Pinball Cabinet Repair And Restoration

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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 (Figure 4.1 – 4.4). 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 (Figure 4.5 – 4.9). 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 (Figure 4.10 – 4.18). 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 (Figure 4.19 – 4.21).

Often, on the older pins the riser that the backbox is bolted too is in very poor condition (Figure 4.22 – 4.25). 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 (Figure 4.26 – 4.29) 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 (Figure 4.30 – 4.32). 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 (Figure 4.33 – 4.37). 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 (Figure 4.38 – 4.41). 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 (Figure 4.42 – 4.44). It is sprayed with gloss black automotive paint. After that’s dried, 3-4 coats of base clear is applied (Figure 4.45 – 4.46).

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 (Figure 4.47 – 4.58). 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 (Figure 4.59 – 4.72). Next, this exact same process has to be applied to the backbox (Figure 4.73 – 4.79).

This is a long process, but the end results are stunning (Figure 4.80 – 4.85).

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 (Figure 4.86 – 4.91), and 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 (Figure 4.92 – 4.107). 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 (Figure 4.108 – 4.110) 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 (Figure 4.111). 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 (Figure 4.112 – 4.114). Sometimes the best remedy for small amounts of cabinet finish damage is hand paint with brushes (Figure 4.115 – 4.121).

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! (Figure 4.122 – 4.133)

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.

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I contacted Devron to service and repair my 1977 STARS pinball machine, Devron was easy to contact and was waiting when I arrived. He is very knowledgeable and completed all the repairs he was asked to. Devron contacted me prior to making any extra repairs we didn't originally agree on, until he started to work on the machine and determine what was needed. The machine has been used every week since the last year and works excellent. Devron has a true passion for his work and I found the rates reasonable.
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