Interview with Case Modding King Bill Owen

Maximum PC Staff

We talk to Mnpctech owner and modder extraordinaire Bill Owen about his path to possessing the ultimate geek dream job

Bill Owen isn’t your run-of-the-mill case modder. Twelve years ago, he founded Mnpctech ( www.mnpctech.com ) and his life changed forever. Now he’s one of the most prolific pro modders in the industry. What started as a hobby evolved into a full-time business that he runs with his wife, completing mod projects for companies like AMD, FrozenCPU, and even Maximum PC. Mnpctech is also a thriving parts business, selling products aimed at the DIY enthusiast market: milled-aluminum fan grills, custom side panels, vinyl appliques, case handles, Modder’s Mesh, and even something they like to call the Modder Reference Tool. We sat down with Bill to learn how he went from dabbling in fan grills and case windows to being the king of modders.

MPC: What did you do before you started Mnpctech?

Bill Owen: I was really into cars; my hobby was restoring classic cars and tuning import cars. A co-worker who was really into gaming knew that I was kind of tinkering around with cases and stuff as just a casual hobby and he asked me if I would modify his next build as a tribute to his Volkswagen GTI. I thought, OK, well, why don’t we do some other things like incorporate the door handle as a carry handle on top, and um, try to implement other things, little cues from the car, too.

I was sharing this particular project as a work log, and I was getting a lot of questions about the different types of materials I was using and the different techniques…. At that time, I was kind of working a mundane job at this corporation and thought about getting my A+ certification. And I kind of stumbled into, like, whoa, there’s this whole interest in these mods and stuff. And I would just start selling stuff to people through private messages. Like: “Hey, do you have some more of that mesh?” or whatever. And all of a sudden, I’m getting more and more inquiries, and it’s interesting and creative. I ended up getting my A+ certification right before Y2K. And after that whole experience, the market kind of just fell out for any kind of tech positions, especially entry level.

More creative projects came up; people contacted me: “Hey, I’ve got a friend who was in Desert Storm, I would love to do a tribute case for him when he comes back, could you help me out?” Just stuff like that. Over time, more opportunities came up, then it led to doing work for manufacturers. At that time, at trade shows, getting consumer enthusiast builds at their booths, it’s going to attract the media to come by and check it out. And so I started doing lots of those types of builds and then getting more and more connections in the industry. Over the last few years, what’s happened is there’s been a transition, where I’ve gotten away from doing the custom stuff because it’s so few and far between. We focus more on making the products, the case-mod accessories that we have, that are now retailed by other stores.

This Rebel Alliance–themed Cosmos II has two separate water-cooling loops for maximum performance. The distinctive red coolant is a custom mixture of Mayhems dyes cooled by two 480 millimeter radiators mounted on the top and front of the case. Photo by Bill Owen.

MPC: Like Modder’s Mesh and fan grills and bezels and stuff?

BO: Yeah, when we started machine-making aluminum parts, they really caught everyone’s eye because nobody else was doing it at the time. The Modder’s Mesh was selling really well and was making a name for us; people were making their own grills with it, cutting it to make a grill or an intake for their bezel or whatever. I saw that and I came up with a frame, a machined aluminum frame that would have the Modder’s Mesh as an insert on the backside. Now it’s become a fan grill that you can mount on things. So that kind of took off, and from there I kind of branched into doing other designs. Today, I think we’ve probably got close to 50 different designs that are machined aluminum. Most recently, we came up with radiator grills because the liquid-cooling market is growing.

This scratch-built tech bench commissioned by FrozenCPU.com is made almost entirely of billet aluminum with a cover that opens automatically to reveal the components inside. Photo by Bill Owen.

MPC: Why didn’t you transition into professional modifications for cars instead of computer cases?

BO: Well, it’s funny you bring that up because it seems like the majority of the people I run into, especially local customers, are into their cars. There seems to be that common thread with cars, motorcycles, and building custom PCs. I can get the same satisfaction from building a custom rig on my workbench in a nice cozy shop versus being on a cold, dirty garage floor in a Minnesota winter getting my hands cut up and greasy and dirty.

If things dropped out of this market, if this whole bullshit about the “desktop is dead” crap was true and it actually did hurt us, I probably would segue into making aftermarket parts for cars or motorcycles, for sure, because I have a bit of that background. If not that, my wife has talked about getting into making stuff for dogs [laughter]. We love dogs.

MPC: Where does YouTube fit into your work?

