The original readymade project box, the Altoids tin (or, more generically and less lawsuit-inducing, the “mint tin”) is ever near and dear to our hearts. Reuse ’em when the mints are gone, or grab a few new tins from Adafruit.
Your fancy project box deserves better than a plain ol’ plastic wall-wart. Off-the-shelf, your options are black, white, and beige. Fortunately, we know somebody who’s been there, feels your pain, and wants to show you how to class up your power supply with a custom wooden shell and matching cord.
Bones, burls, gourds. Tagua nut and ostrich eggshell. Horn, antler, fossil ivory. Shell, stone, and hide. When you start to think about it, nature offers all kinds of ready made enclosures, and materials for enclosures, that most folks don’t usually think about. Case in point, this Tiki-tastic coconut shell mini-amp, which uses the classic Little Gem amplifier circuit.
Time, patience, and careful attention to detail can make marvels from even the most mundane starting material. Shown here, a custom laminated-bamboo cell phone enclosure handcrafted by an African artist. Kinda reminds me of William Gibson’s Sandbenders (from his novel Idoru).
Though the guts of your project may be patentably new, the problem of putting a box around it is probably not. Shown here, a trio of high voltage control panels, of solid slate, from the switchboard of the Sault Ste. Marie canal power house, manufactured 1895. Slate is an insulator, and naturally forms big flat sheets perfect for control panels.
On the other hand, if you prefer modern materials, clear plastic is a classy choice, and sends a proud maker message: this thing I built is not a “black box,” in either the literal or figurative sense. The not-so-modest example, shown here, is a Wersi DX500 digital organ and speaker set from the late 1980s.
Finding clever new uses for techno-junk is part of what hacking is all about, and that doesn’t just mean internal components—old cases and enclosures can be salvaged, too. Here, mouth- and ear-pieces from a legacy telephone handset have been elegantly repurposed as a clamshell case for a voice memo device.
Almost anything can be modeled in Lego. For static components like project enclosures, easily re-configurable Lego bricks can be a life-saver at the prototyping stage. In mild environments, they do just fine for finished products, too, and the options for colors, configurations, and decorations are nearly limitless. This slick custom Raspberry Pi case was made by a 12-year-old.
You don’t have to own a 3D printer to appreciate the thinking that went into this printable MakerWatch enclosure and strap. Whether you’re working billet titanium with a 5-axis CNC mill or scrap cardboard with a penknife, good design depends on understanding what the tool, and the material, are capable of.
Maybe the best enclosure, for your project, is no enclosure at all. Or, if your project doesn’t have moving parts, maybe that box you built around it is supposed to be a mold, instead of a case. Here, British electronics artist Rupert Hirst has cast his custom free-formed headphone amp circuit in a solid brick of clear resin.
Before you tear into an antique, of course, you should know what it’s worth. But once you’re sure you’re not destroying a valuable piece of history, re-purposing a family heirloom as a project enclosure can be a great way to keep it alive in yours and your children’s memories. Here, a beautiful LED watch PCB has been carefully retrofit into an equally beautiful hand-me-down mechanical pocketwatch case.
Though it can be a bit pricey, brass is a joy to work with, and has very much to recommend it as a building material. Brass is easy to cut, bend, stamp, machine, etch, and solder. At the finishing stage, it can be polished, plated, patinized, painted, or left plain. Outside of extreme conditions (strong acids, strong bases, hard vacuum), brass is weatherproof, and can be safely used indoors or out. Shown here, a gorgeous custom-etched brass plugboard panel on a homemade analog synth.
The rage for steampunk has waxed and waned, but like any significant aesthetic movement, its leading lights have produced enduring work. Case in point, the “von Slatt” keyboard, here executed in elegant brushed aluminum by the late, great Richard “Doc” Nagy, aka “Datamancer.”
Another classic work by Datamancer, this brass-and-marble-clad LCD monitor would look right at home on a 19th-century banker’s desk (as long as you ignore the screen itself). That’s another “von Slatt” keyboard, in the original brass style, there in front.
The industrious hackers of the PC casemodding community have been competing to out-enclosure each other for more than a decade, now, and their websites and forums are a near-bottomless treasure trove of inspirational designs ready for adapting to your smaller (or larger) electronics projects. (A great place to start is bit-tech.net.) Shown here, a stunning “WMD” PC case design from 2006.