How-To: Make a Wii laptop, part 3 - the final installment

Benjamin Heckendorn
B. Heckendorn|02.06.07

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Ok, we're back again for the thrilling conclusion of how-to make your own Wii laptop! In today's final installment we'll cut the case for the laptop, install all the parts, attach the screen and sound amplifier, and then connect everything together. Hopefully the extra detail [which, Ben tells us, is far beyond what he usually provides on his own site. -Ed.] will give you a good insight into how these devices are created and provide inspiration for your own personal hacks.

Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of this guide (as well as the launch gallery itself); now, without further ado, let's finish this thing!

Parts List

Before we get started here's a list of all the parts that were ordered and used on the Wii laptop, This is basically anything we didn't scrounge or repurpose from the console itself.
  • Speakers - Digi-Key part # GC0351M-3-ND
  • LM386-N amps - Digi-Key part # LM386N-1-ND
  • (4) 10 ohm resistors - Digi-Key part # 10QBK-ND
  • (2) .1 uf ceramin capacitors - Digi-Key part # 1108PHCT-ND
  • 10k ohm Linear audio slide - Digi-Key part # PP3045DA-ND
  • (4) IR LEDs - Digi-Key part # QED233-ND
  • 30x30x10 mm square DC fan - Digi-Key part # 259-1329-ND
  • RCA phono jacks - Digi-Key part #'s CP-1413-ND red, CP-1414-ND white, CP-1415-ND yellow
  • 4.5 mm Tact switches - Digi-Key part # CKN9018-ND
  • PCB perf board - Radio Shack part # 276-148
  • Headers - Male - Digi-Key part # A30918-ND (4 pin version)
We'll bring up how each of these was used during the article, along with special mention of anything we used because it happened to be laying around our desk.

A header.

The most obscure name of apart above is probably the header. These are simply the type of pin connectors that are often found between circuit boards in devices. On the standard types each pin is 2.54mm (0.1-inch) apart. We can use them to easily connect several signals in a single plug. You can even scrounge these headers off old electronics you might have laying around (286 motherboards, old expansion cards, etc.).

A receptacle (for a header).

We can use common computer ribbon cable connectors for the receptacles of the header pins. You can also wire things up "permanently", but headers and plugs will make your hacking a lot easier as you can take things apart as you work on them.

On another note, all links found in this article are rigged to open in a new window so feel free to click away, you won't loose your place.

Routing a Case

With our case designed and files ready (as shown in part 2, along with downloadable versions of our original designs) it's time to start cutting out the pieces! If you don't already have them, download Wii laptop main layout here [AI, DWG, DXF, EMF, PDF]. So these cases aren't carved from single blocks of anything, rather they're done in many pieces which are assembled later on. The basic pieces, as we call them, are plates and walls. You can see all the plates and walls labeled as such in the art files that were included in part 2.

Plates are typically made of a thin material, usually plastic as in this case but sometimes metal. The plates "close in" the shapes and provide most of the surface area. We usually cut the plates using a laser engraver because it allows very high precision and you can raster engrave the lettering, designs, etc.

For the plates on this project we're using some simple white 0.063-inch thick engraving plastic. We usually get this from Main Trophy Supply, but there are numerous sources out there.

Walls are the thicker main portions that create the main depth of the unit. They are attached to plates to create the enclosures. Because of this depth a laser cutter won't work so we'll be using a standard bit-based CNC router. For more information on these, check out Will O'Brien's great how-to.

For the walls on this project we'll be using a very high density PVC foam called Sintra (also called Komatex by another brand) While it is technically foam, it's so dense it behaves mostly like a solid material. But because it's foam it's easy (and fast) to rout and you can also drill, slice, modify manually afterwards as well. Good stuff!

We'll be starting with the laser engraved plates. For this project we've used a Universal Laser Systems X-660 60 watt laser engraver, which can cut through a variety of materials up to a half inch thick. The files are prepared by opening them in CorelDraw and converting all strokes (the outlines of shapes) into "hairline" thickness. Then a color is assigned and by using the Print dialog box, you tell the machine to cut all strokes of a certain color (I used black) at a certain power. For thin materials such as .063 thick it doesn't take much power and you can cut through them fairly quickly.

