Pinball Machine Maintenance: Tools, Schedule, & Step By Step


How To Maintain Your Pinball Machine

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You loved playing them as a child, and now you have fulfilled your dream of getting your own. The thing was when you bought the new pinball machine, you never thought about the fact that it would likely need maintenance. Now that you have figured out that it does, you’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. 

How to maintain your pinball machine. You’re going to want to lightly clean your machine’s playfield every two-to-three months by using Novus 2 (Windex is an acceptable alternative if you don’t have access to the Novus 2 cleaner) sprayed onto a clean cloth – never directly onto the gaming surface – and carefully cleaning the gaming surface. NEVER use water to clean your play surface as it can warp or damage the game.

Don’t worry. We’ll go through what you need to know about cleaning and maintaining your precious game. There are several things you need to consider, and we’ll explore them further in this article.

If you want to see some current pinball machines or other retro arcade machines just click here.

Recommended Tools for Maintaining Your Pinball Machine

You want to make sure that you take good care of your new investment, so a good place to start is to make sure that you have the right tools handy.

Your first consideration is to have good quality tools. Using cheaply made tools can result in stripped bolts or cracked plastics because you over-tightened things as your tools kept slipping.

Many of these supplies are things you have around the house, so there won’t be many specialized tools to purchase.

For the most part, you’re going to need:

· Your smartphone camera

· Small shop vacuum with a soft bristle brush and crevice tool attachments

· Novus #2 cleaner

· Windex

· Q-tips

·  Clean cloths

·  9/16-inch wrench for head bolts

·  8-mm Allen wrench if you have a newer Sterns model

·  5/8-inch wrench for leg bolts

·  Needle-nose pliers

·  Flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers

·   400 grit sandpaper for switch cleaning

·  Lightbulbs based on your machine

· Strap to secure the backbox

·  New pinballs

What About Soldering Equipment?

In some accounts, you may read that you have to have a soldering iron, 60/40 solder, a switch adjustment tool, and a Multimeter. If you are experienced in fine soldering wires, then that is an option you can explore.

However, if you’re not practiced in welding, and your pinball machine is not operating correctly after you’ve performed the maintenance, you would be better off contacting a specialty repair technician.

That said, let’s dig into some basic maintenance you can perform to keep your pinball machine working well.

Pinball Machine Parts – A Primer

There are three basic components to your pinball machine.

1.  The cabinet.

The cabinet is where your mechanical pieces are housed that work the flippers, posts, and bumpers.

2.  The playfield.

This is your visible area of play, and the area you will maintain and clean most often.

3.  The Backbox.

This is the “gold” of your pinball machine. It is where the electronics are that manage the scoring and visuals for SS and DMD games. It is also the most expensive piece to replace – and in some cases, it is very difficult, if not impossible.

General Maintenance Steps

This may seem obvious, but it bears stating. Your pinball machine is an electric appliance. Always unplug it before you begin any type of maintenance. Once you’ve unplugged (or removed the access to battery power for) your pinball machine, try turning it back on to make sure it truly is disconnected.

Pinball machines are no different from your vehicle or major appliances in that they, too, come with operating and repair manuals. If you bought a used pinball machine, conduct an internet search to locate your model’s manual. This will help you make sure that you are caring for your gaming machine as the manufacturer intended.

Cleaning your Pinball Machine (Every 2 to 3 Months)

To clean your pinball machine about 4 to 6 times a year, you’re going to need to access the playfield. To do this, open the coin door and slide the lever at the top right to left. This will make it so the lock-down bar can be lifted off.

