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How To Buy A Pinball Machine

Buying a pinball machine can be a daunting task. That’s why it’s important to know how to go about it, to save you both time and money in the long run. Knowing where to look and what you should be looking for will make things much easier when it comes to buying a pinball machine.

Buying a pinball machine involves sourcing one that you want and can test out before you buy it. You then want to be able to check the machine for any possible issues, and then transport your machine safely back to your home or business.

Below, we’ll go into more detail about where you should be looking to buy your pinball machine, and we’ll give you some useful resources as well. We’ll also go through the kinds of things you should be checking when buying a pinball machine, so you always know what to look out for.

Before You Buy A Pinball Machine

Before buying a pinball machine, you need to know where to look, and the best bet would be anywhere you can go check the machine in person. You might want to stay away from websites like eBay, as you may not be able to look at it in advance, and this is key when buying a pinball machine.

It wouldn’t hurt looking at the local pick-up listings if you can find a seller in your area. But you will probably have better luck in Craigslist pages where you can set your location and how far you are willing to travel. Not only can you just browse the listings, but you can post your own “Looking for” ad if you want a specific machine.

Local Arcades

A few other great places you may have good luck with are local arcades and pinball parlors. If you make friends with the owner or hang around their business often, when they purchase new machines, they might be willing to sell you some of their older machines.

You could also go to conventions or expos if they come through your area, where you can meet with distributors and collectors that will most likely be willing to sell some of their own machines. An alternative to your local areas are sites such as Mr. Pinball, Pinside.com, and this Google Docs forum. These sites will allow you to ask for specific machines or browse machines that are being sold.

Buying a pinball machine on Mr.Pinball classified ads
Mr.Pinball Classified Listings section

The Costs Of Buying A Pinball Machine

Typical machine prices vary widely, and it depends if you are willing to work on the machine or if you want to play it the second it’s in your hands. Most used machines “ready to go” would cost around $500-$2,000, but you can get them significantly cheaper if you’re willing to take on some repairs.

This obviously will depend greatly on the machine name, brand, how old it is, and the overall condition of the machine. With that said, you can buy a new machine for around $4500-$6500, but that can vary or whether it’s a standard model, or a limited or collector’s edition. You can learn more about pinball pricing and why machines are often very expensive in this article.

Used vs New

Used machines tend to be older, handmade and have hundreds of parts, circuit boards, light bulbs, moving pieces etc. A lot can go wrong with these machines as they’re not simple builds, and learning to fix your machines will help tremendously in the long run. There are not too many people around that will fix pinball machines these days, so you can save time and money learning to do it yourself.

It is recommended to have someone – or yourself – do a maintenance check once a year for personal use or once every 3-4 months if it’s used in a business. Determining how much it will cost to keep running depends on how often it’s played.

There is a lot of useful information out there, especially on YouTube, that can help fix many issues with pinball machines. PinRepair also has a database of machines and common problems that can help you repair your own machine.

The 4 Types Of Pinball Machines

1. EM Machines

Electro-Magnetic Machines (or EMs) were mainly built from the 1930s up until around 1978. These machines use relay score switches and motors as opposed to computerized ones. These machines were easy to play with fairly simple playfields.

2. SS Machines

Solid State Machines (or SS) were built from the late 1970s until around 1990 and have electronically controlled scoring. These changed how machines were played and how they displayed scores. Simple animations appeared and there were no more mechanical clicks of the score reel. These paved the way for more complex playfields.

3. DMD Machines

Dot-Matrix Display Machines (or DMD) were built after the 1990s, showing dot-like displays of scoreboards. They introduced more advanced, but still low-resolution, animations when you hit specific targets. These, along with LCDs, are some of the best looking pinball machines due to the vibrance of the displays.

4. LCD Machines

Liquid-Crystal Displays (or LCDs) only exist on newer machines and are common among some new remakes of old classics. These produce high-resolution videos on the display head with changeable settings. Jersey Jack introduced an LCD screen into his Wizard of Oz backbox in 2013. A lot of these newer machines have LED lights or even LED displays too.

Things To Check When Buying A Pinball Machine

When you first go up to look at the machine there are some key features you want to check before pulling out your wallet. First things first, you should play the game, not just once but a few times – if you’re allowed. You want to play it through a few times because a game could have an issue that doesn’t show up until you’ve played it a few times.

Scoreboard And Lights

Check the scoreboard to make sure it reads an accurate display. Watch the bumpers to ensure they have life in them and are responsive. Make sure all the lights are on when they are supposed to be and that any pieces on the playfield that should be there are there and are moving if they are supposed to.

Check The Flippers

You should also make sure the flippers are in working order as they’ll see the most action. A good tip to test the flippers (if you can get a look under the glass) would be to grab them and wiggle them a bit. They shouldn’t have much movement and if they do this may mean you’ll have to replace the flipper system eventually.

