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.


Playfield :: Design :: Reference

My philosophy is that Pinball is an art form, and a knowledge of current and vintage machines is essential to understanding the “grammar” of this artistic communication. Aesthetic is said to be “Content put into an overall Structure in order to create Meaning”. In the case of Pinball As Art, the content is our flippers, bumpers and targets; the structure is our Playfield geometry and rule set. Speaking the language of pinball means understanding how these elements have been used in the past, and how they work together to create game-play.

Here are four different Playfields that were designed and fabricated within the last three years. I’m posting links to DXFs, SVGs and VP simulations, for use as templates or reference for your own design. Two of these were recently on display at the Seattle Pinball Museum show featuring custom Pinball machines…

Jupiter Crush : 

Click to view the VP simulation, or Right-Click to download the DXF file or SVG file for this table.

This Playfield was designed to be reminiscent of tables from the late 70’s and early 80’s, with features similar to games like Bally’s “Skate Ball”, “Rolling Stones” and “Harlem Globetrotters”. Every game should have a hook or twist that makes it unique, and this game features a Negative Bumper that subtracts points when lit. Reseting the bumper requires a skill-shot to the lower left U-turn.

Jupiter Crush custom pinball machine

Completed Playfield with artwork, mechanisms, lights and plastics, next to the DXF used to fabricate the this table.


Retro Spa: 

Click to view the VP simulation, or Right-Click to download the DXF file or SVG file for this table.

Wide-body games were an attempt to make pinball more exciting by adding more features, but unfortunately most of these games didn’t make good use of the extra space. The engineering challenge for this Playfield was to maintain all of the features and game-play of a classic wide-body, while proving it could be done in a standard-size machine. As an added twist, early artwork for the classic game that was rejected 40 years ago was used for reference on the Playfield and Backglass.

Retro Spa custom pinball

Retro Spa completed table with DXF for reference.


Tattoo Mystique: 

Click to view the VP simulation, or Right-Click to download the DXF file or SVG file for this table.

This Playfield is meant to be reminiscent of games like “Fathom” and “Blackout”. The simple set of rules is deceptively difficult, with game-theory elements of risk-and-reward designed to thwart those players who are only out to get the high-score.

Custom Pinball Tattoo Mystique

Screenshot of simulation for Tattoo Mystique, and DXF of cutout locations.


Miss Adventure:

 Click to view the VP simulation, or Right-Click to download the DXF file or SVG file for this table.

This fourth game in the series is designed to literally “take it up a level”. It has features inspired by classics like “Fan-Tas-Tic”, “Freedom” and “Silverball Mania”, as well as a lower level similar to games like “CFTBL” or “Black Hole”. This lower level is actually intended to be a “virtual” Playfield that will have many different features that can change on-the-fly.

The upper level is also meant to be changeable to keep the game fresh and interesting. The symmetry of the ramps was chosen to allow maximum flexibility of future upper level designs.

Custom Pinball Miss Adventure

White board of Miss Adventure, with DXF.

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).