Here we see the laser engraver slicing up the pieces that will become the plates over the volume control slider. The beam is actually generated inside the machine near the back and is bounced via mirrors into this head, when it bounces down to the surface you're cutting. While a laser engraver has a very high accuracy and can cut much more precisely than a bit-based router, some resolution is lost for the simple fact you are indeed burning through material and thus the edges can tend to be a bit wider than you planned (although we're talking maybe a hundredth of an inch).

The laser continues its rampage, slicing out the plate that will go on the front of the screen. At the bottom of the photo you can see the side plate that has slits for the fan and ports for the USB. Notice how we've done 2 versions, one with the USB ports rotated 90 degrees. This allows some changes later on if need be, as we still have to stuff the case with all the electronics and really, who knows what issues might pop up?

The world still wonders though, could you cut a pizza with this thing? Has anyone ever done it? Email Ben!

A wider view of the previous shot. We've coated the plastic with transfer tape (kind of like masking tape but much wider and lower tact) to keep the front color surface of the plastic from being accidentally burned. The idea is that the tape will scorch, not the plastic beneath. On the left you can see a flare-up smear, good thing we had the tape on, 2 dollars worth of plastic might have been ruined!

This was a completely staged photo where the machine probably wasn't running and thus isn't as dangerous as it might appear. We still have all 8 fingers.

Next we move onto something a lot messier: a larger, bit-based CNC router. This is being used to create the thick side walls of the unit. Two different thicknesses of material are being used: 0.5-inch and 0.75-inch. Some materials, such as this, only come in so many different thicknesses so you have to keep that in mind ahead of time when designing. This Sintra, for instance, was not available in 1 inch thick, but that's ok because the main body of the Wii laptop is designed to be 1.25 inches thick, so we're using a .75 inch layer connected to a .5 inch layer. The portion that holds the screen is .5 inch thick as well.

Pieces of Sinta cut with the router. The waste of this process doubles as artificial snow that looks almost as fake as the stuff seen in Die Hard 2 -- a movie we have somehow managed to mentioned twice during this series. Maybe we can go for a three-peat, keep a sharp eye.

The small screw holes were drilled with a 0.063-inch diameter bit and the main pieces themselves cut with a 0.25-inch diameter bit. As you can see we were too lazy to latch on the vacuum attachment and quite a mess has resulted. The chewed up plastic actually helps a little bit through, as the pieces are cut the waste tends to stay in the grooves and keeps the thins pieces in place as the cut finishes. That's a lot better than them flying out or hitting the bit! The reason we routed 0.063-inch screw holes is because we can manually drill them out later to an exact size we need, instead of monkeying around doing it the big machine.

Building the Case

After the plates and walls are cut (and cleaned up) it's time to stick them together so it actually resembles something. Even though they were cut with different machines everything is still quite accurate and sized the same because it's all computerized. Unless otherwise noticed, all the connecting is done with liquid super glue and then a thin layer of hot glue on the inside seam. [If you were expecting something other than hot glue from Ben Heck you must be new here. -Ed.]

Here's the base plate connected to the lower 0.75-inch thick walls. Notice the slits that will be below the CPU/GPU. Granted, they won't do a heck of a lot, but why not cut whatever extra air holes we can, right? (Within reason of course, we don't want it to look like Swiss cheese or an Xbox 360.) Also seen in the above photo are the cord compartment opening (upper left), GameCube controller port hole (lower right), and fan hole (on the right, kind of hard to see with the paper behind it but trust us, it's there).

We kept the Wii sports disc in the unit at all times for quick testing action. Not because we forgot to take it out.

Before we go any futher (insert Meatloaf reference here) it's good to check and see if the Wii assembly actually fits in the case. At this point we've realized a mistake we made. The lower left screw hole is overlapping (or rather, wants to be in the same place as) the edge of the disc drive. Good thing we checked, but so much for our "spotless" record! We can solve this slight oversight by sliding the entire Wii assembly a bit to the right. Luckily thing there's extra room on the right side of the case. This is a great example of why you should always allow yourself wiggle room, if possible.

Here's a slightly lower view of the above. On the right you can see we have quite a bit of room for the fan, which we'll talk about a little later. On the left we see the wires that we extended off the motherboard for the power, eject, sync and reset buttons.