It’s a good idea to have an original picture of the machine handy and pictures of the playfield to have a reference with you in hand. You can use IPDB as a good reference to find the machine you are about to look at and print off a couple pictures to take with you.

How It Looks

The cosmetics of a machine are often as important as functionality. While you obviously want to get a working game, small parts on the inside can be replaced, re-wired and fixed. The artwork often can’t be. Check the back glass first, as a lot of the time you will see paint dulling or chipping. This is common on old machines and is bound to happen, but it shouldn’t be excessive.

Translite on the other hand was made around 1986 and will be less likely to break. They also tend to last much longer if the machine has been properly cleaned and cared for over time. Back glass does have a tendency to lose some color due to sun exposure or heavy usage as the lights behind can dull the paint. The translite or backglass is often irreplaceable, so you want them to be in good shape.

Check The Playfield

Be sure to check if the machine is supposed to have a topper on the display head, because if it’s missing it will greatly decrease the value of the machine. The playfield should also be inspected by taking it out of the case (if you’re allowed to) to make sure that it’s flat.

You’ll want to open the coin box and find the lever that’s usually on the top right, sliding it to the left until the lockdown bar lifts up. Then you can slide the glass off the cabinet and access the playfield. You’ll want to pull it out and raise it high enough, so that you don’t bang anything below the field. You can find out how to properly open a pinball machine in this article.

Check for any paint chipping as it will come off over time and look for any bare wood spots. This can be a result of age and/or not taking care of the machine. The last major thing to check for on the playfield is called “planking”. This is when you see vertical lines coming through the artwork and ultimately the start of separation on the field. This can be very expensive to fix or replace.

Coils And Wires

While you have the playfield out of the cabinet it’s a good idea to check around the coils for any burning of the paper. This may indicate that the coils were getting very hot or need replaced. Check to see if there are any wires out of place, missing, or just dangling under the field.

If you can open the case, take a look at the corner joints on the inside and check for any separation or cracks. This may have been caused by abuse to the machine or from it being dropped while moving. You can also check the legs for any rusting bolts, and while they are easy to replace it’s still worth noting.

If everything checks out and the seller lets you do all of that, place everything back into the machine as it was. Then head around to the back of it and check for general cleanliness. If it looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in years, the owner probably didn’t take good care of it.

Keys And Locks

The machine should have two keys: one for the coin box and one to open the back box. They may be the same key but there should still be two of them with the machine. Open the back door if it’s an EM machine and check for moving parts you couldn’t see through the case.

If it’s an SS or DMD machine, you can check the head display for batteries and look for any corrosion or leaking. Leaking batteries can cause major issues. Also take a look at any circuit boards for signs of corrosion or melting through overheating. These machines have a lot of controls in the back box behind the glass.

If it’s an old Bally SS machine, a Stern or a very early William machine, it may not have a free play mode, but they can be modified to do so pretty easily. So, you want to check behind to see if any modifications have been made to the machine. If any holes have been drilled during the modification, it can greatly reduce the machine’s value.

Run Some Tests

If you’re looking at a machine built after 1990 you may be able to run a diagnostic test to show if and where any errors are. You can’t count on this alone, because the seller could know how to hide the error so the reading wouldn’t be accurate. But it’s still worth a check.

You also may hear a repetitive noise when turning on the machine, warning you that there is an error in the system. This can sometimes be triggered by not having the date and time set. So, you don’t want to depend solely on these tests.

Transporting The Machine

If you want to know more about how to properly transport a pinball machine, you can check out this article. But here we’ll go over the basics of getting your machine home. The very first thing would be to remove all the balls from the machine, as you don’t need them running through the game as you are transporting the machine.

Secondly, you want to remove the head or lay it down on the cabinet. Depending on the type of machine you might be able to remove the head by just taking out a few bolts. You will most likely have to unplug the wires before taking it off the cabinet.

Keep Things Secure

If you bought an SS or newer machine, you’ll have a hinge head where you can lay it on the cabinet before moving it. Put something in between like a blanket or some towels to avoid any damage and then strap them to each other.

Next, you’ll take off the legs, starting from the back two and then moving to the front two. Place them aside and wrap the whole machine to keep everything safe. Then you’re good to go! When you have it where you want it, just follow these steps in reverse to set your new machine up.

Once it’s standing upright you want to close the legs as much as they will go and that will most likely be it level. But to check it you can take off the glass and level the playfield. With an EM it should be around a 3.5-degree slope and for SS and newer a 6.5-degree slope is right, to make sure there is no off balance for your game. If there is, you can move the legs to even the machine out.

Final Thoughts

Buying a pinball machine is all about knowing what to look for. Once you find a machine you want, you then just need to know what sort of things you should be checking for before you hand over any money. Then, it’s just a case of transporting it safely back home, and then you’ll be ready to play on your new machine!