I like to break Pinball Repair / Restoration down into 3 main areas of focus. They are as follows:
- The Playfield
- The Circuit Boards
- The Cabinet
1) The Playfield
1-A) The Playfield - Topside:
When repairing / restoring a playfield there are 2 sides that need to be addressed. The top side, or rather, the play area you see as a player, (Photos
) and the underside, (Photos
) that you don’t see; but contains all the mechanics that keeps the top side functioning correctly.
It’s paramount that both topside, and underside are rebuilt, restored, and cleaned at the same time, or unbalanced operation will result. Also, if you clean the topside, and not the underside, you're wasting your time. During game play all the carbon dust, and grime still on the underside mechanics, will quickly transfer up to the topside, through vibration, and ball movement. Many pinballs from 1988 on have under-playfield ramps, most are made from clear pteg plastic, just like the upper ramps. The following photo shows you the condition of most under-playfield ramps I see. (Photos
For this process to be done thoroughly, and correctly all components on the topside must be removed. (Photos
). Likewise, any components jutting up into the playfield from below must be dropped. (Photos
). Finally, the playfield rails should also be removed. (Photos
At this point the playfield can be easily examined for defects, such as missing paint, loose, sunken, or raised lamp inserts, metal posts broken flush with playfield surface, screw holes that should not exist. I classify missing paint, and raised lamp inserts to be Major repairs, and the others minor.
Now, if the playfield does not have, any major defects it can be de-waxed, cleaned, and re-polished, or prepared for clear coat. This is the best time to clean all the through holes. These are machined holes in the playfield that allow switches, drop targets, and the like to protrude to the upper playfield. Over the years they usually become an ugly black. This is due to cleaners and wax running over the edge and down the side, then it becomes coated with carbon dust, from the high voltage switches. A damp soapy rag pulled through the hole, will clean the bulk out. This is followed with a very light sand with a rotary tool attachment. Now if the playfield is being clear coated, the wood grain will be sealed looking fresh. If the playfield is just being power polished, I seal the fresh wood grain with old school hair spray.
The playfield ready for re-polish will have one of three finishes, screened ink on wood, ink on wood with a factory applied mylar overlay, or ink on wood with a protective clear coat finish. Regardless of the existing finish, the playfield is re-polished using a powered 3-step cut, polish, finish, process (Photos
). The only variation is different abrasives, &/or polishes used to match the existing finish. The following are some photos of playfields that have had existing finishes re-polished. (Photos
) Here are others that were clear coated. (Photos
Each pinball playfield restoration is a unique process, as there are many variables that can determine the degree of restoration required. Ideally knowing what you want helps. Some people want a showpiece, like a show car, rarely driven, usually moved on a trailer. Others want a player, where small imperfections can be overlooked, providing it looks fresh, and plays properly.
I will not go into detailed techniques of lamp insert repair, or playfield paint matching and touchups, as who wants to read through 40 pages. Sometimes a playfield can have so many issues, that once a cost analysis is done, the least expensive avenue is to install a new aftermarket replacement.
Whatever degree of restoration / repair you are after, it can become a reality here.
Now on to explaining what happens to all the parts that were removed from the upper playfield. As the playfield is stripped, all the metal parts, such as lane guides, machine screws, gates, nuts, washers, are segregated. (Photos
) They are put into a tumbler /polisher unit with a special dry medium, and run continually for about 7 days. Usually after this term all the metal parts look new, (Photos
) any that don’t are then hand sanded, or replaced.
The plastic parts, such as support posts, lane guides are put into another tumbler. These run in a special wet medium for about 2 days, fluid changed, then another two days. They emerge sparkling clean. Any cracks are now visible, and bad pieces can be replaced.
All the larger metal & plastic parts have to be polished by hand. This can be quite a process. Machines from eastern Canada, or that have been in cold storage for many years, have just ugly metal surfaces (Photos
). This can be corrected with sandpaper, and power tools. It’s very time consuming, and for that reason only topside playfield metal will be done, unless special requests are made. (Photos
Artwork plastics are polished on a buffing wheel, ramps by hand. Any paint touchup required to art plastics is done at this time.
Playfield edge rails (Photos
) are often an overlooked item. Most are black in color. I will paint them, many times with a new color, using automotive paint with a clear coat finish; they can really make a playfield stand out.
