Good ways to find unique and affordable enclosures for your projects.
Recently I had an idea for a project. I have a deck of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards. Each card has a phrase printed on it that is intended to help the reader break a creative block. You grab a card when you're struggling with creativity, and it encourages lateral thinking. For example:
My idea was to come up with a way to share these cards with my coworkers, for when they face a creative block. Functionally, this is an easy project: the user presses a button, and receives a phrase. I needed inspiration for an eye-catching enclosure in which to install this device. What if the phrases were dispensed by an antique Zoltar machine? What if you had to play a game to get a phrase? I realized that I was thinking about a problem that is commonplace to me, but may be new to others: once you have a project idea, what do you install it in?
Many of the projects I see are purely functional. They're installed in the ubiquitous plastic project enclosure, with or without labels on the controls
That works, if the focus of the project is purely function. However, if the form is important, the enclosure of the project can be the difference between a clever project and a piece of art. I get a lot of inspiration by taking the time to find a novel enclosure, so I decided to share some of my favorite enclosure sources and ideas, so that others can find inspiration as well.
When I go to a thrift store, I'm always keeping an eye out for anything that might make a good enclosure. Stuffed animals, old stereo equipment, breadboxes, you name it. Anything that has volume can be an enclosure. The thrift store is a goldmine of strange, antique, and unique do-dads that can make cheap and interesting enclosures. Often I'll buy a something to use as an enclosure without even having a project in mind, or I'll be inspired to create something by the potential enclosure itself.
The military makes lots of containers. So many, that they fill their surplus stores with lots of tough, cheap, and unique potential project boxes. Ammo boxes, water cans, and kit boxes make great enclosures, and because they were designed for abuse, the containers are as close to indestructable as you can get. Whenever I'm building something that needs to be tough, the Army Surplus store is my first stop.
Ikea may be known for strangely-named cheap furniture, but they also have a huge selection strangely-named cheap boxes and cases, which are usually made out of material that can be easily modified. If I need a quick enclosure for a product, this is where I look first. Usually Ikea has something that I can use in place of a plastic project enclosure, but with more style and a unique look.
This should really go without saying. With some creative searching on ebay, you're guaranteed to find something strange and interesting to use as an enclosure. My usual strategy is to start with what I'm looking for, like "box" or "enclosure" and then add descriptive words to make the search more interesting, like "vintage", "antique", or even "ugly".
Another strategy is to search for things that you can modify to harvest their enclosure. Old geiger counters, anything "coin operated", and vintage machinery all have interesting enclosures that are perfect for modification and have a great style
A good enclosure can make or break a project. It can define how the user interacts with the device. It can make it scary or funny. It can be the difference between a functional device and a piece of artwork. Where do you find enclosures? What's your favorite example of a non-obvious project box?