It's starting to look like something... oh crap, we forgot the GameCube memory port! Somebody prepare the tar and feathers, quick!

A close-up of the plate going around the GameCube port. It also covers the front control buttons. As you can see, the circle shape on the end of the plate covers up the ugly square hole that is in the wall. Ha ha sneaky! For the best aesthetics it's a good idea to keep all shapes in relation to each other. In this case, the outer circle shape of the plate is made to be twice the diameter of the Gamecube port, but they both have the same center. This gives everything a clean, industrial looks that may not seem very "artistically creative" but instead does something much better -- it looks right.

This is the other half of the main case of the Wii laptop. Here we've attached the top middle plate (as it's called on the AI file) to another copy of the wall pieces. However these walls are 0.5-inch thick, which, as mentioned before, combine with the portion desribed above to give us the 1.25-inch thick chamber we need to fit the electronics. Sometimes I'm asked why we build things in this modular, layed manner, instead of carving intricate shapes out of a solid block. The quick answer is because the plate-wall method is easier and cheaper, especially when it comes to machine time. (We don't quite have the budget Michaelangelo did when he carved the David.)

The rear portion of the top of the unit is also made with a plate and a 0.5-inch thick wall. It also contains the gap for the cord compartment. The slits will be covered with a layer of gray plastic screen door mesh in the final unit.

For an interesting look we attach a long strip of maually cut (that is, with our bare hands) plastic. A hole is drilled in the center for the signal wires goign to the screen, and small squares are cut near the ends to make space for the hinges (more on those soon). This long piece is then glued to the rear portion at a 45 degree angle.

Since the cord compartment door will slide up from the bottom we'll put the flanges that hold it in place at the top of the unit. Thus they'll be in this rear portion we've built, as shown above. They are made using bits of 0.063-inch thick plastic and will act as guides as the door slides in. We can also see the screen door mesh (sort of) in the lower right hand corner.

With the rear portion and both halves of the bottom connected together we can set the case together as shown above and see a "test" of what it's going to look like. Seems OK so far! In case you're wondering, we pull the wires out through the button holes so the motherboard can fit properly. Let's put some other case parts together...

Above we see one of the key design features of the laptop - the screen faceplate. The Wii logo (along with the text above the screen) were printed on clear adhesive and applied to the plastic. You can find these graphics on the main art file as well. We could have raster-engraved (etched, burned, whatever you'd like to call it) this lettering into the plastic itself but then it would have turned out black -- we need this nice "Wii Gray" instead.

As you can see above we've glued the screen plate to the 0.5-inch think screen walls. Note the large gap on the right, this is where the linear audio slide will be going. More on that in a minute.

This is one of our hinges for the lid portion, glued into a slot in the walls of the lid. To make a hinge, we're simply using a couple of acrylic pieces cut by the laser that will be connected used screws and lock washers. Two hinge pieces are on the screen lid, matching versions are on the top of the main casing. Each has a 0.125-inch hole in the center, still more on these hinges in a bit.

Above is the lid portion thus far. We can see the hinges poking out the bottom, the slits for the speakers and the holes at the top for the built-in sensor bar. But we need backing for this piece...

The piece shown above is called Main top of screen in the art file. In part 2 we talked about how the back of the LCD had a small circuit board that was thicker than the rest of the screen, here we can see the recess we're making to accomdate that. Attached around the hole in the center of this plate is a thin wall laser cut by acrylic (the piece labeled by its thickness as 0.188 clear on the file) with yet another plate on top of that ("screen riser").

We leave a lot of the protective tape on for as long as possible, to protect the surfaces as we work on the unit. Kind of like that plastic crap inside new cars.

The other side of what we just put together, along with another vinyl Wii logo. By making this raised portion centered and fairly well placed it looks like we only did this for aethestics (or so we hope) -- but again, it allows us to make most of the lid thin and only thick where it needs to be, rather than having the entire lid portion be thicker. This is much like modern LCD monitors and TVs, where most of it is thin but there's a buldge on the back for the electronics.

Let's take a closer look at the hinges. We've already seen the ones on the lid, here are the matching pieces on the main case. Again these are cut from acylic but have little flanges on the bottom to keep them at the correct height when placed through the holes on the case. The actual mounting is doing with liberal amounts of super and hot glue.