That is about it for the reader,s digest version of upper playfield restoration, Oh! Yes, now it time to reassemble, but not until the underside is completely rebuilt.
1-B) The Playfield - Underside:
The rebuilding of the underside of the playfield is just as vital as the topside, as located here are all the mechanical components that provide you the player with the interactive experience with the upper playfield. When I start on the underside the topside has already been stripped, and all components protruding up to the topside have been dropped. All major assemblies such as flippers, slingshots, vertical up kickers, drop targets, stand-up targets are hanging, or removed by this point (Photos
). It’s very important to clean the complete underside playfield, if not all the oils and carbon dust will quickly transfer to your just restored / cleaned topside through vibration, and ball travel. Most 12 year and older undersides will look like this (Photos
) when I receive them, and when done will look like this (Photos
As I start rebuilding the underside, I usually start replacing / cleaning all the smaller items first, such as lane rollover wire forms, lamp sockets, and lamps, switches, and standup targets. These are done first as the major assemblies are already removed. Once they are back in place, many smaller components cannot be accessed.
Rollover wire forms are one of the first components reinstalled. All receive a hand polish with a special metal polisher, to bring back their original look. (Photos
) All of these activate a blade switch. At this point each has the contacts cleaned, and solder connections checked.
Next all fixed mounted under playfield switches contacts are cleaned, & solder points checked.
Then, all switches that protrude through to the upper playfield are cleaned / fixed, or replaced, and reinstalled. This includes slingshot activation, standup targets, spinner arms and the like. It’s at this stage when you really see all the broken switch blades, solder lugs, and missing diodes. (Photos
) All switch blades are cleaned, but those that are highly visible to the player, such as slingshot (Photos
) are polished to look new, or replaced. Many of these switches over time start to look very unsightly. You don’t want them put back into a game that’s just been restored!
Now that the wire forms and switches are done, it’s onto the lamps, and lamp sockets. I always remove all old lamps, then bend back the lamp socket to reveal the lamp insert (Photos
) This lamp insert is what allows the lamp light to shine through to the playfield. Over the years this insert’s ability to allow light through degrades from a build up of kitchen grease, nicotine, and carbon dust clinging to the former (Photos
) At this point each individual lamp insert is thoroughly cleaned from the underside. Each lamp socket is checked for tightness, and solder lug connections. Over time the isolation material used on the lamp sockets shrink, or the load spring gives out. These lamp sockets have to be replaced. Some are so bad you can tell with a visual inspection, others that are borderline have to be diagnosed after the pin is booted back up. On a Sterns Stars pin I had to replace 28 lamp sockets. All new #47 lamps are installed.
As the underside inspection continues it is also cleaned. The wire harness is cleaned as well. The wire harness is also tidied up, as over the years it gets “opened up” as people trace wiring trying to sort issues. As a tech, it’s very annoying to work on a pin when the wiring is always in the way, so this is addressed.
Fuses located underside have their values checked for correctness. I always write the fuse value directly onto the wood with a sharpie, as over time the original value stickers fall off, due to the glue drying out.
Now that all the smaller parts have been addressed I move to the larger solenoid assemblies. One of the first tasks is making sure the solenoid rating in each assembly match what the original manual called for. I have found it’s very common to find incorrect solenoids installed. This goes back to operators using whatever was on hand to keep the pin earning quarters. I have seen my fair share of pinballs with totally smashed plastics, ramps, drop targets, and metal posts bent over because someone put the wrong solenoids in the flipper assemblies.
Each solenoid assembly is stripped apart one by one , rebuilt, and reinstalled.
Most pop bumper upper playfield parts are just replaced with new. (Photos
) This includes the main body, metal rod & ring, and skirt activator (Photos
), as most of these parts are broken, and at the very least cracked. (Photos
Slingshot armatures many time are broken and need replacing .(Photos
All solenoid assemblies share most of these common parts, a coil, plunger with link, plunger sleeve, spring, and coil stop. (Photos
) Some of these parts at the very least require service, and a few just need to be replace.
The plunger link is either made of fiber or plastic (Photos
) and it’s a very important part. Over time slop will develop where it connects to the plunger with a roll pin. (Photos
) if you rebuild a solenoid assembly without changing this component, well it’s not rebuilt, as this is the weak “link”. If it shows any signs of slop, I change it.
