The Cabinet

Cabinet :: Design :: Head

This Pinball Head design is one that I’ve used on all three of my Custom Pinball Machines, and will work with the lower-angled retro-looking cabinets, as well as the steeper multi-level ones. The head has a thinner profile than older games, mainly because less room is needed for electronics and wiring. The angled trim pieces, however, keep the vintage look.

Head assembly CAD model

SolidWorks screenshot of of Head assembly.

This SolidWorks model is available on the downloads page, as well as DXFs and SVGs of the templates you see here.

Custom Pinball Head

Diagram of individual parts for the Head, along with assembly views.

Above is a diagram of the parts needed to make the head, along with assembly views. These pieces are cut from either 1×4 or 1×6 pine, which is easy to find at your local hardware store. The light board is 1/2″ plywood, but doesn’t need to be the same high quality as the playfield. A piano hinge is used to attach the light board to the head, allowing access to the back. My preference for score displays is to use vintage brackets, which I’ve included in the template as an example.

Cabinet with Head

Extra trim parts and brackets needed to complete Cabinet assembly and Head attachment.

There are several extra trim pieces needed to complete the Cabinet and Head assembly. A piece of 1×4 pine stock is cut down to 2.375 wide, and serves to fill the gap between the head and cabinet, as well as act as a corner brace for the rear corners. A 1.75″ long block of 2×2 pine (which is really 1.5″x 1.5″) is used to locate and support the leg bracket during assembly, and also serves as corner reinforcement.


Cabinet :: Design :: Templates

My most recent Custom Pinball Machine utilized a multi-level playfield, which requires the steeper slope you typically see on more modern cabinets. I’ve posted templates for this design for those that are either looking for a modern feel, or need the extra headroom for flying wire-forms or alpha-ramps (or just an old-school upper level playfield).

I call this latest pin “Miss Adventure”, so all the files will have the initial MA right after the date code. These can all be found on the download page. Please understand ahead of time that the Cabinet depth is designed to work with Gottlieb lockdown bar hardware, and a Custom Head (template for this to follow in the next post).

Note that, as in the previous post, the front corners are intended to be mitered for a high-quality professional look. If you’re not going to do this step for whatever reason, be sure to take off an extra 3/4″ cut (indicated by the blue dash in the SVG and DXF files), but only take this off either 1) front of both left and right side pieces (preferred) or 2) both edges of the front piece (less-preferred).

SolidWorks ScreenShot

This is a SolidWorks screenshot for a two-level Custom Pinball Cabinet

This template is designed to be mostly cut from a single sheet of 4’x8′ plywood, 3/4″ thick. Birch top is usually relatively cheap while providing a quality finish. Some other minor pieces are needed, which I usually cut from pine stock. I’ll detail this in the next post related to the Head fabrication.

Plywood template for Custom Pinball Cabinet

Template for cutting Custom Cabinet pieces from a single sheet of 4’x8′ Birch plywood.


Cabinet :: Fabrication :: Miter

If you decide to go the route of building a Custom Pinball Cabinet from scratch, one of the biggest fabrication challenges you will face is how to get clean looking corners…

Most of the cabinet edges will either be covered with some form of trim, or not visible except from the bottom or from the back. The features that can’t escape attention, however, are the two vertical edges of the front panel on either side of the coin door. For a professional-looking quality Cabinet, these two corners will need some form of mitered edge, and the feature of choice for Pinball Cabinets has been to use a “Miter-Lock”.

The front vertical edges of the Cabinet are the most visible, and need a mitered edge in order for the Cabinet to have a clean professional look.

The front vertical edges of the Cabinet are the most visible, and need a mitered edge in order for the Cabinet to have a clean professional look.

A Miter-Lock edge is created on a router table with a single Miter-Lock Bit, with the two panels of wood being passed through the cutter either laying flat or standing vertical. Below are a set of images showing a typical Miter-Lock Bit installed in a bench-top router table:

Miter Lock Bit

Typical “Miter-Lock Bit” installed in a bench-top router table.

