Before getting started, there are a few points that need to be emphasized. The paint or topcoat of a Williams machine may not be the same as a Bally or Stern machine. What is good for one is not necessarily good for another. There are playfields that were painted with alcohol soluble paint, as well as playfields that were painted with petroleum soluble paint.
The only way to find out is by performing a solubility test to assess the paint solubility. Never apply cleaner directly to the playfield. Start by dampening a cloth with the cleaner, then wipe a small area of the playfield using the damp area of the cloth. Check if the paint is smudging. If the topcoat does not smudge, only then proceed to clean the entire playfield.
These are the top 5 playfield cleaners.
- Novus No.1
- Isopropyl Alcohol
- Novus No.2
- Professional Pinball Playfield Cleaner CP-100
The 5 Best Pinball Playfield Cleaners
1. Novus No.1
Novus No.1 is advertised as a plastic polish to clean and shine. It is the mildest of the top 5 that we will look at and can be used for most playfield cleaning without fear of the paint being smudged due to its low alcohol concentration. Novus No.1 appears to be a mixture of alcohol, water, and some wax. For most playfields, some vacuum cleaning followed by Novus No.1 is more than sufficient.
The reason that Novus No.1 is the top-rated cleaner is that it cleans without doing any damage to the paint or lacquer finish, however, it may not be effective enough to remove dirt that has caked on the playfield as well as plastics. To remove layers of dirt requires a stronger cleaner, preferably alcohol or petroleum-based.
2. Isopropyl Alcohol
There are plenty of commercially available cleaning products, however, the time-tested all-rounder is isopropyl alcohol kept in every electronic repair shop for multiple uses. Isopropyl alcohol is available in 3 concentrations; 70%, 90%, and 99%. Always use the 70% concentration only. Isopropyl alcohol is highly flammable, so appropriate precautions need to be taken for its storage and use.
Since isopropyl alcohol is a universal solvent, most commercial cleaning products contain it in varying concentrations along with a few other chemicals. High concentrations of isopropyl alcohol can cause slight discoloration on some plastics. Prolonged usage over time can result in a dulled playfield, especially on old machines where the playfield has a lacquer topcoat.
The main reason for using isopropyl alcohol is that it evaporates completely leaving no residue. In an emergency, any alcohol-based product can be used, such as aftershave lotion or liquor that does not leave any residue behind. Before using isopropyl alcohol or any commercial cleaner, apply it first on a small area of the playfield and the plastics, then wait to see if any discoloration takes place.
Even though Novus No.1 is ranked as the top cleaner, isopropyl alcohol comes in at a very close second. The key to using isopropyl alcohol safely is to use very low concentrations such as 30% or lower. Isopropyl alcohol of 70% concentration can be diluted with water to make a cleaning fluid that can be safely used on any playfield that has a clear coat or lacquer.
Naphtha is an isoparaffinic hydrocarbon made from petroleum distillate. It is also highly flammable so take adequate precautions with its storage and use. Naphtha does not leave any residue and may have some advantages over isopropyl alcohol in that it can be used on some plastics without discoloration taking place, however, it is preferable to test it on an inconspicuous area first.
Naphtha is slightly inferior to isopropyl alcohol but is still good for removing dust and old wax. Both isopropyl alcohol and Naphtha work equally well to remove grease, oil, or wax from any metal parts. Keep in mind that Naphtha evaporates very fast, so after applying it to a cloth, use the damp portion immediately. Naphtha is very similar to lighter fluid.
Naphtha is also used as a thinner for oil-based paint, enamel, and varnish so take adequate care when applying it to playfields of older machines where the chemical composition of its paint is unknown. In 1989 Williams issued a letter to arcade operators warning them not to use petroleum distillates to clean playfields.
4. Novus No.2
Novus No.2 comes in at fourth position for the simple reason that none of the top 3 are abrasive. The difference between Novus No.1 and Novus No.2, is that Novus No.2 is more abrasive, and its manufacturer recommends its use on plastic with light scratches. Novus No.2 is only to be used when scratches need to be removed. For all other uses, Novus No.1, isopropyl alcohol, or Naphtha is good enough.