BO: I think YouTube (click here to visit Bill Owen's YouTube channel) is a very crucial, vital part of us. It’s brought in a lot of new customers and hobbyists. When I started doing it in 2006, I was one of the first PC case modders to do video and I had kind of an interest already in doing video production. It’s not like our production values were all that great or anything; it’s just that we knew how to present stuff clearly, but still entertaining, without wasting your time. Also, my philosophy has always been that you have to give back to the community and your customers in some way. You can’t just expect them to sit there and order stuff from your store without educating them about how to do things. So, early on, I made an array of basic tutorials, like how to use a hole saw, what is a hole saw, where do you get a hole saw, how do you attach a hole saw? How do you put a window on a case? How do you add different fans? Just the basic stuff that everybody who gets into this hobby will ask about or research. All of that stuff I covered in videos early on, like 2006–2008, and to this day a lot of those videos draw traffic to our website or social media channel.

MPC: Can you run us through a day in your life?

BO: I’m a very, very early riser. I’ve got my first cup of coffee, if I can, before 5:30 in the morning. I’m on my computer answering emails, that’s always number one. I’m managing the The Mod Zoo ( www.themodzoo.com ) staff for product reviews, so I have to talk to them on a daily basis and there are things that have to be edited and also the community itself. There are people with projects and stuff and discussions going on, so I try to participate when I can. To always show that I’m accessible. I think that’s the most important thing to owning a business today. You have to show that you’re accessible to your customers, otherwise they’re just going to be turned off if they don’t get a response. I’m on my computer from early morning until noon or 1:00, and then if there are international shipments, I’ll take those to the post office and then I’ll go to the workshop. I’ll be at the workshop from the early afternoon up until 5:30, and then I’ll go home for dinner. Then, I have two machinists who make our parts, and if needed I’ll check in on them. Or if there’s a custom project we’re working on—like currently we’re working on a project for FrozenCPU.com—and there are different aspects of that that have to be made or designed, I oversee that. To be honest, I wear so many different hats it’s not even funny, but, I think it’s the way I’m wired. If there’s nothing going on then I’ll find something to do. What’s funny is, my biggest production day for like actually doing physical fabrication in the workshop is Sunday. I go into the shop and there’s no one in the building, so I can turn up my music really loud and I’m not bothered or interrupted by anybody, so I can just buckle down and focus on something being made.

The Lanboy Apocalypse is a computer masquerading as a makeshift nuclear reactor. Lamborghini-style side panels open up to reveal a massive 250 millimeter fan that cools the Thermaltake radiator inside. Photo by Brian D.Garrity.

MPC: How do you feel about the difference between using hand tools like saws and dremels versus CNC mills and laser cutters and stuff like that?

BO: It seems to me that it’s a bullshit topic. The thing is, regardless of what the resource is, whether it be laser cutter, 3D printer, CNC, water jet, you have to have the skills and know-how to design that part or understand how it has to be made to fit and work, there’s still talent there, there's still skill involved.

MPC: How long do most projects take you?

BO: It always depends on the complexity. Each project I do is always different from the last. I try to not do the same thing over [because] it just bores me. It makes it more special if somebody knows it’s not going to be replicated. I mean, I always get people asking, in particular about the Nvidia Cube I did a few years ago: “Oh, could you build me one? I want one, how much is this?” No, that was a one-off, sorry. There’s an opportunity where we could really market and sell this, but that doesn’t excite me.

MPC: It’s like a piece of artwork.

BO: Absolutely! It’s hard to think of it that way, but there are a lot of geeks out there that appreciate it that way. You know, it’s a big deal, when you do a custom build, even just a case for somebody, and there’s all this planning that goes into it. It’s a long, drawn-out process and it can be three months, six months, sometimes longer. Sometimes people have to budget it out, but it’s a great experience. I think that’s part of the fun, the whole experience of planning and doing it. It’s more about the journey than the end result.

Yeah, that’s a tachometer for the case temps in this hot rod–inspired mod. With a metallic-orange paint job and some diamond-plate accents, this is a case for car lovers. Photo by Brian D. Garrity.

MPC: Do you usually do a lot of research when you’re about to do a themed project, like if you’re making a computer for Warfighter?

BO: Yeah, that was a tough one because when it’s a new game, the developer will only give you so much. Even if you’re AMD or you’re Intel, whoever you are, they only give you some screenshots in advance. You kind of just have to draw off that. In military themes, everybody knows the main aspects of a military build. For Warfighter, there was the Medal of Honor badge. We made these huge milled-aluminum badges that were illuminated for the fronts of the cases and it was based on Team Mako or something like that. That was kind of something from digging around. I try to do a bit of research out of respect to the people that appreciate the genre. Because they see those little subtle cues and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, all right.”

MPC: How do you get past creative blocks?