Return spring should always be changed, just based on it’s current age.
The plunger link and coil stop smash into one another each time the solenoid is activated, this leads over time to a mushrooming effect on both. (Photos
) If the damage is not too bad they can both be filed back to original shape, or changed.
The coil “sleeve” in all cases is changed, as the plunger and stop smash into each other inside this sleeve which scores the inner lining.
Examining all these parts indicates the solenoid assembly has been completely disassembled; during this time the main base frame is cleaned. Many times I will find stress and /or fatigue cracks on the assembly mount structure itself, at that time it’s replaced. (Photos
The flipper assemblies are an extra special case, as they have some unique parts such as the flipper body, flipper bushing, the crank, and the switches. (Photos
) More times than I can count I find large wood screws forced into the metal machine screw holes that hold the coil stop in place. Sometimes this hole can be tapped back to proper use, and other times the whole flipper body base needs to be replaced due to the damage done. (Photos
The flipper bats, if original, are usually cracked at the cross bracing point. If they are cracked they will not absorb ball hits correctly, and feel weak. These cracks can only be seen if the flipper is removed and turned over. (Photos
Many people ignore the first switch that starts the flipper process, and that’s the cabinet switch on the left and right inside of the main cabinet body. This switch has evolved over the years from a straight contact, to powered optic eye; either way it needs attention.
Well there are many other components on the underside of the playfield such as resister boards, diode boards, relays, motor starters, and much more.
I just provided you with a very condensed version of what must happen under there to provide you with years of trouble free pinball play.
2) The Circuit Boards
When I say circuit boards I mean all the boards located in the backbox, (Photos
) and any located in the lower cabinet. Most circuit boards will be green, and some will be red. For clarification, I also include the player displays, or dot matrix display in the circuit board category.
These components are as important as your upper and lower playfield, as they are the brains of the operation. If they are not functioning correctly, nothing else will be.
Some of the most common problems found in the circuit board area is battery corrosion, expired filter capacitors, burnt &/or brittle connectors, bad IC sockets, cold solder points, broken fuse clips, poor ground lines, and required safety modifications.
I always start with the power distribution / rectifier board, (Photos
) as it takes all the different AC voltages and converts them to DC, which is what most of the game circuits operate off of.
Once this board is rebuilt, (Photos
) and it’s output voltage is all within proper operating specifications, then and only then can I move forward with powering up the other components. At this point any other issues will reveal themselves, and can be corrected.
Many problems on these boards are connector related. (Photos
) I spend lots of time changing out connecters, and both have to be done, the male pin, on the board, and the female in the connector housing.
Each board is pulled out one at a time, and all solder connections are re-flowed, board mounted battery packs are removed, and remotely mounted, (Photos
) with a quick disconnect. Many board issues were caused by pinballs being stored away for years with the batteries still in place. Batteries over time leak fluid, and gases. I’m sure we have all seen the damage done to old radios or toys that had the batteries left in them; it’s the same for pinball machines. For those that are wondering what the batteries are for, well they hold things such as the high score thresholds in the memory, and game parameters such as free play and so on.
On all early Bally & Stern games I remote mount a custom made bridge rectifier board. (Photos
) The original 3 bridge rectifiers were very under rated for the job required of them. (8amp-200 volt) When they fail, they are very hard to replace, requires much de-soldering, basically a service call. The 3 new bridge rectifiers (50 amp-1000 volt) if they ever fail, are function identifiable, and easily changed.
Player displays on many of the older games will be what’s called gassed out. These cannot be repaired. The industry now has access to new LED displays that require much less power, which provides greater reliability; as the high voltage section on the power supply can be turned off, as it’s only function was to provide power for the plasma displays.
Again, I’m not going to go into huge detail, just trying to let you know the care that goes into each rebuild / restore here at Absolute Pinball.
3) The Cabinet
With the cabinet AKA “the wooden box” I’m also going to lump in the following parts; the backglass, and all the metal parts such as the legs, lockdown bar, coin door, plunger, and side rails. This by no means includes all the smaller parts, it’s just a generalization.
Unlike the previous components (Playfield & Circuit Boards) the cabinet does not need to have any restoration work done. There are a few exceptions to this rule; when the cabinet is separating at the seams, or the bottom is falling out, then yes repairs need to be completed.