Both hinges on the top of the main case. The hinges on the screen will fit between these so as to add a bit of compression to tilting portion. At this point we can attach the lid to the main case, so let's talk about how we're screwing these hinges together.

If you take apart most things with a hinged lid (such as a laptop or LCD TV with a stand) you'll notice quite a few types of washers on the main pivoting screw. For this project, since the lid portion won't weigh very much, we can get away with a lot less -- as shown above. The toothed washer (external type, teeth on the outside) will grip into the plastic and keep it from sliding. You might not even need the washer, but if you like it can also be placed under the stop nut to help lock down the hinge. We used size 6 screws/nuts/washers on this Wii laptop, they're available at any hardware store and are worth their weight in salt. Let's take a closer look at how the hinge is assembled...

  1. Thread the screw through the outer hinge (from the base of the unit), and place the toothed washer on it.
  2. Place the lid portion down and move the screw through it.
  3. Fasten the stop nut (and washer if you wish) on the other end and tigthen until the hinge holds the lid in an open position. This is best done by hold the stop nut with a clamp or pliers and advancing the screw with a drill or ratcheting driver.

Here's what the hinge looks like when installed onto the case. The slight gap in the lid portion (top middle) helps hide the more ungainly looking stop nut and washer, but still makes it accessible if you remove the lid. Once the topmost plate of the screen portion goes in place (you can see one of its screw holes here) the hinge and screws will be mostly hidden. Mostly.

The top portion of the Wii case, with the screen portion and hinges attached.

Wiring the Front Buttons

With the main portions of the case assembled we can now begin to wire the unit together, starting with the front buttons. If you recall from part 1 we extended wires from the original tact switches so we could put the power, reset, sync and eject buttons elsewhere, well, this is the elsewhere.

As suggested in the previous parts, it's best to use bits of tape to label wires, especially if the other ends become covered, as these have (the DVD drive is over them). To save on extremely valuable masking tape, we only labeled 3 wires and left the last one to the process of elimination.

Before we wire the new tact switches we'll put the new little buttons in as shown above. These were cut with the laser engraver and use icons and letters to indicates what they are. (You can find these shapes in the art file.)
  1. We begin by carving a wide hole in the wall just behind the button holes on the front plate of the unit. The PVC plastic can be carved easily with an X-Acto knife.
  2. The little buttons are glued to thin pieces of plastic in groups of 2. We used the plastic from an Xbox 360 controller wrapper, but anything fairly thin (such as a soda pop bottle) will work. The reason we glue two buttons to each piece of backing plastic is so the buttons won't rotate.
  3. Two layers of 0.063-inch plastic are glued to either side of the hole to create a lip. This will hold in the tact switch plate we'll make in a moment.

Next is the tact switch plate, which, quite obviously, holds the switches themselves.
  1. Glue the four 4.5mm tact switches to a long rectangular piece of plastic as shown above. Line them up to the button holes, you can do this easily by holding the blank plate up behind the holes and markig a mark on it through the opening.
  2. Solder the wires coming from the motherboard to the tact switches, 2 wires per switch, just like on the other end from part 1.

Above is the diagram of how the wiring in a four pin tact switch works. The top and bottom pins are connected, so attach your wires either both on one side, or on opposite sides diagonally. This is a normally open switch, which means normally it's open and current can't pass through.

Finally we put a backing piece of plastic on the lips, which will hold in the tact switch plate when it's slid down inside. This also allows us to remove the tact switch plate easily while we work on the final construction. A good rule of thumb with something like this is that you'll probably put it together and take it apart at least 10 times as you troubleshoot things, so it's best to make it easy on yourself whenever possible.

Final prep on the motherboard

At this point we'll attach the last fews things that need to go back on the motherboard.

Here's the USB port we desoldered back in Part 1. Using some thin wire from an old floppy drive cable, we've run the 8 wires the short distance from the original spots to the USB port which has been laid on its side. Just below the wires on the USB port you can see one of the original tabs that has been resoldered to the blank copper on the edge of the board to secure it in place. Remember, any sheilding on a plug is ground so it's OK to solder it to the edge of a motherboard.