Here are the basic steps you will want to follow:

1.       Remove the glass from the playfield. Now it’s time to slide the glass out of the machine. Carefully. Glass is heavier than you think – and this is a large, thick piece. Be well leveraged when you slide the glass out so you can control it and gently set it down. 
2.  Lift the playfield. Lift the playfield by grabbing the apron of the cabinet and slide the playfield toward you so you can flip it up on its pivot against the backbox.  The EM games typically have a prop rod (similar to what’s under the hoods of some cars) to hold the playfield up. 
3.         Document your playfield. Before you do anything else, take several photos of your playfield.  If you are planning on removing all of your pieces and cleaning each of them, you’re going to want a reminder as to where each piece belongs. 
4.         Vacuum that dust away. Now that you have your documentation in place use your shop vac to gently get all of the dust from the corners, edges, and from around the various bumpers and flippers. 
5.         Time to add some shine.For general cleaning, you’re going to want to remove the moving pieces and the rubber rings.  This will allow you to clean underneath that part thoroughly and to buff it clean too. Spray your Novus 2 cleaner directly on your clean rag and use your rag to clean your playfield.  Start from the bottom of the field, where the flippers are and work toward the top so you can make sure you get all of the areas of play. If areas are too small for you to get them clean with your rag, spray some Novus 2 on a Q-tip and use it to perform the intricate cleaning details. 
6. Put back together and get back to playing!When you have finished cleaning your playfield, make sure it has completely dried before you reassemble everything. This will help prevent warping and rubbing damage.  Once you have reassembled your playfield and lowered it back in its gaming place, clean both sides of the top glass piece and carefully secure it back to its resting place. Re-secure the playfield lever and coinbox, and then you can plug your game back in (or reconnect the battery power) and get back to taking over the world of pinball competition. 

Pro-Tip: Never spray any cleaner or solvent directly onto the playfield. Due to all of the holes in the field, it would be too easy for the solvent to drip down to the components and wires beneath. This could result in damaging your game at best and causing a fire at worst.

Deep Cleaning Your Pinball Machine (Every 12 Months)

About once per year, you are going to want to deep clean your pinball machine. This is more delicate work because you don’t want to disconnect or break any wires or blow any fuses or circuit boards.

1. Get your documentation together and secure your machine.

Before you begin this process, make a note of any lights that haven’t been working and need to be replaced and of any bumpers or flippers that have not been working properly. 

Your next step will be to make sure that all of the legs are secure. Check if the leg bolts need to be tightened or replaced before you begin pulling your cabinet and backbox open.

Pro-Tip: Keep a servicing notebook for your pinball machine. Physically write down when you performed quarterly cleaning maintenance and make notes of items that need to be cared for during your annual maintenance times.

Annual maintenance means that you’re going to want to get rid of any dust and grime that is in the cabinet below the playfield and in the backbox.

You’re going to follow the same procedures we discussed for your quarterly cleaning, but you’re also going to vacuum the dust in the mechanical area of the cabinet and in the backbox.

2. Accessing the backbox.

There will be a key for the backbox so you can access it. 

The glass for your backbox is very difficult to replace, so use extra care when you lift it out. You’re also going to want to check your game’s maintenance manual before you clean that glass as it may be treated with solvent-sensitive dyes. Using the wrong cleaner on that piece of glass may result in faded, running, or erased dyes. 

Because this piece is so sensitive, it is usually very easy to scratch. Make sure you lay it flat on a soft surface as opposed to leaning it against something else.

3. Get the vacuum back out.

As with the playfield, carefully vacuum both the backbox and the cabinet to rid it of accumulated dust and potential pet hair.

4. Replace defective and worn parts.

Replace any lights that have gone out, that are dim, or that are not consistently lighting, and replace any fuses that haven’t been functioning properly. 

Your fuses will control lighting function, sound functions, graphic functions, flipper action, and bumper action. If you are replacing light bulbs, it may be worth considering putting in LED bulbs. They will last much longer and will seldom – if ever – need to be replaced.

Now is also the best time to replace your white rubber rings and the game balls. Similar to the rubber rings, the gaming balls get dinged and damaged and need to be replaced. Annual maintenance is a good time to perform that task.

Pro-Tip: Use white rubber rings instead of black rubber rings for a few reasons:

· White rings will keep the playing field cleaner than black rings will but will also show dirt faster than the black rings will. So, although they will look dirtier faster, the white rings will last longer.

· Black rings are harder than the white rings. This means that the gameplay may speed up using the softer white rings, but you need to pay attention to the ball action as unanticipated damage may occur with faster bounces.

· The harder black rubber rings can damage the posts of older EM games.