5. Professional Pinball Playfield Cleaner CP-100
CP-100 is manufactured by Gemini Technologies, Inc. and advertised as a professional pinball machine cleaner to be used on plastic as well as rubber parts. A 240 ml bottle sells for about $57 which is much more expensive compared to the cost of Novus No.1 or 2, isopropyl alcohol, or Naphtha.
Any cleaner contains either alcohol or petroleum, so unless it can produce better results, the high price is not justified. There are many other products similar to this in spray form, however, none can provide the safety of Novus No.1 or low concentration isopropyl alcohol.
Some Details About Other Commercial Products Not Covered Here
There are a number of other products that are advertised as “exclusive” pinball playfield cleaners. One is Mill Wax Pinball Machine Playfield Cleaner and Polish which is currently not available, while others such as Magic Eraser Cleaning Pads do not clean in tight spaces easily. Many products will come and go, however, their basic constituents are alcohol or petroleum.
Since the prime objective of this guide is to evaluate which products are not going to damage the playfield while cleaning it, there are any number of cheap cleaning sprays that claim to be able to remove grime but were untested as the top 5 positions got filled.
How To Clean A Pinball Playfield
90% of pinball machine playfields that are cleaned regularly do not need more than a simple vacuuming plus a little wiping using Novus No.1. This guide pertains to cleaning pinball machines that have not been used for some time and have accumulated a meaningful amount of dust and grime. The pinball speed on the playfield increases visibly after dust is removed.
To access the playfield, the covering glass needs to be removed first. To begin with, open the coin door and note the lever at the upper right. Pulling this lever to the left will release a metal lockdown bar on top of the glass. Lift the lockdown bar and place it aside, then gently slide the glass sheet out of the brackets on either side.
This needs to be done with great care as the corners can break or the glass can shatter. Once the glass sheet slides completely out, keep it carefully aside. If you do not have one, then consider buying a cordless handheld mini vacuum cleaner. They are extensively used in electronic repair shops to remove dust from computers and electronic equipment.
In the absence of a mini vacuum cleaner, there are attachments available that fit on a regular size vacuum cleaner to provide a mini nozzle. Use the vacuum cleaner to suck out as much dust as possible. Dust tends to accumulate in the hard-to-reach areas between bumpers and ramps. Take a 1-inch paintbrush and use it to sweep out dust from these areas so that the vacuum cleaner can suck it out.
If the dust in these containment areas is not removed, it will be spread by the ball as it moves around the playfield. Next, take a soft cotton cloth that does not have loose fibers or lint on it, dip it in water until it is damp, then squeeze out any excess water from the damp area. Using the damp cloth, wipe the areas that have grime on them as well as any areas of dust accumulation.
The loose dust will stick to the damp cloth. Do this at least 2 or 3 times so that all the dust is removed. A lot of grime and dust may not come off, but for now, it is okay as it will be removed in the next step. After completely wiping the dirty areas, some areas may be wet, so give them time to dry up before proceeding.
Next, dampen a soft cotton cloth with some isopropyl alcohol and wipe any areas of dust or grime that the water was not able to remove. This will remove any grease, oil, or wax that cannot be removed by water. If necessary, dip a toothbrush in alcohol then gently scrub the clogged areas. Use the damp cloth to wipe away the grime that comes out.
Now that the playfield has been cleaned, it is time to put the covering glass back. Hold the glass carefully on both sides and slowly insert it into the holding brackets on either side, then gently slide it in till it reaches the top. Place the lockdown bar on top of the glass in its original position. Now open the coin door and move the locking lever fully to the right so that the lockdown bar is secured.
Even though many commercial cleaning products are available, most of them contain forms of alcohol or are petroleum-based. Since isopropyl alcohol at low concentrations has been used for decades in the electronic industry as a multipurpose cleaner, it deserves its rightful place as probably the best, as well as, safest playfield cleaner.