BO: If my gut says I’m not going in the right direction, I just try to get away from it. Decompress—that means watching a movie, playing a game, listening to music, or going and working on something else. And then you just kind of wait, and then maybe the next day in the shower it’ll come to you. Or you’re driving somewhere and suddenly: Oh, yeah. Or a friend will come in and say something. Yeah, otherwise I find that you’re just wasting time if you’re trying to force it.

MPC: Who are some of the people that inspire you, in and outside of the modding community?

BO: Hmm…. When I was a little kid, I used to look at Hot Rod Magazine, and custom builders like iconic Big Daddy Ed Roth who created Rat Fink and was one of the earlier car fabricators was a big inspiration. Because it just seemed like there were no boundaries. Just do whatever you want to do; don’t feel like you have to follow the rest of the pack. For people today, it’s not necessarily a particular person that I’ll follow,  it’s kind of like a collective of everybody that I’ll watch. What inspires me, or motivates me, is just seeing people who have never done it before, enjoy it, and get that high from doing it themselves. When you do something for the first time, you get really excited and you’re really having fun, and then time just melts away. That’s what you’re always trying to recreate or chase after.

Based on the Corsair 400R, this tribute to Firefly looks like a genuine part of the Serenity. Wires and tubes line the inside and outside of the case. Bill’s attention to detail is made obvious by the extensive wear and tear along the entire chassis. Photo by Brian D. Garrity.

MPC: What would you say is your favorite project of all time?

BO: The District 9 one and the Firefly one are probably my all-time favorites, and the Pink Floyd one. Being able to do those projects, and a Blade Runner themed one, too. There are these science fiction movies that I’ve loved and to have an opportunity to do a project as a tribute to them, and then really dig in and research things about them. It’s like you have an excuse to have fun and get paid for it. I mean, how much better does it get than that?

MPC: What’s your favorite tool?

BO: Hand file, because if you make a mistake on something, if you make a cut, the hand file gives you an opportunity to fix it in a way that requires patience. It’s kind of like it forces you to take your time. It’s almost like a respect for the artisan ways of the turn of the century. I think a hand tool is just as important as high-end equipment, so I like a good hand file.

This battle-scarred Fractal Design R4 was given away as part of an AMD promotion for Medal of Honor Warfighter. The custom Task Force Mako case badge and stellar paint job are accompanied by Mnpctech billet case handles and machined-aluminum fan grills. Photo by Brian D. Garrity.

MPC: What’s in your PC?

BO: The one I use at home is just a Zotac ITX board with embedded video and audio on it because I pretty much only use that for email and online stuff, maybe some photo editing. The shop one that I’m using right now is another Zotac board and it’s got a Zotac GTX 470 with an EK water block on it. I can’t even remember what processor I have on this… an i7 2.93GHz. It’s really nothing to brag about. I’m the guy who drives the piece of crap car to the shop to work on the exotic sports cars. I live vicariously through my customers. I’m a starving artist.

Thinking about modding? Click the next page to read what should be in your modder's toolbox!

The Modder’s Toolbox

According to Bill Owen, any modder worth his or her Plexi should have the following gear handy

Center Punch

These are absolutely critical if you’re trying to drill something. A center punch makes an indentation that your drill bit will fit into. Loose drills are dangerous.

Rotary tool

One of the most useful tools in any modder’s toolbox because of its many uses. You can use drill-bit attachments, cutting wheels, sanding wheels, and even engraving bits. Use this for detail work.

Jigsaw

The ultimate tool for making larger cuts. Perfect for cutting out fan holes and case windows.

24-Volt Cordless Power Drill

They may be pricier than their 18-volt brothers, but 24-volt cordless power drills are an absolute necessity. Use them to drill pilot holes for your jigsaw, screw holes, and occasionally to tighten a loose screw.

Pencil

Measure twice and cut once. Use a pencil to mark up what you’re cutting before you even reach for your Dremel.

Hand Files

An easy way to add fit and finish to any project. Sharp and jagged aren’t just dangerous qualities, they’re also ugly. Sand them down with a hand file.

Measuring Square

An easy way to make sure that your lines are straight. No one wants a crooked window.

Safety Glasses

Safety always comes first and safety glasses are a must-have. They protect your eyes from stray materials and flying particles.

Painter’s Tape

Cover your cutting area in painter’s tape to prevent unwanted scratches, nicks, and scuffs. Write and draw on the tape instead of on your case. Plus, you can always use it while painting.

Clamps

ClampsMake sure that the side panel or window you’re working on doesn’t move by clamping it down. These are indispensable if you’re going to be doing any sort of gluing, cutting, or drilling.

Ruler

The ultimate measuring tool. You’re going to need one if you plan on making any precise cuts.

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