The bit itself is like a typical 45 deg cutter, but with two distinct jogs in the middle. These jogs create self-interlocking edges when two pieces of plywood are cut horizontally and vertically.

The panels that need the Miter-Lock are the two sides (front-edge only), and the front panel (both side edges). Since the side panels are very large and unwieldily, it makes more sense to run these flat through the router, and run the smaller front panel vertically. See the pics below:

Run the small, easer to handle, front panel through the cutter vertically.

Run the small, easer to handle, front panel through the cutter vertically.

Running the front panel through the cutter vertically (above), and the side panel through flat (below), creates a mirror cut that is self-locking.

Larger cabinet side panel being run through the router flat, cutting the front vertical edge.

Larger cabinet side panel being run through the router flat, cutting the front vertical edge.

When done correctly, the Miter-Lock Bit will cut two mirror-image edges, creating a self-interlocking corner. This process should only be done by those who are experienced with the equipment and use of a router table. Aside from the typical set-up, the important adjustments for this cut are to get both the height and offset equal and matched to the thickness of your wood panel (in this case, 3/4″ 7-layer plywood).

Any mis-adjustment in height or offset will cause one edge to stick out farther than the other. Not a disaster, but does’t look as nice and could cause the overall dimensions of the cabinet to be skewed.

Below are a couple images showing how each of the finished edges should look, and how they fit together:


Example of how each Miter-Lock cut looks, and how the two edges fit together to create a self-locking joint.

Example of how each Miter-Lock cut looks, and how the two edges fit together to create a self-locking joint.

One final tip I have is how to avoid having the vertical edge chip out during the routing process. Now, in a perfect world, we would have the grain of the wood running vertical along the cut line. But, because our side panels are just longer than 48″, it’s not possible to lay out the whole cabinet in one sheet when the typical grain runs length-wise. (Stay tuned for updates, I’m working on a slightly more compact cabinet that will rotate the layout to match the grain).

Below are a panel of images depicting a method that avoids the thin top laminate from chipping out during the vertical cut:

To avoid having the top laminate chip-out, you can pre-score the cut line with an xacto knife.

To avoid having the top laminate chip-out, you can pre-score the cut line with an xacto knife.

Here are the steps to avoid chip-out (the first panel is an example of the disastrous results of cutting across the grain…):

  1. Using a same-thickness piece of plywood as a guide, line up a straight-edge ruler 3/4″ away from the outside edge. Bear in mind that the face of the panel we are cutting is the inside, the “beauty” side should be face-down.
  2. Clamp straight-edge to the panel, preferably at both ends, and preferably to the table as well.
  3. Using an Xacto knife, cut along the edge through the to laminate layer. This will be about 1/16″ depending on what grade your using.

Tip: The metal straight-edge is to the inside of the cut line. This means if you make a slight mistake with the Xacto, you’re only messing up a surface that will later be removed. It’s best to use a new, sharp blade, but with a new blade you always need to make your first cut with a VERY light hand, and then come back with several passes to get the cut deeper. It is very easy to get of track with a new blade.

Good Luck and Be Safe!




Cabinet :: Electronics :: Display

In recent years, reproduction components and other products have surfaced to help repair and restore vintage pinball machines. Some of these reproductions make use of the latest technology internally, essentially a re-design that is more reliable than the original. One case in point is the Classic LED Pinball Display from PinScore. We can take advantage of the great work being done on the restoration side, leveraging this market to create our Custom Pinball Machines. But in this case, we need some way to easily interface these devices to whatever control system we happen to be using. Which is the subject of today’s post…

PinScore display

PinScore makes reproduction displays, using the latest technology for higher reliability.

PinScore Display:

If you’re building a four-player game, you can buy a set of these for a little bit of a discount. I usually purchase from Marco Specialties Pinball Parts when I can, a direct link to the products you’ll need can be found here:

PinScore display custom pinball machine

An Arduino can be used to drive a PinScore display, while also communicating serially with a game controller.

