Building a Pinball Machine Coffee Table

 

I was putzing around on the Internet a year or so ago, and I happened upon a picture that instantly caught my eye. It was a coffee table that had been built out of a pinball machine playfield! It was basically a wooden box built to house the playfield, the playfield itself (lit) and a piece of glass on top. I was, for obvious reasons, instantly intrigued. My basement is full of arcade video games and pinball machines, but the furniture is just...well, furniture.

Since I initially saw the table online, I've encountered a number of other hobbyists who have also built pinball coffee tables. I even encountered one site where a company was selling them for a huge amount of money! I've had a growing desire to build one of these for myself, but there were two things holding me back. First, I'm kind of inept when it comes to using power tools. That's something I could work around. The main reason, however, was that I would never in a million years destroy a working pinball machine and turn it into a piece of furniture! I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I did that!

So I waited. And waited. And then, in late July, 2011, I found what I needed to get my project going. And, once I got started, it only took me a couple of weeks to complete!

 


Materials

If you're thinking of building one of these for yourself, here's what you need. (Note that if you make different style choices, your material needs might vary.)

Altogether, the project cost me around $200.

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Acquiring and Stripping the Playfield

Craigslist has become a daily stop for me. After acquiring my two EM pinball machines locally, I am always on the hunt for other good pinball deals.

I wasn't even thinking about the coffee table idea at the time, but I was browsing Craigslist over my morning coffee one day and stumbled across a pinball playfield for sale. It was a fully-populated Bally Lost World playfield with all of the plastics and minimal wear--but with no machine attached! It was only $60, so I headed off that weekend and picked it up. It was in great shape and I even liked the artwork.

My first weekend of the project involved stripping everything off of the playfield. Although there was minimal wear, the playfield was very dirty, so I used Wildcat #125 to clean the playfield itself and Novus to clean the plastic parts. (These are the products I have on hand to clean my functional pinball machines.) The rubber was either missing or dirty and worn all over the playfield, so I both a new rubber ring kit for $17 on eBay and installed it. When I finished, the playfield looked almost new. Well, newISH...

When it came to the back of the playfield, I had some decisions to make. All of the wiring was present, as were all of the parts. I was planning on lighting the playfield, but I wanted the lights to flash and chase like they do on a pinball machine when it's in attract mode. Although I could have lit the playfield using the existing lights and wiring fairly easily, the lights would just be on all the time. So, I decided to rip the whole thing apart. I pulled off everything that didn't show on the playfield--the light sockets, the solenoids, and so on. I left any switches that had components that showed on the playfield (targets, and so on). I also left the flipper mechanisms intact so that the flippers would stay put.

After everything was stripped, I grabbed a string of Christmas lights from the attic. This particular string has a light controller that makes the lights flash in a bunch of different patterns. We never use these lights at Christmas (Meghan doesn't care for blinking Christmas lights), so it was perfect for my needs. Using a staple gun, I positioned one light at every opening and light position on the playfield. There are a lot of lights on a pinball playfield, but I still had a ton of lights leftover. I'd have to figure out what to do with those...

The final step in this process was to cover any openings where light wasn't supposed to show through. There were only a couple in this case (where I had removed switches under the kickers above the flippers). I used black duct tape to block off the holes. I performed a lighting test when it was all done, and it looked great!

I figured this part of the project would take a day at most...but it took almost the entire weekend.

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Building the Box

The one other thing I managed to do on the first weekend of the project was to build the box frame for the table. I needed to complete this so that I could order the glass for the table top. (I was told it could take up to a week to get the glass, and I wanted to have it by the following weekend.)

For the sides and ends, I bought 10" x 1" pine boards. I measured the playfield and built the box to those exact measurements. (Not the best move, there. More on that in bit...) Remember to leave room for the end boards (which I did do) when you build the box. That means cutting the sides as long as the playfield plus the thickness of two of the boards. (Always measure--they're labeled as 1" boards, but they're really only 3/4" thick.)

I picked up some nifty 90-degree clamps at Home Depot to ensure that the corners were perfectly aligned. There are a lot of ways that you can put corners together--angling the cuts so that they join at a 45-degree angle, using biscuit joiners to build the joints, and so on. But, like I said, I'm not a skilled carpenter. I opted for just butting the ends together at a 90-degree angle. I glued the boards in place, and then used four 2" wood screws to join the boards. You have to be very careful when you do this because it's easy to split the wood. I managed to do it with only one small split. Not bad.

It should be noted that this makes for an ugly corner joint. That's okay, though, because I planned to use the corner molding that I had leftover from the glass installation to hide the imperfections.

After the basic box was built, I went to test fit the playfield in the box...and it didn't fit. Either my measurements had been slightly off or the box was slightly out of square, but it didn't fit. I tried everything to make it work. Eventually, I removed the screws that hold the metal apron at the flipper end. These add about 1/8" to the length of the playfield (which I hadn't accounted for). Without the screws, I was just barely able to get the playfield to fit.

The moral of the story: add a little to your measurements so that you have some wiggle room in the box. About 1/8" addition to the length and width would probably have made my life a whole lot easier.

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Legs and Rails

Next, I installed the legs and the side rails that were going to support the playfield. I wanted the coffee table to be the same height as the one I already had, so I measured the existing coffee table and cut the legs for the new one accordingly.

I wanted the side rails to sit 4" below the top edge of the box. This left plenty of clearance for the top of the playfield and plenty of clearance below for what was left of the playfield hardware. When you build your rails, make them narrow. The 1" pine is perfect. Any wider and you risk having playfield hardware in your way when you seat the playfield. I screwed the rails to the inside of the box using the same wood screws I used to build the box itself. Whatever you use, make sure the screw doesn't poke through the outside of the cabinet.

