Mike Allen’s workshop is an orderly, well-maintained place. Located a few kilometres from the New Jersey shoreline, the compact garage of PM’s senior automotive editor (US edition) has high shelves stacked with meticulously organised, plainly labelled plastic bins of tools and welding equipment. Occasionally, however, the air in the shop is toxic. Mike is a mechanic and metalworker, and his grinding, routing and drilling sends plumes of metal particulate into the air. This is not so great for the lungs, but positively deadly for electronic equipment.
That’s a problem, because a workshop these days needs to be computerised. Mike routinely uses a laptop to run OBD-II diagnostics, search online repair manuals or just blast MP3s of George Thorogood while, say, rebuilding the dry clutch from a Ducati Monster.
But Mike was tired of his laptops burning out every few months. He was looking for a solution that would bring serious computing power into his workshop full-time – without exposing delicate PC innards to harsh substances.
At PM, we love a challenge. Mike and I sat down with PM’s master computer builder, Anthony Verducci, to design and construct a machine that could stand up to this unforgiving environment. It turned out to be an interesting exercise in thermal management. We knew that a standard, air-cooled rig with filters on its fans could block some of the particulate, but the only way to truly protect the computer’s interior bits would be to seal it off completely from the outside world.
It’s one challenge to keep the computer cool – it’s quite another to make it look cool, so I proposed that we build the machine into a Craftsman rolling tool cart. Mike shaped up a sheet-steel bulkhead that partitioned two-thirds of the bottom drawer into a sealed compartment, then drilled 10 holes in the bottom of the other third to allow for airflow.
Then we plumbed up a liquid-cooling system for all of our critical components: a crushingly powerful six-core, 3,3-GHz AMD Phenom II X6 1100T processor; an ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics card; 6 GB of high-speed Kingston RAM; and a dualreservoir Koolance 1 000-watt power supply – the only one of its kind. In the open airflow compartment, we mounted the radiator and fans to blow the PC’s heat to the outside world.
Mike is fastidious about wiring, so he spent a couple of late nights at the garage harnessing and gasketising all of the USB, SATA, HDMI and power cables exiting our drawer, then routing them through the case. After three days of building, Anthony flipped the switch and our rig booted up, signalling that our work was done.
The workshop PC was a difficult beast to build, but we think the concept has legs. After all, the PC is now a universal tool, and Mike’s shop isn’t the only place where the air gets unfriendly.
Some assembly required
Step 1: Cut to fit We took the bottom drawer of a Craftsman tool cart and modified it for PC duty. We needed a few holes for our radiator to make our unique liquid-cooling system work, so we broke out a hole saw.
Step 2: Bend some metal
Our segmented design called for a sealed compartment to protect electronic components from metal dust, and a ventilated compartment for airflow to the radiator and fans. This required a steel bulkhead. Mike and his sheet-metal brake obliged.
Step 3: Arrange, then rearrange
Unlike a normal PC case, our drawer had no set way to arrange and mount components. We testfitted our pump, power supply and motherboard to find the most efficient flow for coolant, then used Rivnuts to create mounting points.
Step 4: When you hit a wall, build up
Normally, graphics cards get mounted directly to a PC motherboard, but our drawer was too shallow. So we mounted our GPU to a customfabricated platform, then hooked the card to the mobo using a flexible PCI-E cable. Finally, we rigged up our cooling system (see “Keeping It Cool”, opposite).
Keeping it cool
We designed a liquid-cooling system to prevent components (central processor, memory, graphics card and power supply) from overheating inside an airtight case. In our set-up, the glycol coolant transfers the heat from the components in the sealed section of the case to a radiator and fans in the open section, which dissipate the heat. All parts and fittings were sourced from Koolance.