How-To: Rackmount your gear for cheap

Our simple network rack is an easy project that can really clean up a home network installation. Just a few square feet of floor space now keeps our cable modem firewall, Ethernet switch, server, wireless AP, KVM, monitor, keyboard and UPS neatly tucked away -- in a (decently well ventilated) closet, for example. It's also built to support rack mount hardware of shallow depth, like a router (the real kind) or network switch, so if you want to clear off that folding table in the basement, check out today's how-to.

For today's How-To you'll need:

  • kitchen rack from Target ($30)

  • 3/4-inch wide, 1/2-inch deep aluminum channel ($6.50)

  • 11/64 drill bit

  • 1/4-inch drill bit

  • m5 x 0.8 tap ($3.50)

  • four 1-1/2-inch 1/4 x 20 bolts, washers and nuts ($1)

  • m5 x 0.8 rack mounting screws (probably came with your rack mountable hardware)

We bought this rack at Target for about $30. It's nearly the perfect width for adding rack rails. The posts of the kitchen rack are 18 3/4-inches apart. A standard rack is about 17 3/4" wide. By adding 1/2-inch of rails to each side, we get a standard rack with room for the mounting screws to co-exist.

Standard rack mounting machine screws are metric 5mm x .8. The aluminum U channel is available in most hardware stores. Labeled as 3/4-inch plywood trim, it's 3/4-inch wide, and 1/2-inch deep. Industrial telco racks are much thicker, but there's enough material for lightweight use.

Cutting the aluminum is easy, we used a fine-tooth model saw, but a hacksaw will do as well.

Marking the channel for the mounting holes is easy. We measured the hole pattern at our secret test facility. The spacing between the holes, center to center, is 1/2-inch, 5/8-inch, 5/8-inch, 1/2-inch, 5/8-inch, 5/8-inch... Got it?

You can drill the 11/64 holes with a hand drill, but we prefer the drill press. Clamping a board across the platform is an easy way to keep the holes in uniform position.

Tapping the holes gets old using a tap handle. The aluminum is soft enough that you can get away with using a cordless drill to tap the holes. Just take your time and give the tap a chance to cool between holes. Your hands will probably need a break, so give them a rest before moving on.

Drilling holes in the round posts is the most difficult task. Place the open face of the channel against the post and hold/clamp it in position. Drill the aluminum rail where you want the mounting bolt. Then use the rail as a guide to get the hole started on the post. Using progressively larger bits will make it much easier to drill the 1/4-inch hole. It may be easier to drill these holes before you assemble the rack. Just don't hold the rail right behind the area you're drilling. Take your time and do the job safely.

When the first mounting hole is done, flip the rail and bolt it up. On the aluminum side, we use a washer between the nut and rail to prevent deforming of the aluminum. Don't worry if it's not quite square to the front of the rack. A large pair of pliers, vice grips or channel locks can be used to rotate the post into the right position.

Tighten up the hardware with a ratchet and a wrench. Go ahead and torque it down.

Once the rail has one bolt holding it to the post, placing a clamp on both sides of the rail and the post will keep the rail centered on the post. Drill the lower mounting hole through the rail and post. Garnish with a second bolt, washer and nut.

One rail down, one to go. For mounting the other rail, be sure to measure and mark the mounting height. The lines on the posts are handy for aligning it. Now that the rails are mounted, get ready to mount your hardware.

Install the rack mount tabs on your gear. In our case it's our Cisco Ethernet switch. If you need lots of ports, these can be had off eBay for decent prices.

The fit is pretty tight, but ours came out just lovely using standard rack mounting hardware and our custom rails.

With our switch mounted, we added some cable management clips that we dug up. The sliding shelf made a great place to mount our KVM. Up top is our firewall, cable modem and console. The UPS and server live on the bottom shelf. The weight is a bit much for the lightweight casters, but for occasional movement they'll do the job.

If you'd rather roll your own rack and avoid all the drilling and tapping, Muscians Friend sells loose rack rails.