Knowing where I wanted my rails to sit, I decided to make the legs long enough so that the tops inside the box would be even with the rails. This would both provide extra support in the corners of the playfield and plenty of room to attach the legs firmly. I had originally planned to attach the legs by screwing them on from the inside. but that wouldn't have given the screws much to bite into. So, instead, I screwed them in from the outside on both the sides and the ends. I countersunk the heads of the screws and puttied over them to hide the screw heads. (The corner molding wasn't wide enough to hide these like it was going to hide the corner joint screws.)

I did one more partial test fit of the playfield when I was done with this step. As you can see in the picture, I didn't install it all the way. I was afraid I'd never get it out again, and I didn't want to paint around it.

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Priming and Painting

The priming and painting portion of the project was probably the easiest part of the whole process. The wood I bought would have looked great if i had stained it, but my entertainment center and display shelves are black so I decided to go with paint. I started by covering everything with a coat of Kilz primer. After the primer was dry, I put on two coats of semi-gloss Behr True Black paint (with drying time between the two, of course.) Note that I painted part of the inside of the box, too. This is the area above the rails that shows above the playfield.

At the same time, I primed and painted my molding. I would have liked to have cut the molding first, but I decided to cut later and touch up rather than going through the painstaking effort of trying not to get paint on the glass. Remember to paint the edges of your trim because they'll show, too. (I almost forgot about that...)

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Installing the Playfield

With the painting done, it was time to get the playfield in the box. I had kind of been dreading this part due to the problems I had during the test fit, and it was pretty much as difficult as I had imagined it would be.

I got it positioned as best I could and lined it up with the edges of the box all the way around. I then just started pushing as carefully as possible so as not to break anything on the playfield. It was quite a struggle that eventually involved using a block of scrap wood and a hammer to force the playfield down onto the rails but, in the end, it went in. And, barring the destruction of the box itself, it ain't never coming out.

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The Bottom

At first, I was considering not putting a bottom on the table--after all, nobody sees the bottom, right? Then, I realized that the lights would shine on the floor underneath. That just wouldn't do.

I went with 1/8" plywood sheets for the bottom. I cut them to the dimensions of the cabinet, and cut spaces for the legs at the four corners. I left extra space on one leg so I could run the power cord for the lights through it and mount the light controller to the inside edge of the leg with enough room to reach in and change the flashing pattern of the lights should I decide I want to do so.

I attached one of the panels with finishing nails. I then came up with an elegant solution for all of my excess lights: I stuffed them inside the box. (Not like anyone will ever know...although I guess they will if they read this.) The other panel I attached using small wood screws (again being careful not to split the wood). I wanted to be able to remove at least half of the bottom easily in case I ever needed to get inside to change a bulb or something.

The final touch was a strip of black duct tape along the middle seam--my cut wasn't perfect. I should have had the foresight to buy a single 4' panel instead of 2 2' panels, but what I have works fine.

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Molding and Glass

There are a lot of different approaches that I've seen when it comes to installing the top glass for the table. Some involve using a router (the power tool, not the computer hardware). We've got one, but I have no idea how to use it.

The easiest method I came across was simply placing the glass on top of the box and using corner molding to hold it in place, so I decided to go that route. We have a miter saw that can do the 45-degree cuts necessary to make the molding fit together properly at the corners. I consulted with my Dad (who was a carpenter before he retired) to find out the right method for measuring and making angled cuts. What you do is measure the inside measurement of the box and cut your 45-degree cut out from there. Sounds simple.

But it's not. At least not for me.

I guess there's a good reason why I barely passed geometry. I simply could not wrap my head around which direction to cut. Time and again I made a cut I thought was right only to take the molding over to the table and find I'd cut the angle backward. The problem was that I was measuring with the molding right side up and cutting it upside down (because that's the only way it sits flat on the saw). I had the added problem of having painted the molding black already, so I couldn't easily mark the finished side. I eventually used chalk to mark the angle of the cut, and then carefully traced the same line on the back where I could see it when I was cutting.

Many mistakes were made, one of which made it necessary to piece together one of my long sides to make the corners fit properly (or at least in the ballpark of "properly"). I also had the wrong blade for the job. I needed a fine-tooth blade, but the one on the saw was made for big jobs. There was splintering. It was not pretty.

I finally got enough proper cuts to make the molding more or less fit. I positioned the glass on the box and used Meghan's nifty finishing nail gun to attach the molding strips (being careful to shoot the nails low enough on the sides so as not to shoot them into the edge of the glass--that would be disastrous. Luckily, the attachment of the molding went off without a hitch.

I also cut some molding for the corners (as discussed earlier). These were straight cuts, so they were easier. I attached them in the same manner, and the corners went from rough to pretty nice looking.

While we're on the subject of glass, I got mine from CGD Studios in Raleigh. I e-mailed them and described my project, and Jennifer (one of the folks there) recommended that I go with the 1/4" tempered glass instead of the thinner pinball glass. The measurements for my glass were 43.5" x 21.75". (Your measurements might vary--it's vital you measure the box you build and get glass that will fit it exactly with no overlap on the edges. ) I ordered the glass on Monday and it was ready on Thursday. I'd definitely go to them for any future glass needs.

After all the molding was installed, I broke out the paint again for some final touch-up on my not-so-pretty molding joints. From most angles, you can hardly see the imperfections. Black paint rules.

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The Finished Product

In the end, I was pretty happy with the way the table turned out. Yes, I made some mistakes and I would probably do things a little differently if I had them to do again (like getting Meghan to cut the trim pieces for me--she's much better than I am at building things). But, all things considered, I think I did a pretty good job. And I have pretty cool custom piece of furniture for my game room.

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