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Having spent my early years as a lighting engineer, and later years as a data center technician, I’ve developed an abnormal fondness for rack mounted hardware of all kind – so building my own rack case was an obvious beginner woodworking Beginner's Woodworking: 5 Skills You Need to Know Beginner's Woodworking: 5 Skills You Need to Know Many people shy away from woodworking projects simply because they haven't done it before. Here's a rundown of the 5 most important woodworking skills to help you get started. Read More project.

You don’t need a lot of skill to make something that’s functional, but if you’re on the fence about why you’d even want a rack case, here’s some reasons to consider.

  • Organization: Building a cabinet around your computer case gives you ample opportunity to hide cables and other general untidiness. If you’re really messy you’ll find a way to make your rack messy too, but generally racks are easier to arrange and a variety of gear can aid in the task. If you need to transport lots of equipment regularly, you may find bundling it up into a rack is more convenient.
  • Customization: Sure, you could buy off-the-shelf racks for your gear, but it’s not nearly as satisfying or as customizable as building your own. Add handles on the side and wheels on the base; leave the sides open or enclosed; cover the case with carpet and add some ball corners for durability; it’s up to you. Entire companies exist to serve the “rack accessory” market!
  • Modular system: Rack are modular, with standards that dictate the width (19 inches), and height (measured in rack Units, or just “U”) of rackable devices. Slimline servers can be as thin as 1U; while a case designed to accommodate a full size modern graphics card would be 4U. 4U is 7 inches high. You can buy patch panels for cables, or blank panels to fill in the gaps, shelves to hold non-standard components, or a VESA mount for a small monitor. You can rearrange your rack kit, swap one device out for something else: it’ll all fit, because it’s all built to a single standard. And if you get bored or outgrow your current rack, you can upgrade to a better one and reuse everything.
  • Multiple computers: If you’re sitting with a couple of desktop towers around your feet, considering switching them over to rack mount cases instead; they’ll look a lot nicer mounted horizontally and stacked, just as you’d find stacks of servers neatly racked in a datacenter.

On the downside, rack gear generally isn’t cheap. As Kannon discussed in his guide to building a gaming PC from server parts How to Build an 8-Core Gaming PC from Cheap Server Parts How to Build an 8-Core Gaming PC from Cheap Server Parts Want a beefed-up gaming or video-editing PC with dual Intel Xeon processors for under $200? The parts are out there, but finding and putting them together could prove difficult. Read More , you might be able to find a bargain when your local college is clearing out old inventory, or scour eBay auctions (I found a 17″ pull-out monitor and keyboard for around $15!) – but generally speaking the cheapest rack case will cost more than the cheapest conventional tower case, and a rack-mounted socket strip will cost more than a standard one.

Convinced? Let’s do this.

Rosewill Server Chassis/Server Case/Rackmount Case, 4U Metal Rack Mount Server Chassis with 8 Bays ATX & CEB Rosewill Server Chassis/Server Case/Rackmount Case, 4U Metal Rack Mount Server Chassis with 8 Bays ATX & CEB Superb Scalability : With three 5.25-inch external bays (which can switch to a 3.5-inch HDD x 4 module), eight 3.5-inch internal drive bays, and seven expansion slots, you can expand your server computer easily. Buy Now At Amazon $68.94

Note: I’m going to switch between imperial and metric measurements at various points, because I’m British and we like to do that. 

Design

There’s a couple of basic designs for how to build a rack. The first is an open frame design, which leaves the option open to later cover the sides if you wish. The second is built directly from strong, thick wooden panels – MDF or plywood. The third is more typical in audio equipment flight cases, with thin plastic panels and modular connector blocks.