Arduino Uno:

The Maker community has already discovered that the Arduino series of boards is an easy and inexpensive way to get into programming with micro controllers. Here are links to get you started:

The Arduino IDE is a free software download, with a large support community, and can be downloaded here.

PinScore display custom pinball machine

Detail shot of Arduino showing connections and pinouts.

Using the parts list above, you should have everything you need to connect the PinScore to the Arduino as shown above and below.

PinScore display custom pinball machine

Detail showing connection side of PinScore with header pinout to Arduino.

I’ve provided some test code at the bottom of the page that can be cut-and-pasted into an Arduino project. The photo below shows the display being mounting into the front of the light board, with the test numbers “123456” loaded. The Arduino project is set up to use the Serial interface, which for diagnostic purposes can be accessed over the same USB programming plug, and the Serial Monitor built into the Arduino IDE.

PinScore display custom pinball machine

Display mounted from the front into a standard Bally score bracket.

Below shows all the displays installed, waiting for the backglass.

PinScore display custom pinball machine

Finished installation showing all five displays and the lit up back-board.

The Arduino code below can be used as a reference in your own controller, or directly as a diagnostic test tool. The procedure to test a unit is as follows:

  • Plug your target board (with PinScore display attached) into your computer via USB.
  • Power the PinScore with external 5V supply.
  • Download the program to the target.
  • Open the Serial Monitor built into the IDE Tools.
  • Type “$pinXyyyyyy” and press return, where X is the number you assigned the display (i.e. player 4), and yyyyyy is the number or score you want to display. For example, “$pin4123456” is what I typed in to display what is in the photos above.
  • If your score is less that six digits, use an underscore. For example, “$pin4_98765” will display the number 98765, with the first digit being blank.
  • If you have a fifth display for Balls/Credits, you would sent something like “$pin5_03_10” for Ball = 3 and Credits = 10.

Arduino code here.

Cut and paste text into a new project, then download to your target device.


Using the serial monitor, type in the header "$PIN" followed by the ID you've chosen
for the PinScore display (ie, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc), and then the actual score for that unit.

EXAMPLE: Typing in "$PIN4100000" to the serial monitor and hitting return should read
the score "100000"  player four's display.

For questions or comments, check the blog:


String inputString = "";         // a string to hold incoming data
boolean stringComplete = false;  // whether the string is complete
unsigned char selectDigit = 0;	// start no digit selected
const unsigned char selectLatch = 12;	// start no digit selected
unsigned char cDataPinScore[8];
unsigned char cPinScore = 4;
unsigned char digitBCD = 0;	// start no digit selected

#define ASCII_A 65
#define ASCII_B 66
#define ASCII_C 67
#define ASCII_D 68
#define ASCII_E 69
#define ASCII_F 70
#define ASCII_G 71
#define ASCII_H 72
#define ASCII_I 73
#define ASCII_J 74
#define ASCII_K 75
#define ASCII_L 76
#define ASCII_M 77
#define ASCII_N 78
#define ASCII_O 79
#define ASCII_P 80
#define ASCII_Q 81
#define ASCII_R 82
#define ASCII_S 83
#define ASCII_T 84
#define ASCII_U 85
#define ASCII_V 86
#define ASCII_W 87
#define ASCII_X 88
#define ASCII_Y 89
#define ASCII_Z 90
#define ASCII_EQUAL 61
#define ASCII_DOLLAR 36
#define ASCII_COMMA 44
#define ASCII_CR 13
#define ASCII_LF 10


#define LED_CHAN PLAYER_ONE // change this to the PLAYER that the unit will be driving

void setup() 
  DDRB = B00111111;  // sets Arduino port B pins 0 to 4 as outputs
  DDRD = B11111111;  // sets Arduino port B pins 0 to 4 as outputs

  // initialize serial:

