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How Pinball Machines Are Made

Making a pinball machine is a very tedious task. With tons of moving and non-moving parts needed to be wired in place. Playfields being put together and designed so the game plays smoothly. So where does it start and let’s look at how pinball machines are made.

The 4 steps for making a pinball machine are:

  1. Licensing and prototyping
  2. Sketches and templates are developed
  3. Making a whitewood prototype
  4. Building the machine

Every step of the process when making a pinball machine is key. As they’re expensive machines, it’s essential that care is taken to do everything the right way. Below, we’ll go through all of the necessary steps to make a pinball machine in more detail.

The 4 Steps For Making A Pinball Machine

1. Licensing And Prototyping

Before there are any parts ordered or any prototypes built there will be many people working together on the design of the game itself. Designing includes choosing parts and electrical components and creating the art for the table. This can take many months and even up to a year before a machine is ever made.

Companies will start with a title. Whether it’s an original idea, a band, TV show or movie, they need to figure out the theme before they start putting anything together. This is essential to sort out the necessary licensing before they spend any money building the machine. If a company is declined a license for a specific theme, all the time spent building it would be wasted.

Once the title is sorted, it’s time for a large multidisciplinary team of designers and engineers to start the creation process. Designers will work on the game concept with programmers. They’ll also work with mechanical engineers to make prototype parts. These parts will make the pinball machine function properly and avoid any mistakes in the design process.

2. Sketches And Templates Are Developed

Artists then start working on the backglass and playfield art sketches. These sketches have to go to the licensing agency before they are approved to actually make the art. Once they’re approved, they will send the finished designs to another company to print the artwork onto the field and backglass.

Sketch of Stern’s The Simpsons machine.

Engineers

Electrical engineers will work on the wiring and circuitry maps. This will make wiring everything up much easier. Mechanical designers will help put together all the drawings, from electrical diagrams to the artists’ sketches. These will go through revisions to figure out what designs will work best. Software developers can then start making the programs to run the machine.

Most companies have templates they use for most of their machines that they then alter to make it fit specific themes. This allows big companies, such as Stern, to save time that would otherwise be spent developing new software for every individual machine.

Model Makers

Model makers work on designs for characters or specific targets on the playfield. They will handle any theme related builds, making prototypes so an outside company can recreate them in bulk. Sound designers work on the music and sound effects the machine will be making.

Animators use the theme sketches to process animations for the backglass display. They’ll create any videos that are shown on the display of the backbox and take care of all the moving text.

Writers create the manuals for the machine and any technical documents that are required for the owners of the machines. Accountants handle the money going in and out, keeping track of costs of the building process. These costs can get expensive really quickly when you’re dealing with licensing and making custom models for each machine.

Marketing Team

Then there are marketers and salesmen working with distributors to sell the upcoming game. They’ll help line up sales before and after the pinball machine is built so the company can expect to get some return on their investment early on.

3. Making A Whitewood Prototype

Before any pinball machines are actually built, a company will make a prototype called a “whitewood”. This whitewood playfield will have parts glued onto it to recreate how the machine will work. Lights, custom targets, lanes, bumpers and the whole field will be put together to try the game before any money is spent properly manufacturing it.

“Whitewood” Prototype

This whitewood field will go through various revisions, with parts being moved around to figure out if anything in the designs won’t work. The board will be connected to a wired harness to ensure the wiring harnesses work. After the whitewood is developed and wired up, goes through enough revisions and has any issues fixed, parts are finally ordered.

Lots Of Testing

Since all of these parts come from third party companies, they need to be rigorously tested. Any electrical components need to be wired up to make sure there are no blown fuses or faulty parts before they can be put into machines.

Plastic and metal parts are tested by placing them in molds to ensure they’re all the right size and shape. Jody Dankberg at Stern stated “some things are batch tested, we’ll test 20% of the parts and if 3% of that 20% are bad, we’ll reject the whole lot”. Even today, most pinball machine parts are still made in Chicago, IL, the home of pinball.

4. Building The Machine

After the prototype has been tested, revised and approved, and once parts are ordered, it’s time to start making the pinball machine. Software developers and designers create the rules of the game from the start. The electrical engineers can have more than half a mile of wires mapped out inside the machine. These wires are color coded and put together for wire harnesses.

This will help to wire the machine to the brain once the cabinet and playfields are built. Cabinets are usually premade from wood, and then decals are put onto the machine. These decals are put on with soapy water and a squeegee to avoid any air bubbles.

Decals vs Paint

These decals are more vibrant than traditional paintings. Decals are much more user-friendly as they tend to last longer, they are easy to replace and don’t wear out as easily. Before, artists would paint images with stencils onto the machine or use screen prints. This meant that if there were any issues with the paint, a painter would have to come out to touch it up.

The playfields, made from wood, are cut out by a computer-driven routing machine. Screen printing the art onto the playfield is done by third party companies after the playfield is shaped. After the pinball company gets the playfield, they punch holes in the underneath for harnessing wires and lights.

A bunch of playfields ready to be worked on.

Machines press the playfield onto a bed of nails to punch holes into it, but foam is wrapped around the nails to avoid them going through the wood. Some of these are used for anchors while other holes are used for markers for the placement of targets on the face side.

Lights And Wiring

The playfield then gets an outer ring put around it to prevent the ball from getting lost in the machine. Lamp posts are put in place and more than 100 lights are placed on the machine. Ramps, lanes, bumpers and characters are added afterwards. Then, underneath the field, lights, coil switches, circuit boards, and wires are harnessed and anchored using the holes.

Working on the belly of the playfield

The playfield gets placed onto a rotisserie where they can be flipped back and forth to test the electronics. The worker hooks the game up to a backbox display to test the electronics. Balls are run through every lane and hit all the objects to make sure the computer picks up all the movements. Tests can be run to show any faulty soldering or lose wiring to lights, bumpers or switches.

Speakers And More Testing

A speaker is then put into the cabinet for the sound effects and music to be heard. After the playfield is tested it goes into the cabinet. Once the machine is fully wired up and put into cabinet, more testing begins. The backglass or translite gets put into the back box and multiple tests are performed to make sure they’re working properly.

Once approved, these machines get cleaned and waxed up then the glass cover is placed over the cabinet, and then the machine is complete. It’s common for companies to build about ten or twenty machines first to make sure there are no issues. After all the machines are working smoothly and as expected, they will go ahead and make their full run of machines.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of steps involved in the development and production of pinball machines, but there are also a lot of key people involved as well. Different companies will obviously do things by their own standards and processes, but these steps are fairly generic and could be expected in any manufacturing process for any pinball machine.