The degree of restoration work done to a cabinet is based entirely on what is envisioned as the end result for that particular pinball machine. Decisions like this again go back to what you want your pinball to be, a showpiece, a player, or both. Of course, this decision is also monetary in nature.
The following will provide you with the steps I take to do a full cabinet restoration. Most photos used will be of a full restoration on a 1977 Bally Bobby Orr Power Play machine.
The first step is the cabinet has to be stripped bare and cleaned. (Photos
) I always start on the underside of the cabinet. Most time I find the wooden plywood edges are broken or separating from years of poor handling when the pin was loaded in and out of truck beds. (Photos
) To repair this, the damaged area need to be squared off, then plywood needs to be cut to fit the missing section. It is then glued and clamped into place. (Photos
) Once set, it can be sanded flush to the surrounding wood with a orbital sander.
At this time the metal piece in the bottom front is cleaned and painted silver, with clear coat applied. For those of you that don’t know, the 18 gauge piece of steel was installed by the factory to prevent thieves from cutting out the coin box.
The last step in the rejuvenation of the underside is a complete 220 grit pass with the orbital sander along the plywood edges, and the base. This will remove all the ugly old dirty fingertip marks built up over the years of location rotation. It is then sealed with a coat of acrylic latex clear. Lastly, it is taped off. Yes, I know you may consider this overkill, but trust me for a show piece it’s not!
Now, if the cabinet has any side / front, or side/ rear seam separation, this can be repaired. Many times old loose inside corner reinforcement blocks need to be removed, and new ones glued and air stapled into place. I also find many screws, and nails in cabinet corners that have to be removed, and resulting damage repaired. They had been put in as the cabinet had been falling apart for years, but no one cared to fix it proper.
At this point I run a tap & die through the 8 leg bolt holes. Each metal leg bolt receiver is nailed into place at two points. Thirty years on, most all the nails are loose. I usually pull the nails out, and replace with 1-¼” wood screw, slathered with wood glue. On most of these bolt receiver brackets there is a unused third nail hole, I put a screw in it as well.(Photos
Often, on the older pins the riser that the backbox is bolted too is in very poor condition. (Photos
) The rectangular top section is nailed to the main body, but like the leg bolt acceptors, over the years these nails have become very loose, and in most cases are very easy to remove. I replace them with 3” wood screws, and countersink in four more for good measure. This rectangular structure many times will have left to right slop, as each edge was attached to the other with two air staples. Years of the heavy backbox being attached and removed, and slid left to right to align bolt holes have stressed the air staples to the point where you can pry the wood apart, pull the old staples. I then add fresh glue, and new air staples, and it’s all super solid again. I have seen cases where the riser damage is so bad, (or the very top section is missing), that a whole new riser assembly has to be built and installed.
Now that the cabinet structure is sound, the sanding process (Photos
) can begin. I use a 5” orbital sander and start with a 80 grit paper. Once down to original plywood I go over the entire surface a second time with a 120 grit; then a final time with a 220 grit. During the sanding process I round the corners of the backbox, and cabinet body. (Photos
) I round the corners as it’s much harder for any future light impacts to cause any damage. There are many areas where the orbital sander will not reach, these areas have do be completed block sanded by hand.
Now that all the sanding is done, and the resulting dust removed; the bodywork required to fix years of abuse can start. Standard 2 part automotive body putty is used on all the larger damage. (Photos
) Some areas require multiple build coats, and sanding between each coat. On many cabinets I find entire sides affected with very large divisions in the plywood grain, large enough that your fingernail will drop in. This damage is caused by years of cold storage. These cannot be hidden with paint, in fact, fresh paint will cause them to become even more prominent. On this type of fine damage I use a premix auto body glazing finishing compound, and skim coat the whole cabinet. Once all damage is repaired, the entire cabinet receives one final pass with the 220 grit paper.
Now it’s time for the primer base coat. (Photos
) A minimum of 2 coats is sprayed, in some cases up to 4. I find it depends on how dry the plywood is. At this point any minor scratch / pinhole type damage that was missed on the bodywork stage is amplified, and can be attended to with the glazing putty. The final step for the primer is a block hand sanding with 1000 grit paper. This will provide a ultra smooth finish, that is ready for the base coat.
