Don’t worry, you’re not crazy for wanting to do this! Contrary to what you might think, or what people might have already told you, working with copper pipe isn’t difficult. It’s the kind of thing you can quickly master the basics of for your build and then spend as much (or as little) time as you like working on the more advanced techniques.
The bottom line is that before starting my own copper pipe build I knew nothing about plumbing, fittings, watercooling or pipe bending. If I can manage it then you can too, and hopefully the lessons I’ve learned and links I’ve discovered can help you on your journey.
Worklog Links – Read and learn!
Ahead of working with copper pipe myself I spent a long time reading other people’s worklogs to absorb as much as I could on the methods and techniques used. It’s worth taking some time to have a read through the worklogs below – bookmark them and read them when you can. I know these guys and they’ve all helped me learn a lot throughout my build. If you find any other worklogs that you think could help others let me know and I’ll add it!
1) Project White by Alain – The worklog that originally inspired me – amazing pipework and lots to learn.
2) Cor Leonis by Attila – The copper pipe components of the loop are at the very end, but there’s a lot of metalworking lessons to pickup here.
3) Corsair 600T by Evocarlos – One of the pioneers of copper pipe cooling
4) Massively by Saate – hey, that’s me! My first build with lots of detail around my learning process with copper pipe
Stillthinking – Guides by Attila – While not specifically copper pipe related these guides helped me a lot, especially the stuff on polishing
Tools of the trade – what you’ll need
It’s relatively inexpensive to get yourself setup with the basic tools for using copper pipe in your build. Here’s a list of what you’ll need and some tips for how to get it.
Fittings – make sure you get the right kind for your country!!
I can’t emphasize this point enough! During my build I learned this lesson the hard way and had to import copper pipe from overseas at considerable expense (you can find all the gory detail in my Massively worklog linked above). Most European countries on the metric system will have locally available 12.0mm OD pipe which can be used with the Bitspower C47 fittings. Australia and the United States, when it comes to plumbing standards, are both on the imperial system so will have locally available 12.7mm pipe which can be used with the Rocket Science fittings I’ve released.
You will discover that other tubing sizes within your country will be similar in availability because of this – it’s tough to find 12.0mm diameter tubing in Australia, and the same for 12.7mm diameter overseas. Check before start! If you’re not sure what standard your country uses you should be able to look up an online plumbing supplies store to figure it out. If you’re still unsure contact me and we’ll figure it out together!
These are really cheap and will cost you $10-$15 at a local hardware store. I’ve even seen them in my local bargain stores for a couple of dollars so it’s worth picking up a spare one just in case. Most of them also have a deburring device you can fold out to clean up the edges after you’re done.
A pipe bender will run you anywhere from $30-$300 depending on the type and quality. I bought mine from eBay for around $50 and it’s been pretty good – make sure you get the sizing right for the pipe you’ll be using, the description should mention either ‘half inch’ or ’12mm’ OD. Unless you plan on spending a lot of money on a pipe bender I’d suggest avoiding plumbing stores as they tend to only stock the high-end ones for professionals.
Gloves, Sandpaper and Polishing Materials
Gloves are important when working with copper as the oil from your hands will tarnish the finish. The worst part is that if you accidentally touch the polished copper pipe with your hands it can take weeks for the tarnishing to be visible – wear gloves and avoid this completely! When it comes to polishing copper pipe I generally sand with 500, 1000 and then 1500 grit sandpaper and then apply the polishing compound. You can pick up sandpaper online or at your local hardware store and in terms of polishing compound you can go as high or low-tech as you like. I use brown and then blue profin polishing bars and a buffing wheel but you can get away with simpler options like brasso found in your local supermarket. It’s worth experimenting to figure out what works for you and definitely have a read through Attila’s polishing guide (linked above) for a more in-depth view of the process I use.
The Rules - Stuff I’ve figured out that could have saved me copper, time and effort
- The straighter the link between two points, the more difficult to install/remove the piece.
- To protect o-rings in the fittings always file the edges of the copper down, no shortcutting!
- Eliminate or reduce the use of angle connectors fittings. They’re expensive and unnecessary given the angles that can already be achieved with copper pipe.
- Key pieces of the loop should symmetrically relate to either other pieces of the loop or major components. Achieving such symmetry will lend a holistic feel to the finish – the loop and components will appear as one and give the feel of a complete system. Without symmetry the loop links will stand out – giving an amateurish feel to the look and appearing poorly crafted.
