How to Build a DIY Rack Case (and Why)
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 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 , 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.
Note: I’m going to switch between imperial and metric measurements at various points, because I’m British and we like to do that.
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.
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.
You can stop laughing now. I admit, I tried to put my design into SketchUp , 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 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”.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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″.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Questions, comments or suggestions? Ask away, and I’ll do my best to answer.