front of the mesh on the front. How did you design the pattern and cut the wood to shape?
Nick: The pattern itself is a traditional Kumiko design that I’d wanted to make for years and this seemed like a great opportunity to use it. It’s based on a grid, so I wanted to play with the scale of the ‘flower’ portion of the pattern and use two different sizes of the main element. I made the design in CAD to make sure I had the proportions right and, once this was close enough, I milled up the wood to several different thicknesses to make the Kumiko piece.
I used Sitka spruce for the wood and left it unfinished. I started with the main grid and cut each piece by hand using traditional hand tools and techniques. With the main grid done, I turned to the flower portion and made angled blocks, using a hand plane to get consistent angles on each piece. From there, I finished each piece and put them into place, using only a few drops of glue to keep it together.
There are so many wooden details scattered around the power connectors, heatsinks and so on. Are these also made from wood?
Nick: These are all made from scraps of the wood used for the main case. I wanted every aspect to tie into the case design down to the smallest detail. I made most of the pieces with my CNC machine, usually making a couple of test pieces first. I made models of each piece in CAD, machined a test piece, then made the final piece out of the wenge wood. It was time-consuming but the details help to bring it all together.
Take us through the water-cooling loop – what parts did you use and how does it all hook up?
Nick: I used the distro plate to keep the loop as neat as possible, and because I didn’t have a ton of space with which to work. It all starts at the pump mounted in the distro plate, which also acts as a small reservoir. It then heads to the CPU waterblock, then to the radiator, back around to the GPU block, and then back into the distro plate and pump.
I used an Alphacool GPU block and radiator, EK fittings and an Optimus CPU block. It took a lot of mocking up to get all the parts matched up cleanly with as few bends and fittings as possible. This was also my first loop using hard plastic tubing, so getting the bends right took a lot of practice.
I used EK PETG tubing with a 12mm outer diameter. I used a heat gun and a couple of inexpensive forms to do the bends, and I cut the tubing with a PETG tubing shear and sanded the ends even and smooth. To get the lengths and angles right was mostly a process of trial and error. I probably threw away as much tubing as I eventually used.
How did you plan the lighting?
Nick: I was going to go no-RGB with this build, since I didn’t want to deal with routing all the RGB cables, but since the GPU block was going to have lights, I decided to add more. The fans I used from Cooler Master also have lights and only one cable, so they were easy to route.
There’s a RBG hub in the acrylic behind the graphics card, where all the lighting cables connect to go to the motherboard header. I was unsure if lighting the distro plate was doable, but I used a very cool and small strip of RGB lights from Alphacool and put them into a slot in the plate to light it up. The beauty of the RGB lightings is that I can make them whatever colour I want – I just used orange for most of the photos since I liked the warmth it added to the wood.
The cable tidying is immaculate for an open-air build – how did you hide all the cables and route them so tidily?
Nick: The cable routing was a big deal for me, especially with little room to hide excess cables. I started by using as few cables as possible – there are only two cables for the fans and their RGB lights, and only two other RGB strips. The cables that came with the Cooler Master power supply were already great, and didn’t have cable sheathing on them, making them thin already.
I used the 24-pin ATX cable as it came out of the box, but I remade the rest of the power cables using 16-gauge wire and custom cable combs. I used some space by the PSU to hide some cable slack, but there isn’t much, since I cut the cables to length. I stashed the rest of the cables into the acrylic portion behind the graphics and next to the motherboard’s 24-pin socket in the wenge cover plate area. Some of the cables took some creative soldering to get small enough to fit, but it all worked in the end.
Did you come across any difficulties?
Nick: The hardest aspects of the build process were dealing with the size constraints and the amount of time I had to finish the mod. I worked for around two months, almost every day, including nights after work, to get this case done by the contest deadline.
That would have taken a toll on me had I not been so excited about the project. The size constraint issues were mostly self-inflicted, but an extra centimetre here and there would have made my life a lot easier. I didn’t have a lot of specific difficulties – the hardest part was staying the course and working on the same project every day to get the case done in time. The planning in the earlier stages really paid off as far as avoiding stressful situations with the build production itself.
How long did the build process take from start to finish?
Nick: Going from the first concept to the finished product took me
around four months overall, but a lot of this time was spent on planning and design – the actual production time was pretty fast.
Are you happy with the end result, or do you wish you’d done some of it differently in retrospect?
Nick: I’m very pleased with how this case turned out. With the amount of time I took planning and designing every part down to the smallest detail, I was happy that the bigger picture of the case turned out to be cohesive too. I didn’t have a master drawing or render of how the case was going to look – it was mostly just a design in my head, so it was a relief when I made it all work well.
I have made a couple of changes since I took the photos. I’ve upgraded the Radeon RX 5700 card to a GeForce RTX 3080, which resulted in a new loop being made for the GPU side, and new wiring for that side as well. The new card is a lot smaller than the first one, so fitting it took a lot more reworking than I’d planned. I also upgraded the 650W SX power supply to the 850W version, but luckily they use the same cables. I upgraded the riser cable too, but otherwise, the build is still the way I made it originally.
I wouldn’t change much now, other than making more of a reservoir for the water-cooling loop. Getting the loop filled takes quite a while, and it got messy a couple times. Also, the on/off switch was an afterthought and I could have incorporated it better into the design.
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