Customization is at the core of the PC building experience. The ability to choose hardware and build a unique system is one of the reasons people want to build a PC in the first place.
But some builders take customization even further. They go beyond simply buying parts, and might even create their own PC case mods to allow for even more flexibility in the look of the finished PC.
Custom PC builder and case fabricator Peter “L3p” Brands is one of these ambitious builders. He fabricates his own custom cases, and has used that expertise and experience to put together some truly unique builds.
We spoke with him to get some insight into his building process and learn the best way to get started with the hobby.
On the Scene
Brands has been building PC cases from scratch for 10 years and has been modifying existing hardware for more than 20. “My first modification was in 1998, when I was attempting to improve airflow on my gaming rig,” he says. “I began working with more complex modding and liquid cooling in 2009, and I’ve been doing it since.”
Brands put together dozens of builds in that time, but he keeps coming back to the L3p D3sk. “It was my first big project,” says Brands. “A desk PC built from scratch, completely liquid cooled, and constructed from aluminum and safety glass.” He built it using hardware from his main PC, but he only had time to work on it during the weekends. “That meant it had to be running at the end of the weekend, or I wouldn’t have a running PC all week,” he says.
He put hundreds of hours into the project over the course of a year. “Now, ten years later, the L3p D3sk is still my main gaming and workstation in my living room,” he says. “Every few years I update the hardware and the liquid cooling loop, which has its radiator underneath my house, in the crawlspace.”
PC Case Mods Vs. Building PC Cases
To clarify: there’s case modding, which consists of taking existing cases and modifying them in sometimes dramatic ways, and then there’s fabricating entirely new cases. Brands prefers the latter.
“Creating a build from scratch gives you more freedom when compared to modifying a standard 0.8 mm steel case,” he says. “I prefer creating something new instead of modifying an existing case and then trying to give it a fabricated look afterwards.”
Creating your own case allows for substantially more customization. With the right tools, a skilled builder can design and build a case to their exact specifications. These custom cases might allow you to plan around the hardware you already have, as opposed to the case’s layout dictating what fits inside and where it can be installed.
Custom case building provides advantages over working with a retail case, but it also requires more specialized tools and a proper workspace, two critical factors to consider if you’re thinking about experimenting with this hobby.
Workspace and Tools
The barrier for entry when it comes to creating your own case is going to be higher than when working with something manufactured, but having the proper equipment can simplify the process.
“I use a sander, jigsaw, grinder, polisher, and various drills,” says Brands. “Also, good measuring tools and protection are important. For starting modders, I recommend a Dremel. It’s a small multi-tool you can use to grind, cut, sand, drill or polish.”
These tools and materials can be dangerous to work with, so precautions are critical. “Always wear eye and ear protection. Also, when sanding or painting, wear a mouth cap. Safety is the most important thing.”
Even if this high-level PC building sounds intriguing, it can be hard to know where to start. How do you go from someone with a few builds under their belt to putting together complex liquid cooling systems inside custom-built cases?
According to Brands, the trick is to keep it simple at first. “Start with some small modifications on an existing case. Once you’re into it, you can start gathering ideas, and design something digitally or on paper.”
This strategy allows you to begin in more familiar territory to see if you enjoy the work. It also means you can slowly add to your tool collection and workspace, and potentially accommodate larger and more ambitious projects further down the line. Everyone has to start somewhere, and smaller projects have a lower barrier to entry.
Another excellent place to start working on your custom building skills is with liquid cooling loops.
Cooling and Cables
Proper cooling is important when putting together any PC, and these complex projects are no exception. That doesn’t necessarily mean liquid cooling, however.
“Through the years I’ve seen numerous awesome air-cooled or even passively cooled mods,” says Brands. “I personally just like playing with liquid cooling loops.”
Though liquid cooling is a great way to keep temperatures low while adding visual flair to a build, it’s not mandatory for a high-end build. That’s good news for some, because liquid cooling can be intimidating to newcomers. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent resources out there for builders who want to get into this space, even if they are inexperienced.
“There are a lot of manufacturer websites, along with content creators and social media groups that can help people learn the basics,” Brands says. “I recommend starting with foundational concepts like proper placement for pumps and radiators, and the different sizing for tubing and fittings. Most beginners start with soft tubing, but after a year or so, you’ll often see them working with more complex hard tubing.”
Whether cooling with liquid or air, having the proper airflow pathways for your fans and/or radiators is still a concern. “For air-cooled builds I use a proper CPU cooler, and a minimum of three intake and three outtake fans, but 90% of my builds are liquid cooled. For those, I normally use a 120mm radiator surface per CPU/GPU as a baseline. For example, I would use one 120mm and one 240mm radiator for a system with one CPU and two GPUs.”
Another factor to consider when designing your cooling system is cable management. Proper cable placement doesn’t just help a build look better; it can also help with airflow, especially in small form factor builds.
According to Brands, when it comes to proper cable management, it’s all about taking your time: “Patience is all you need. Just start at the most complicated point, and work from there. It only gets easier.”
Perfecting the Look of the Build
One of the advantages of building your own PC is that you control what it will look like when it’s finished. That process starts with choosing the right hardware.
When it comes to complex builds, however, designing the look might take a bit longer. “I decide the hardware that matches my idea months before I really start, and work out the details in my head bit by bit. Everything should match the theme in style and color.”
The right hardware can certainly contribute to a compelling visual theme, but so can lighting. Proper lighting is a relatively simple way to change the look of a machine, and requires comparably less effort than modifying or replacing hardware.
Though RGB lighting isn’t for everyone, there’s no doubt it can be useful from a design perspective. “I’ve been working with RGB lighting for the last decade, from back when you still had to solder it together yourself,” says Brands. “I often see negativity around RGB lighting, but in my experience, it makes it easy to change the look of your build, or even your entire desk setup. Especially when you use a lot of white, as tweaking the lighting can completely change the color of your build.”
And lastly, there are the final touches at the end of the process. These can consist of anything from painting the case to modifying GPU shrouds, but for some, a bit of sandpaper is enough. “I don’t like painting,” Brands says. “I like the look of real material, like brushed aluminum, polished stainless steel, or sanded glass or acrylic. For those looks, you really only need sandpaper in different grits, a polishing compound, and a piece of cloth.”
The overall design and execution of a build is what usually draws the most attention, but it’s often the little things that elevate a custom build to exceptional.
So, what details make the biggest impact?
“Lighting, and choice of material colors,” says Brands. “That’s why I like RGB lighting so much. Aside from that, neat cable management can be achieved with patience and a few zip ties. Combine those two things, and you’ll have a nice looking rig.”
Final Recommendations for Your Build
Even a simple case modification can take time and planning, so it’s easy to see how building a custom fabricated chassis with complex liquid cooling loops could be intimidating to newcomers.
Brands’ advice for beginners is to start small. “Don’t think too big, too complicated, or expensive. I often see projects stop halfway through because of that. Through the years, I’ve seen thousands of mods. What goes wrong most of the time is thinking so big that the project never even starts.”
So don’t be afraid to begin your journey with a few small (and safe!) modifications to increase the airflow of your gaming build.