The backbox riser is usually black in color. I always paint it first. The balance of the cabinet has to be taped off. (Photos
) It is sprayed with gloss black automotive paint. After that’s dried ,3-4 coats of base clear is applied. (Photos
After a day drying time, the black riser is taped off, and the main cabinet body can receive it’s base coat. Depending on the base color, a minimum of 2 coats, and in the case of white 4 coats are applied. (Photos
) This base coat needs at least 48 hours drying time, prior to proceeding with the first secondary color.
Now vinyl stencils are applied for the first secondary color. I only do one side of the cabinet at a time. I always start with the coin door end, and have the body sitting upright, so the surface being painted is flat. Naturally the balance of the cabinet is taped off. The secondary colors are always sprayed as follows, 3 light mist coats then 2 heavy. I give the paint about 5 minutes of setup time then remove the vinyl decals. After a 12-18 hour cure time I apply the next stencil set, and repeat the process. Lining the stencils up correctly is not an easy process; I always pre-prep them, to ensure a proper alignment. Once the last paint coat on the front is dry, I apply the clear coat finish. Clear coat is applied as follows, 4 light mist application, then 2 heavy. I allow 24 hours cure time then tape the front off.
The body is then put on one side, while the other is painted, then it’s taped off, body flipped, and process repeated. (Photos
) Next, this exact same process has to be applied to the backbox. (Photos
This is a long process, but the end results are stunning. (Photos
Now that the cabinet is completely restored, all the other cabinet parts have to be attended to prior to reassembly, such as; backglass, coin door, legs, side rails, lockdown bar, and any other cabinet parts removed.
On 95% of pinballs that were out on location the coin doors are a mess. Most of the insides are covered with dried pop, and/or beer residue. I completely tear the coin door apart. (Photos
) all the parts are thoroughly cleaned, including the harness. Most of the inside metal is painted silver, then clear coated. The polished steel main door skin, if badly dented is just replace with a new aftermarket. If the main coin door front was black, a sanding and repaint, with clear coat finish will make it look new. Many times the coin door will have holes drilled through them, which allowed for security bars to be installed. These are repaired with liquid metal prior to any repainting.
Now the cabinet metal, legs, side rails, lockdown bar, coin door, and depending on brand of pinball, numerous other small parts. Most people believe these to be chrome, they are not. All these parts are just polished steel, and once put up against a newly painted cabinet, their 30 years of service really show.
Mild to light scratches can be sanded out of the metal. This is a huge, dirty process that require 8 different grits of wet paper, using the hand block process. Followed by a buffing wheel polish with a special metal compound. The end results can be a mirror finish (Photos
). I don’t usually sand the legs, just a power buff with the metal polish, after a through cleaning. All legs have new leg levelers installed.
Sometimes I decide to have all the metal parts powder coated, as it can really alter the appearance of the whole machine (Photos
) If I’m restoring your pinball you can choose to have the existing metal left as is, sanded, and polished, or powder coated.
Sometimes I do the metal assemblies inside the cabinet. (Photos
) I usually only take this step if the metal shows very bad corrosion; common if the machine is from down east, or sat many years in cold storage.
The cabinet harness is also cleaned, and tidied up, along with the cabinet switches.
Not all pinball cabinets can receive this procedure. I believe factory cabinet painting started to end around 1988 to 1991 depending on manufacturer. Some went to a silk screening process; which allows for many colors which bleed, and fade into one another. That process cannot be replicated with paint. Others went to a printed wrap. Cabinet decal sets can be purchased for all the highly collectable pins, and be applied. All others have to be custom printed. (Photos
) Sometimes the best remedy for small amounts of cabinet finish damage is hand paint with brushes. (Photos
The backglass. What can I say here, well it’s either in super, good, or poor condition. Prior to 1986 /87 most all back glasses were silk screened paint onto glass. If the artwork is peeling, flaking, or bubbling, the back side of the glass can be sealed to prevent further erosion; or if available an aftermarket replacement can be purchased. From 1986 on most manufactures went to a backlit translite system. If this is cracked, faded, or missing, it is most likely easily replaceable.
OK, so there is the reader's digest version of a full cabinet restoration. It is a huge, timely process , but the end results are well worth it, don’t you agree! (Photos
So now when you read through descriptions of pinballs offered for sale on this site, you will be better able to understand the degree of restoration applied to that particular pinball.
If you managed to make it to the end of this, well, thanks for your time.