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I opted for the first design; an open frame, but with plans to cover some of the sides with thin plywood and speaker carpet later. I chose this in order to keep it lightweight but strong, but also because I wanted to possibly leave the top of the frame open for a projector to poke out of. None of the commercially available options seemed to offer this. These are the chicken scratches I started from, but ignore the measurements.

initial designs

You can stop laughing now. I admit, I tried to put my design into SketchUp 3D Design for Daily Life: How to Plan a Home DIY Project With Sketchup 3D Design for Daily Life: How to Plan a Home DIY Project With Sketchup Doing a home improvement project on your own isn't always a simple matter. Sometimes it seems simple enough when you get started, but before you know it, you realize that if you had just taken... Read More , but failed miserably as I realized what a steep learning curve it had. In the end, I tweaked measurements as I went along and didn’t have an exact schematic to work from. If you’d like to work from actual plans, I suggest TinkerCAD Tinkercad: Design 3D Objects For 3D printing Tinkercad: Design 3D Objects For 3D printing Read More instead – a free online solid modeller (albeit designed for 3D printing).

My main requirements were:

  • 12U height. This was to accommodate a 4U computer, a 3 or 4U drawer for storage, and a tray with adjustable height onto which a projector would be placed.
  • Depth of at least around 500mm, to fit the ATX case I’d bought, plus a little wiggle room for cables.
  • Rails on both the back and front (you may only want one side to have rackable rails, not needing access to the rear).

In any of the designs, you’ll also need to buy rack rails, which attach to the frame. You’ll find rack rails on Amazon or eBay – expect to pay around $20 for a pair of 12U rails. Rack equipment then bolts on to these rails, either directly or with “cage nuts”.

Construction

Since I’m not planning to overload a huge amount of weight into the rack, I decided 34mm square planed softwood was sufficient for the frame. You may need thicker depending on your final usage, but of course that’s going to end up heavier. For a non-portable taller server rack, standard 2×4 would be best.

You will also need some basic woodworking tools, but for a basic frame the only tool you may not already have is a Kreg Jig. These are inexpensive, beginner-friendly kits for making extremely strong pocket-hole joints, and I recommend getting one if you’d like a professional finish and good quality joints, while completely lacking in woodworking skills (as I am).

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Check out the short video below to find out how to use a Kreg Jig. You’ll also need to buy some 2″ Kreg screws.

Start by cutting 4 vertical corner pieces. These should be the length of your rack rails, plus twice the thickness of the wood (for the top and bottom supports), plus a few millimeters of wiggle room.

diy rack case construction -1- measuring

Cut the central supports for the racked sides next. Since all rack equipment is 19″ wide, these want to be just a little larger than 19″. This doesn’t have to be perfect – rack equipment is designed with a little wiggle room for the bolt holes anyway, though obviously too short or too large of a gap won’t work.

Bear in mind that if you want to add carpet later, you’ll probably want to tuck it under the rack rails, so you should therefore add a couple of millimeters for that, too. I ended up with 493mm (~19.4 inches) across. Cut on the large side if you’re not sure – you can always trim it down.

Use the Kreg Jig to join these to the vertical side pieces, forming a front and rear rack. The wood I’ve used is a little too thin to use two pocket holes side by side, so instead I drilled the holes on opposite corners of the wood (it’s important to use two holes or the joint will spin).

diy rack case construction - kreg joints

 

At this point, I went ahead and screwed on the rack rails to test the fit with my 4U server case. For heavy-duty use, you’ll want to bolt the rails to the frame using “Tee nuts” – these have teeth that lock onto the outside, and the bolts screw into them.

diy rack case construction -5 - front and back frame done

Satisfied, I moved onto the sides of the cube.  For these, 450mm seemed like a good length to fully enclose the computer, and leave enough at the back for cables not be jutting out. This length will be determined by your own equipment though – some servers are as deep as 32″.

diy rack case construction -6 first test

Once those are screwed it, the open frame rack is good enough to call it a day, though you might want to stain it first. I was prepared to scrap the whole thing and decide I needed thicker wood, but even with just 34mm planed square softwood, it’s extremely solid and ready for equipment to be mounted.