Here's the complete motherboard assembly. Notice how every part coming off from it has a plug or jack, including a 4-pin header plug on the right which we've wired to left / right audio and composite video out. This will allow us to plug into a port on the case to get these signals to the RCA jacks for standard TV hookup.

At the top of the photo is the end of the wires we attached in part 1, which also contain the audio / video signals as well as power for the sensor bar.

Back in part 2 we connected a plug to the WiFi module so we could attach the antenna with ease. It's on the edge of the motherboard, so it's still accessible even with the DVD drive in place. At this point we solder a 4 pin header to the original antenna wires and plug it in. As you can see in the blow-up it's good to mark the edges so you'll know which way to connect it.

Above is an explanation of what's been installed into the case thus far, and where. The panel mount RCA A/V jacks have been placed in the right-hand side plate next to the air vent holes.

Here we see another view of the same, but now with the 30mm fan installed. The fan is attached to the motherboard itself, rather than the case, so the motherboard itself will remain easy to remove if need be. The fan runs off 5 volts and the power for this has been pulled from a spare GameCube controller port. Check out this site for a pinout of the GameCube controller.

Now we'll set the power supply into the case to make sure it fits with the motherboard. It's tight, but it makes it. The thicker white wires seen near the fan are the ground and +12 volts coming from the power supply. Like everything else, we'll use a convenient plug for this.

Since these wires carry more current that the other stuff we've rewired we need a bigger plug. We've scavenged one from an old computer case, the 4 pin Molex type that's used with disc drives. We only need 2 pins, power and ground, but we've got some room left above the heat sink so there's a place for the large-ish plug to fit.

About that dirty gray mousepad...

You've probably noticed the gray mousepad that appears under items in many of the photos and thought "Why is that there and man are we sick of seeing it!" See, we use it as a soft backing to keep the surfaces of things from being scratched as we work. Perhaps someday we will replace it with a new one, but we have to warn you it'll be the same design -- we got a stack of them one day when a store switched owners. Try using an old mouse pad on your work bench, it's very helpful. Now with that mystery explained we'll continue.

Installing the LCD screen

Now that the base of the unit is pretty much ready to rock and roll we can move onto the LCD screen portion, starting with the volume slider, which amazingly has been photographed in front of a gray mousepad.

The volume slider has been placed in the gap of the case and hot glued into place. (We could be a bit more advanced, and call it "thermal prototyping gel" if that sounds better to you.) Since our LCD panel is video-only we're going to have to wire up our own audio amplifier, but this isn't too difficult. Here's the PDF of the volume slider we used for your reference.

With that in place we can install the screen. Sometimes we make certain edges of the walls of the case the exact size to position the screen, but again it's good to have a wiggle factor. In this case, we made part of the walls form a "bottom reference" for the LCD glass to rest against, but the left and right was open. (Take a look at the art file to see this.) So that gives us a basic idea of where to put it, and here's exactly how we suggest doing the rest:
  1. Place the screen into the case basically where it should go.
  2. Put decent-sized blobs of hot glue on opposite corners of the screen. I'd say peanut-M&M-sized-blobs should suffice.
  3. Quickly lift the case above your head and look at the screen. Use your fingers to align it so the 4 corners are straight and no metal edges show.
  4. Hold that pose for about 30 minutes as the glue cools. Use Zen/breath holding/whatever to remain still. (Do not attempt this near mosquitoes.)
  5. With the screen now temp locked in the right postion, go back into the case and secure it permanently as you best see fit. In our case -- you guessed it -- more hot glue.

The top of the unit with the screen installed should look like the above photo. At the base of the screen you can see a small bit of copper PCB board, this is the audio amplifier, and here's how to build it:

Wiring up the audio amplifier

OEM (original equipment manufacturer, in case you ever wondered) LCD screens are great and all but they don't usually come with a sound amp like a pocket TV or PS1 screen does. Let's make our own! Keep in mind this can be used with all sorts of electronics projects, so bookmark this page or something.

Or take a look at this PDF for wiring info.