  // reserve 200 bytes for the inputString:

    for (int i = 0; i < 8; i++) 
    cDataPinScore[i] = i + 48;


void loop() 

// continuously scan the PinScore display, outputing the most recent data
  for (int i = 2; i < 8; i++) 
    selectDigit = i;  

    PORTD = (0); // clear all


    PORTB = (cDataPinScore[i-2]- 48); // subracting 48 converts an ASCII char to its equivalent int


    delay(3) ;// hold each digit for a period


  SerialEvent occurs whenever a new data comes in the
 hardware serial RX.  This routine is run between each
 time loop() runs, so using delay inside loop can delay
 response.  Multiple bytes of data may be available.

void serialEvent() 
  while (Serial.available()) 
    // get the new byte:
    char inChar = (char);

    // add it to the inputString:
    inputString += inChar;

    // if the incoming character is a newline, set a flag
    // so the main loop can do something about it:
    if (inChar == '\n') 
      int inputLength = inputString.length();

      if (inputString[0] == ASCII_DOLLAR) // check for header
        cPinScore = inputString[4]; // PinScore id held here

        if (cPinScore == (LED_CHAN + 48)) //4 )
          for (int k = 0; k<6; k++) // acount for numbers less than six digits
  	  cDataPinScore[k] = inputString[k + 5];
  	  } // next k

        } // end If received ID matches the one this unit is programmed for

        stringComplete = true;
        inputString = "";

      } // end If first char was $ 

    } // end If new line 

  } // end While// end Sub

Cabinet :: Fabrication :: Stencils

There are several ways to create the look of a vintage stencil for your cabinet artwork. I’ve done it a couple of different ways, and you can make your choice based on complexity and resources available.

I typically go for a three-color design (base coat plus two stencils), in keeping with the classic style, which can also be an artistic challenge.

1) Original method. Vintage machines had their paint applied by spraying, stippling or flicking with a brush, usually masked with some type of stencil. This would have been a rigid, thick cardboard paper (or thin wood), with patterns cut into them, and intended for multiple use, possibly hundreds of times.

Advantages: Multiple use (as in production), and has a classic look.
Disadvantages: Investment to make, not as sharp or modern looking.

2) Hand Mask Method. This is as simple as it sounds: use masking tape and paper to create your stencil directly on the cabinet wood. For smaller details, I usually print out a template I’ve designed on the computer. The larger elements I would freehand with some scale drawing for reference. This works best if using mostly straight lines or slight curves. Something more complicated would need a more elaborate method.

Advantage: Cheap.
Disadvantages: One-time use (possibly not repeatable), not as precise.

Hand-made Cabinet Stencil

Creating a stencil by hand, using masking tape and a printed template. Base is white, first color dark blue, third color orange.

3) Pre-cut Stencil. This is usually a one-time use vinyl stencil, and will cost about $150. This is a method to use if you have a very specific pattern in mind, and usually requires a vector artwork drawn on a computer. You might be able to find a local company that can do vinyl cutting, or use a company like Twisted Pins that makes one-time stencils specifically for pinball machines.

Advantages: Very precise complex shapes, exactly rendered.
Disadvantages: Cost, and probably will only get one use.

Pre-cut Custom Pinball Stencil

Using a one-time vinyl stencil to achieve complex shapes and curves. Again, base is white, first pass is dark purple, then pink.


For reference, if you are following the plans for this cabinet and head unit, here are the PNG files for the Side, Front and Head that can be used as a pattern for creating your own artwork:

Custom Pinball Side Artwork

Side art work for reference or use as a pattern.


Three-color head unit artwork for use as a pattern or reference.


Stencil for front of cabinet. If you have the vinyl cut professionally, the shop should be able to take your PNG file and convert it into vector artwork, then generate two separate stencils for a three-color design (two plus base).

Cabinet :: Design :: Base

There are basically three Cabinet options for a custom Pinball machine:

  • Purchase a new reproduction.
  • Find a used beater to refurbish.
  • Build new from scratch.