 

Rack handles were a must for me as I wanted this to be somewhat portable. The 34mm wood I’d used for the frame wasn’t wide enough for the screws on the handles though, so I cut some 450mm lengths of 18mm thick MDF, and again used pocket holes to secure them to the middle of the sides of the frame. Keep to the middle to avoid splitting the MDF. 

diy rack case construction -7 sidebar

To cover the sides, use a table saw, circular saw, or jigsaw (table saw being easiest, but most expensive and bulky tool to have) to cut some thin plywood to size (thin is fine – they won’t be taking any weight). You may also be able get your local DIY store to cut everything for you. I used both wood glue and some screws to secure these to the sides of the frame. You may also want to cover the top and bottom. 

diy rack case construction -8 side panels

Purely for aesthetics, I removed the rails and sprayed painted everything a rough single coat of black, then covered the frame and sides with heavy duty “speaker cabinet carpet”. Use strong carpet adhesive for this.

diy rack case construction -9 sprayed balck, carpet on

Lastly, I marked out holes for the rack handles, and drilled small pilot holes for the screws. This is especially important with MDF, which so dense that it will split easily without pilot holes. I also added some small wheels, though these may need to be replaced with heavier duty ones at some point.

diy rack case construction -11 handles

With the rack rails screwed in again, I mounted my new gaming PC case, a shelf for the projector, and a power strip. I’m still awaiting delivery of a 1U slide-out keyboard/monitor, and a 4U drawer to keep VR kit in, but this is essentially the finished product.

diy rack case construction -12 done

I hope I’ve inspired you to build your own rack; it’s fun to build, relatively easy, and a really convenient way to cart around a lot of computer gear.

The total cost worked out at around $100, a large chunk of which was on the carpet and rails. Your requirements will undoubtedly be different, but that’s the beauty of building and designed your own. If you need a stronger, larger rack, try these plans for a 20U rack from TomBuildsStuff.

diy rack case finished_

Questions, comments or suggestions? Ask away, and I’ll do my best to answer. 

  1. Jouni "rautamiekka" Järvinen
    November 12, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Let's not forget one of rack's biggest competitors: the blade. They may be a little cheaper or more expensive than rack, but they're alot more limited in performance and capacity, which generally makes them a useless idea.

  2. blah
    June 27, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    roughly how heavy is this rack?

  3. Erik
    June 21, 2016 at 1:33 am

    What did you put inside the chasis to connect the drives to your computer? A mobo and RAID card? I need to build a JBOD for all my loose drives, and connect it to my Hackintosh. It also needs to be accessible by OS X and Windows 10. I have the rack already.

    Thanks

  4. A41202813GMAIL ..
    June 7, 2016 at 3:18 am

    ( From Another Thread )

    I Love Having Immediate Access To My Hardware.

    ---

    Lots Of Cases Have Removable Motherboard Trays.

    Keep The Tray And Put The Case Away.

    Some Trays Have As Much As 11 Expansion Slots, And Are Compatible With Lots Of Form Factors.

    For Any DIY Kind Of Guy, I Would Say This Is The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship.

    XPOCALYPSE FOREVER !

  5. Guy McDowell
    April 6, 2016 at 12:18 am

    Very cool. I will do this one day.

    For the corners where you can only have one pocket screw, you could also use a good wood adhesive. I'm a big fan of Gorilla Glue.

    Or you can countersink a small wood screw from each direction, so they just bypass each other. There's a specific screw I like to use that is like a self-taping screw. Might have been Spax. It worked great on 1" dry pine, so it'd probably work in this example too.

    Being a lighting guy, you'd know all about the cool crate corners too. Some brass or tarnished nickel ones would be snazzy. Maybe I'll have to do a steampunk one someday.

    Anyway. nice rack.

  6. likefun butnot
    April 5, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    IT guys forget that other folks also use 19" racks. Musicians, especially guys who have ambitions of setting up a home studio, also have A-frame and full rack enclosures sitting around and they're often re-sold or traded within those communities as well. It's occasionally worthwhile to check that part of your local Craigslist/Freecycle/Classified ads for that stuff as well.

    Both the racks I have came out of offices where I had been the on-site support and in both cases, I got the equipment because their IT needs outgrew a 13U cabinet. In one case, I was actually paid to take it away.

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