This circuit uses a pair of LM386 audio amplifiers for stereo sound. This was the quickest way to wire it up and besides the IC's are fairly cheap. So basically we're making 2 of these circuits, one for each channel.
  1. Connect ground and +5 volt power signals to the LM386 as indicated in the schematic.
  2. Connect a 10 ohm resistor and .1 uf capacitor in series between pin 5 and ground.
  3. Connect pin 5 to one terminal of the speaker, the other speaker terminal to ground.
The lower squiggly line is the volume control, which known as a potentiometer or variable resistor. Typically a potentiometer (or pot for short, don't call the ATF) has 3 terminals, with the center terminal called the wiper. The wiper is indicated by the arrow in the middle of the squiggels above, this is the part you actually move when you turn the dial and it controls how much current comes through. By pulling it closer to ground you get less audio signal, pull it away from ground and you get more. The 386 then amplifies whatever comes through.

Here's the dual 386 amp we built on a small bit of PCB from Radio Shack. The slide potentiometer we used had dual wipers so it can send isolated left and right signals to each IC at the same time.

Above we see a diagram of the completed screen portion. A few notes when wiring something like this:
  • Wire the power, video and ground signals to the LCD as indicated by its original instructions (can vary by manufacturer).
  • It's a good idea to keep the pink and white high-voltage bulb wires as far away from other signal wires as possible to avoid interference.
  • Solder a single wire to the metal shield of the LCD and connect this to ground (on either the LCD or audio board) to help reduce noise, especially on the audio. The LCD didn't come stock like that, but we attached the wire and it helped quite a bit.
  • As with the slits on the rear portion of the case the speaker openings have been lined with plastic screen door mesh. This allows sound (or air) through but "darkens" the hole, much like sunglasses, and hides what's behind.
Infrared LED wiring

Many how-tos have already gone up around the 'net about making your own sensor bar so I'll only touch breifly on it.
  1. Group (2) IR LEDs together per side. Wire each group of 2 in series, that is, the positve lead of one into the negative lead of the next.
  2. On an LED the positive lead is the longer one.
  3. Connect a 10 ohm resistor to the postive lead of each group.
  4. Connect +5 volts to the 10 ohm resistors and both negatives of the groups to ground.
You can test how bright the IR LED's are using a digital or video camera. Simply "look" at the LED's with it when the Wii is powered up, they should appear as bright (on the camera's viewfinder) as an LED normally does, if not a bit brighter. This is how we came up with 10 ohms a good value resistor to put in front of them; less than that (no resistance) was too bright, more resistance and they were too dim. This can vary by the brand and type of IR LED, so be sure to experiment, just always start with too much resistance and work your way down to avoid burning them out.

The Wii laptop, in near final form.

Final assembly

We now have all the pieces of the Wii laptop project done so it's time for the final assembly where we'll do some finishing tasks and screw everything together.

Since the unit has metal screws sticking out the bottom we'll add some vinyl feet to raise the unit high enough so it won't scratch up tables and other surfaces it might be set on. You can get various types of rubber feet at your local hardware store (obviously ours was an Ace), usually in the same aisle as door hinges and casters.

Here's the base of the unit with the feet attached and all the screws inserted. For the final assembly it's best to use 1-inch long size 4 screws. These get us past the first 0.75-inches of the bottom portion of the case and into the top half inch where they grab on and hold the whole thing together.

If you'd like to add a plug for hooking up the original sensor bar it's pretty easy to do. You can use the original gray plug (shown above, plugged into the red socket) or cut the gray plug off the sensor bar and attach a new one. (also shown above, in the same photo no less). We used a small plug from an old cellphone for the external sensor bar on our Wii laptop. Strangely enough, when soldering the wire inside the sensor bar's cord it smelled very much like a dentist's office. We're serious, it was uncanny. (Just thought we'd share that with you).

With the case pieces together we can cram in the power cord and see if it fits -- we mean, of course it'll fit. Ah good, it does. Whew. Kind of reminds us of a snake on Animal Planet right before it attacks the camera. At this point we can also test the compartment door to see if it fits correctly as well. If not, the PVC material can be shaven with an X-Acto knife to get things working.


Well there you have it - the very detailed description of creating a Wii laptop. Hopefully it wasn't too boring and you learned some good hacking tips along the way. And remember, when in doubt -- hot glue it. We'll see you next time!
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