5. Consider replacing wires that have broken.

If you notice that you have wires that have become disconnected from the ground, use your screwdriver to gently loosen the connector, reattach the wire, and retighten the connector. 

If the wire is broken and it’s easy to trace from one connector to the other, take clear photos of the starting and stopping point, as well as any interdependencies along the route, take a sample of the wire to your local hardware store, get a replacement wire, and reattach the new wire.

6. Call for help.

If you have conducted your maintenance and something still isn’t working, it may be time to call in a professional repair technician.

More tips

Want some more tips on how to maintain your machine? The video below is from Pinball Workshop and gives some regular maintenance tips.

How to Find a Technician

Pinball machines have been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, so they’re not as scarce as they once were. If you live in an area that has any type of pinball gaming, you can conduct a quick internet search for pinball repair technicians in your city.

If the internet search doesn’t work, check with your local arcade, bowling alley, pizza place, or sports bar that has pinball machines. Ask them who they use for their pinball machine repair and ask for that person’s contact information.

If all else fails, conduct an internet search for a pinball machine dealer. Explain where you’re located and ask them if they have any suggestions for getting your machine repaired. If it comes down to a wiring issue, a local electrician or small engine professional may be able to help. If it is a circuit board concern, your local computer repair expert may be able to lend you a hand.

You’ll need to know what type of machine you have.

Knowing Your Pinball Machine

All pinball machines are not created the same way. There are three different types of games available on the market:

1. EM – Electro-Mechanical

These relay-based machines were built until about 1978. They’re controlled by stepper units and a score motor. These are the “old-school” pinball machines that people used to see at bowling alleys and arcades.

The playfield slope should be about 3.5 degrees for this type of machine.

2. SS – Solid State

If you want a machine that was built between 1970 and 1990, this is your pinball machine. These gaming machines are microprocessor electronic controlled machines. These were the next generation of pinball machines. They increased gaming reliability by replacing mechanics with electronics. 

You’ll play this machine with a 6.5-degree slope.

3. DMD – Dot Matrix Display

If your machine is mostly graphically oriented, it is probably DMD and has been built since 1990. These are updated Solid State machines that have displays used for both low-resolution video and scoring. 

These are the most complex of the three types of pinball machines. They have additional ramps, hidden pathways called subways, and complicated gameplay modes and sequences.

Like SS’s, DMDs also play at a slope of about 6.5-degrees.

Moving Your Pinball Machine

In some senses, it seems that it should be easy to move this thing – it’s just another piece of furniture, right?

Well, it is a piece of furniture. Similar to a grandfather clock. You wouldn’t consider moving that large clock by yourself, moving your pinball machine needs similar care.

Remember, your pinball machine weighs between 200 – 400 pounds and measures about 32-inches wide by 52-inches deep by 70-inches tall. That’s an unwieldy size for one person and a significant amount of heft. You do not want to risk damaging your machine – or your back – by underestimating what you are working with here. 

Before You Move Your Pinball Machine

·  Always make sure that you have a protective covering over the playfield

· Make sure the backbox is safely folded down before you begin to move your gaming cabinet. 

· You’ll also want to make sure that the legs are secure, and the cabinet is firmly bolted.

· Remove any loose pieces like the gaming balls and any change that may be in the cabinet.

Caution: Do not tighten the cabinet bolts too tight as it may crack the playfield glass, the apron, or the cabinet itself.

Now that you have the backbox down and everything is sturdy, there should be at least two people moving your pinball machine. You’ll want to keep it level while it is in transit.

Once you have your game placed in its new location, reassemble the backbox into its proper place and plug your pinball machine in to make sure it is working properly. Load the gaming balls back in, and you are ready to go.

Ring It Up!

Now that you have your pinball machine in pristine condition and in the perfect location, it’s time to get the gang together to see who can get the highest score. Soon your house is going to be filled with the flashing lights and ringing scores of victorious pinball play.

Of course, we all know you will be the victor of this event because you’ve been practicing, but we’ll just keep that between us.

Matt Robbs

There is nothing quite so enjoyable as bringing back memories from your childhood. We used to spend hours playing pinball in my friends basement and that really got me involved in everything retro!

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