Any of these are good, viable options that I would recommend, but there are pros and cons with each. I’ll detail these in the order of preference…

Build From Scratch

I’ll start with the down side: It’s likely to be either more expensive or more time consuming than the other options.

Custom Pinball Cabinet

Full CAD design of custom pinball cabinet with head.

But there are some big up-sides…

  • Cheaper than buying new (but not cheaper than used).
  • Less bloat, so overall the machine can be lighter.
  • More engineering options for setting the rake angle and depth.
  • Artistic ownership of the final product.

and best of all…

  • The pride of doing it yourself.

Here is an example Cabinet design in CAD, where all the base pieces are laid out on a single 4’x8′ sheet of plywood ( 3/4″), which you can download as DXF or SVG here.

Custom Pinball Cabinet Template

All the necessary base Cabinet parts laid out on a single 4’x8′ sheet.

Hidden lines are drawn in magenta, and are there to show where a miter-lock joint will be. If you don’t have access to a router table, or don’t feel comfortable creating a miter joint, you would simply cut along two of the magenta lines and create a butt-joint. Preferably cut the side panels to preserve the flush finish on the front, which is most visible.

The large panels are cut with a circular saw, and the smaller pieces can be band saw or jig saw. Worst case, if resources are limited, it should be possible to cut all the parts out with a jig saw.

Depending on what type of wood you chose (MDF, plywood, etc), the cost of a 4’x8′ sheet is going to run about $50-$100. I recommend paying a little extra for quality, even though the finished product will be painted. Good quality plywood will end up looking better, last longer and less likely to warp.

The other cost is going to be in the hardware. You will still need to source of the components of a vintage cabinet (see below), or purchase new from a company like VirtuaPin

A new hardware kit runs about $400. Lower cost options can be found if you’re willing to lurk on eBay. But even when used, be prepared to spend on the order of $200 total for legs, coin door, side rails, lockdown bar and other hardware. If you really need a low-cost option, then best to…

Refurbish a Used Cabinet

This is a good, cheap option that has worked well in the past. However, depending on your location, an old beater cabinet could be hard to find. Best bet is to keep an eye on Craigslist and eBay, or network with local machine owners.

Almost all “standard” width Cabinets will accept a “standard” size playfield with a few modifications. Usually the lockdown bar bracket also serves as a receiver for the playfield hangar brackets. So when laying out your playfield, you may have to shift these to match your existing Cabinet hardware.

If you do go this route, try and pick up a Cabinet that has most (or all) of the hardware still attached. This would include:

  • Coin door with mechs.
  • Lockdown bar and receiver bracket.
  • Side rails.
  • Flipper buttons.
  • Leg mounting plate brackets.

I didn’t include Legs in this list because often a perfectly good cabinet might be missing the legs, and second, you will probably want to purchase a new shiny set of legs anyway. These can be found for as low as $50 for a set at places like Pinball Life.

If there are any electronics in the cabinet, you can probably re-use things like the power switch, AC cord, filter, fuse, etc. but you probably won’t need the transformer…

Later on, there will be more posts about the control system. In this section, we detail how to install all new switch-mode power electronics, which are easer, safer and lighter than the old-style transformers.

Buy a Reproduction Cabinet

There has been a renewed interest in reproduction pinball cabinets with the introduction of “Visual Pinball”. We’ll go into this more in later posts, but basically people are creating computer-based virtual pinball games, and installing large flat-screen monitors into cabinets for a more realistic game playing experience. We can take advantage of this new phenomenon and cottage industry that has grown up around it.

The most popular off-the-shelf reproduction cabinet is made by VirtuaPin.

In the DIY category, you can find cabinets in the $300 – $500 range depending on the finish. On top of this, you will need a hardware kit that runs about $400. So we are talking about a total of around $700 – $900, but bear in mind that the hardware is about half of that cost, and you will still need to buy that with a custom cabinet (although maybe cheaper on eBay).