When you are designing a device for everyday use it is nice if it looks so that you can put it on a shelf and not hide behind closed doors. I assume all DIYers have done something that looks absolutely horrible, when at the time it was just all about technical performance, or bang for the buck. However, if you spend all your free time and already almost all extra money on your project, why not to spend slightly more and give them the final professional touch – custom made high quality aluminium front and rear panels with clean holes for connectors and, on top of all, engraved texts.
First of all, you need an enclosure. One option is to order directly custom made aluminium machined parts. However, it costs a lot (especially in a country like Finland) and requires skills to use some CAD-programs to generate necessary files. Luckily we have eBay and the possibility to buy almost everything there. There are plenty of high-quality aluminium enclosures especially meant for audio applications. And prices are not too bad. You get accurately machined parts for the enclosure, all necessary screws, rubber feet and even switches and mains connector. There are few sellers who seem to have similar selection, obviously from the same manufacturer. They range from a small headphone amplifier or DAC case to a huge power amplifier case with impressive heatsinks.
When you have the enclosures, you may be able to use the provided front panels but what about rear panels? Your connectors won’t match the default scheme.
I used to machine rear panels in my bathroom using only normal drilling machine, hand file and some other basic hand tools. With plenty of time and patience it is possible to get decent results but not more. Tolerances for holes are also large without proper big drilling machine. Panel-mounted connectors are more forgivable than PCB-mounted but otherwise a bad idea – I used them in my first projects.
When designing my 4-channel audio system I decided to try a German webshop called Schaeffer AG to order custom panels. The panels are designed using very simple program which is downloaded from their website. I got an idea of analogy to designing a photo book – you download a specific program what everyone can use, design your product and then click order. Great feature is that the program shows how the price is formed – every hole, countersink, thread and engraving has an individual price. And the price gets high quickly when your design has lots of holes and engravings, and especially if you use countersinking, threads and other extra machining. It takes plenty of time to design the panel accurately and to triple-check every hole and detail. With PCB-connectors there is not much room for errors. I did the final check by printing all the panels on paper, cutting the holes and checked everything fits correctly. Only this part took 2-3 hours but it’s rather reliable way to check everything is correct. After all, the 4 panels I ordered cost 200 euros so you want them to be correct. However, I really think it is worth it. One thing that came as a surprise (although maybe shouldn’t have) for me is that the edges of the panels are not anodized so keep this in mind! Or use powder coating where it is possible to get dyed edges and holes.
I had the eBay enclosures ready before deciding to go for these panels. Therefore, I had planned the thick clear aluminium front panels will be used as they are and ordered front panel only for SharcDSP and rear panels for all three enclosures. Power amplifier rear panel is so simple that I drilled the holes in my bathroom. It is not cheap to get these panels but if you already spend hundreds of euros and hundreds of hours on your devices, few tens of euros per panel may not feel that bad anymore. After all, you get that final professional look your fellow DIYers will envy.