(The following is one approach towards building a nearly new Commodore 64 in 2019. Here is another with a slightly more purist focus.)
Some time in 2018 I happened across a shaky-cam video of a guy in Germany performing a really bizarre and awesome demo. He had an Ultimate64 inside of a clear acrylic case - one that I’d never seen before. And the case had internal LED lights that illuminated his machine (which was in a dark room to add to the dramatics). He wrote a program that, if I remember correctly, played SID tunes and strobed the LEDs to the beat.
It blew me away.
I had an Ultimate64 made by Gideon Zweijtzer of Amsterdam, Netherlands, sitting in a box waiting patiently for NTSC support and I was lacking a proper case for it. I knew when I saw the acrylic case I’d finally found my U64’s new home.
That’s when a plan formed in my mind. I was going to try and build an entirely brand new C64 using modern products. Everything - literally everything - would be new except for the keycaps.
It took me a while to figure out where that see-through acrylic case came from, but eventually after a bit of research I discovered it came from Germany by a company called Plexilaser. They have several very cool products for Commodore machines including a case for the Amiga 500. The case I was interested in was designed specifically for the Ultimate64 board.
The case is laser cut and you can request to have any letters and/or numbers cut out of the top case that you want. In terms of LEDs - an optional extra feature - there are color options of red, green, blue or white lights.
The case itself can come in 3 different colors as well: clear, smoke gray or matte black. I really wanted the smoke gray one after careful consideration and chatting with the owner of Plexilasr, Michael Schön. And for me, the blue light seemed to fit perfectly with the soft glow of the blue BASIC screen it would be next to. Totally modern with a nod towards the past.
I selected the options I wanted and went to order.
And that’s when shit got real. There was no shipping outside of Europe! I was completely soul crushed.
But here’s the thing. I’ve learned over time that it never hurts to ask (or even beg). I contacted the shop and asked about what I could do. After a few days of passing messages back and forth, Michael worked with me personally to get me the case that I wanted. He's solid.
Apparently in the early days shipping outside of Europe had been permitted but a lot of customers received damaged goods through USPS - so much so that it became a financial burden for Plexilaser to support half the world. But we worked things out and all was well.
A few weeks later I got my new case. It comes sort of like an old-school model that you have to assemble. And it takes some care and concentration.
As I mentioned before I already had the Ultimate64 sitting on a shelf waiting patiently for glory. But I started to put things together now that I had the case as I couldn’t wait any longer. (Note: Just this weekend NTSC support was released by Gideon - literally the day I finished this build! Sometimes things just work out.)
Previously I got into one of the order batches for the exceptionally crafted Mechboard64 made by Lau (aka MtnBuffalo) out of Denmark. My goal was for the U64 machine to have this wicked case and use the brand new keyboard.
I first spent the time pulling keys off a dead breadbin and even retr0brighted the glyphs to make them as close to original white as possible. Then I transferred them to the yellow Gatreon microswitches. I picked yellow because according to Lau they are the closest to the original feel. Even though I was building a freaking C64 the likes worthy of being on Data’s desk on TNG, I still wanted it to have original-ish touches.
Once the Mechboard was assembled, it was time to put everything together once and for all.
Assembly, and a Course Correction
The first thing I had to do was remove a protective film from each of the various parts of the Plexilaser case. You have to do this very slowly and carefully, as according to the instructions going too fast can make some delicate areas break (especially around the laser cut custom word you chose which produces very thin plastic).
Once the film is removed, I had a very difficult time keeping the acrylic clean. Inside the box and all over the parts are tiny little white shavings, and the acrylic has a bit of natural static that makes the shavings stick to it. I could blow air on the parts but oftentimes some of the shavings would fly around to the other side of a part and cling for dear life. It's like that thing on your finger you just can't flick off, ya know?
I ultimately bought a small stack of soft micro-fiber cloths to both remove my fingerprints as well as knock the shavings off once and for all. I never needed to spray the case with chemicals or anything like that.
The case comes with a set of step-by-step instructions. It took me a while to identify which parts were which, as there are lots of little bolts and nuts and whatnot. I also did everything with finger-strength - no tools! Over-tightening a bolt is a great way to crack acrylic and make tears leak down your sad adult face.
So I held the screwdriver bit in my fingers and just used my hands when I attached everything. Getting the U64 board into place did not take very long at all.
Next it was time to attach the Mechboard64.
The Plexilaser comes with 3 little supports to hold up the keyboard. It was designed entirely with original plastic C64 keyboards in mind - and, the Mechboard was designed entirely for original C64 breadbin or 64C cases. In my mind that meant these two products should work together.
After talking to both Lau and Michael, I discovered that I appeared to be the first person to ever attempt this particular build.
What I soon found out was that the far-right keyboard support did not have a matching hole in the Mechboard’s metal aluminum case. After a bit of handwringing I pulled out a metal punch, hammer and drill, and added the necessary mounting hole.
It turned out very nicely I think.
I then reattached the Mechboard and began to put the entire case together. After snapping on the top cover I quickly discovered two more problems.
The Plexilaser has 1 bolt at the very front of the case that secures into an L-bracket. That bolt directly bottoms out on the Mechboard’s lower edge. In the original plastic C64 keyboards there is a large rectangular cutout in the plastic below the spacebar area. The Mechboard does not have this cutout. To be fair, the cutout appears to be completely arbitrary for the original keyboards and is not mechanically important. Perhaps it was done to allow C= to pour less plastic and save a penny or two per machine. But in order to get the Mechboard out of the bolt’s way I’d either have to cut the aluminum again or use a really short bolt (not great options).
The other problem is that based on where the mounting holes are on the Mechboard, there is ever so slight repositioning of the keyboard compared to an original keyboard. As a result, when the top case is attached the top row of keycaps make contact with the plexilaser case. In fact, my F1 key wouldn’t even go down at all as the case was underneath that key.
It's possible I could have taken out the drill and done more surgery, but there were too many variables. The wiring harness, the hole alignments - it wasn't a drop-in with the Plexilaser. No matter how I tried to massage the alignment I could never get it to work the way it was intended. And the last thing I was prepared to do was cut each hole on the Mechboard into a new shape to try and find the perfect fit - it would have required new hardware (washers, etc.). I mean the case is clear so we can all see the beauty of these parts. I wasn’t about to perform more mods that might have damaged it or detracted from its beauty.
After over 3 hours of failed attempts, I finally threw in the towel and put the Mechboard in my other “new” build so that it could be used with my MK2 Reloaded machine. That machine is so fantastic I just love it.
In the end I put an original 64C keyboard into the Plexilaser. After putting on the brackets I had things buttoned up in just a matter of moments.
And to be clear the Mechboard went into my 64C case in all of 2 minutes - flawless victory. I can’t recommend that keyboard more highly. It types better than any C64 I’ve ever had in my life including NOS machines. It’s pure silky perfection.
At this point my only future change will likely be the keycaps. I’m going to try and source some breadbin keys as I simply prefer them. Other than that, though, this Ultimate64 is pretty f’ing bad ass! Now to finally stop playing with hardware for a bit and enjoy these gorgeous new additions to my collection. Total 8-bit Commodore heaven.