- Complicated bends can be..well..complicated!
Rule #1 – The straighter the link between two points, the more difficult to install/remove the piece.
This one should be pretty common sense – to secure the pipe inside the fittings you have to push it in. If you’ve got fittings in two fixed points and the pipe is straight then the fixed points need to be un-fixed for it to fit. This is fine if the fixed points are your graphics cards and you can take them out, put the pipe in, then reinsert them. It’s not so easy for other links! Here’s a shot from my build process where I initially tried to make a link from the radiator to the graphics card with just a 45 degree bend:
After cutting that pipe to length I quickly realised there was not going to be a nice way to get the pipe into the fitting on that graphics card. I tried rotating the 45 degree rotary fitting but it was still requiring a fair bit of force to get the pipe in and that’s not the kind of thing you want! Too much force could lead to damaging the fittings or hardware and leaking over everything. What I ended up doing to work around this was to have two bends in the piece which allowed me to insert it into both fittings at the same time:
Rule #2 – To protect o-rings in the fittings always file the edges of the copper down, no shortcutting!
Everything I know about modding I’ve learned throughout the course of my Massively build. Largely through advice from people in the worklog and from reading other worklogs. I’d say I’ve easily learned the most about using copper pipe from Alain (of Project White fame). When he uses copper pipe he always files down the outside edges of the pipe to protect the o-ring, and so I’ve adopted that and always done it as well. As you usually do, I learned why this was so important by shortcutting it. Here’s an example of a piece with the edges file properly:
When you’re creating a loop out of copper there are times when you need to make a lot of small adjustments, stuff like a few millimeters at a time. Here’s an example of an adjustment, see the sharp edges?
Each time you make an adjustment you have to test the fit. To test the fit you have to insert the pipe into the fitting. To make sure you don’t damage the o-rings in the fitting (which can lead to leaks) you need to sand the sharp edges off the pipe before you insert it. After one particularly annoying session of copper pipe work I decided to debur the fresh cut but not sand the edges like I usually did. As I pushed the pipe into the fitting in I could actually feel it slice the o-ring to shreds. I took the pipe out and took a look:
The o-ring removed from the fitting – lesson learned:
Rule #3 – Eliminate or reduce the use of angle connectors fittings.
This may not be immediately obvious, but one of the great things about using copper pipe is that you can avoid the expense of using rotary/angle fittings almost entirely. Overusing angle fittings can create situations where it’s difficult to put your loop together because the link is too direct (see Rule #1) and can damage the symmetry of your loop leading to an ugly looking build. Don’t just take my word for it, let me show you!
When I was initially creating this link connecting the reservoir and midplate I used 90 and 45 degree fittings to create a fairly direct link:
What I was effectively doing here was spending $9 (the cost of a 45 degree non-rotary fitting at the time of writing this) in order to make my loop more difficult to put together! Simple solution to this – remove the 45 degree fitting and use a piece of copper pipe with a 90 degree bend in it. Doh!
Rule #4 – Key pieces of the loop should symmetrically relate to either other pieces of the loop or major components.
Achieving such symmetry will lend a holistic feel to the finish – the loop and components will appear as one and give the feel of a complete system. Without symmetry the loop links will stand out – giving an amateurish feel to the look and appearing poorly crafted. Here’s an example of how overuse of angle fittings and lack of symmetry can damage the aesthetics of your build. In this scenario I used 45 degree fittings coming out of my CPU block, the result was unsymmetrical bends that constrasted badly with the components in the PC to look pretty horrible:
Compare the symmetry in the above to the finished version:
Rule #5 – Complicated bends can be..well..complicated!
I’ll only touch on this one briefly, but if you’re just starting out and would like to preserve your sanity then it can be a good idea to avoid doing complicated multi-bend pieces. These kinds of bends:
The key reason you want to avoid these types of bends is that it can get pretty technical to get the measurements right. You either have to do a lot of calculations or waste a lot of copper on trial-and-error attempts. When you’re doing a simple 90 degree bend you can generally eyeball the length needed, bend it, then cut excess copper from either end until it fits. With more than one bend, especially additional bends on a third axis, it becomes essential to accurately calculate the correct length between the bends as you can’t simply cut it to adjust.
I learned this the hard way, and will plan around these types of bends where possible in future (unless I’m feeling dangerous :p).