22. Cabinet Art
If you're building your machine's cabinet from scratch, you'll want
to decide on what the exterior will look like. This might be a simple
flat black paint job, or you might prefer full-color graphics like
on a modern real pinball machine.
Real pinball machines have always featured eye-catching cabinet
artwork. The motivation was always commercial, of course - the art
was there to grab your attention and entice you to drop in a few
quarters. But that didn't mean it wasn't also art. Pinball has a
recognizable graphics style - actually, several different styles over
the decades, but each recognizably "pinball art". It's natural for
virtual pin cab builders to want to tap into that by using artwork
that would look at home on a real pinball machine.
Reproducing the authentic pinball art style can mean different things,
depending on which era you're talking about. Machines built in the
1950s through 1970s tended to use abstract graphics, painted in three
or four bold colors with stencils. The stencil artwork continued into
the 1980s, but the graphics became more intricate and representational.
In the 1990s, the manufacturers started using a multi-color
silk-screening process, which allowed for higher-resolution graphics
with more detailed designs.
Top left: Gottlieb's Abra Cadabra (1975), with abstract
stencil graphics typical of machines built in the 1950s through 70s.
Top right: Williams's Space Station (1987), with the more
intricate stencil graphics of the 1980s. Bottom: Bally's
Theatre of Magic (1995), which used the high-resolution
silk-screen graphics typical of the 1990s.
In the 2000s, the remaining manufacturers switched from screen
printing to plastic decals. Decals are cheaper to produce, but they
also offer more options to the designers, since they can be printed in
high resolution and full color. (Silk-screening's palette is limited
by the number of color layers used, and has to use half-tone patterns
for in-between colors.) The switch to decals opened up even more
options for art designers, including full photo-realism.
When to install artwork
I think it's best to paint or install decals after completing the
assembly of the wood cabinet, but before installing any of the
internal parts (like the PC or TVs), and certainly before installing
any of the trim.
I'd wait until after assembly to do any decorating, because that lets
you do a final pass with a power sander to even out surfaces, smooth
corners, and remove any excess glue. It also eliminates the risk
of scratching or marring the artwork during the assembly process.
And I'd paint and/or install decals before installing anything beyond
the basic wood box, to keep the cabinet maneuverable and keep all of
the surfaces unobstructed. You'll want to be able to flip the cabinet
onto different sides while working on paint or decals, so you don't
want it weighed down with internal parts. Exterior trim can obviously
get in the way of areas where paint or decals will go.
Virtual pin cab design options
As a virtual pin cab builder, you have several good options available.
The right option is a matter of taste and budget.
Natural wood style. This isn't common, but some people choose
to make their cabs look like a piece of fine furniture or cabinetry,
to better fit into a home environment. If you want this kind of look,
you can use a wood stain or a natural clear finish with cabinet-grade
plywood. You can even buy pre-finished plywood to skip the staining
Single-color painting. This is another simple, understated look
that some people use to make their machine relatively inconspicuous
for the home environment (as inconspicuous as a six-foot-tall,
five-foot-long, three hundred pound wood box can be, anyway). The
most common single-color paint job is solid black, since that tends to
disappear into the background nicely.
Stencil graphics. To a lot of people, the electromechanical era
(1950s through 1970s) is the Golden Age of pinball, and tables from
that era define what a pinball machine is supposed to look like. To
be sure, the EM era's graphical style is unmistakeably distinctive,
and it's iconic of pinball in popular culture. The stencil graphic
style that these machines used is also something that you can
reproduce on your own, at low cost and without any special equipment.
You just need to make a stencil mask out of cardboard and masking
tape, and then apply spray paint in as many colors as desired.
Full-color decals. Many pin cab builders want to reproduce the
look of machines from the modern era (1990s and onwards). These
machines use elaborate designs printed in full color at high
resolution. The real machines from the 1990s used high-res screen
printing; newer machines almost all use plastic decals to achieve the
same look. Happily, professional custom decal printing is readily
available for one-off print jobs, and is even relative affordable.
This isn't something you can do at home with DIY equipment, since it
requires special industrial printers, but there are lots of print
shops that have the equipment and can do the job for a reasonable fee.
And since the printing is done on what's essentially a giant
industrial version of an ink-jet printer, you can print virtually any
custom design by preparing the graphics with a PC photo editor
Most pin cab builders these days opt for decals, since they allow for
such unlimited creativity in the artwork.
First-time cabinet builders are sometimes skeptical about decals,
thinking that they'll look like cheap stickers. It might reassure you
to know that most of the newer real machines now use decals for their
artwork, using the same materials that a good print shop would use for
your cab decals. If you can find a newer Stern machine to look at,
you can get a first-hand look at what kind of finish you can expect.
When printed on quality stock and applied properly, you can achieve a
finish that's pretty close to the screen printing used in the 1990s
machines. Decal printing is actually superior in some ways; you get a
wider color gamut and finer dot pitch, and the plastic finish is more
resistant to light scratches.
Surface preparation for decals
You should check with your decal vendor for advice about surface
preparation. I'd always give your vendor's advice priority over any
generic advice you see on the forums or in build guides like this one.
Different vendors use different film stocks, and what works best for
one type might not be ideal for others.
With that in mind, I'll give you my own generic advice, based on
working with a couple of different decal sources.
The first question is whether or not to put down a layer of paint
before applying decals. I say yes, mostly because I want to make sure
that any exposed wood areas around the edges of the decals match the
decal background color, to hide the transition.
The second question is what kind of surface finish you want. The
decals adhere so tightly that the surface of the wood will show right
through them. If you can see wood grain on the surface before you
apply the decals, you'll see the wood grain through the decals, too.
My preference is to make the finish as smooth as possible, minimizing
visible grain so that the decal graphics are all you see. There are
no end of Youtube videos on this subject, mostly focused on kitchen
cabinets, and the thing they all have in common is that you need to
use something to fill in the grain. Here's the procedure that's
worked best for me:
- Sand until smooth to the touch, with a power sander and 320 grit
- Use a "grain filler" product. I've had pretty good results
with Aquacoat White Cabinet Grain Filler, and it's easy to use.
You should watch the manufacturer's how-to videos for full
instructions, but the gist is:
- Work in small sections of a couple of square feet at a time
(since it starts drying in a matter of minutes)
- Apply a big glob of goo
- Using a squeegee or just gloved hands, work it back and forth
across the grain, pushing it down into the grain
- Immediately scrape off the excess using a stiff plastic squeegee or
old credit card, scraping with the grain; scrape off as much as you
can, leaving just what's trapped in the grain
- Continue working in sections until you finish the whole side
- Let it dry for 45-60 minutes
- Hand-sand very lightly with a fine-grit sanding sponge
(e.g., 3M SandBlaster 320 grit) until the surface feels smooth
- Repeat the whole application process above for a second coat;
this one will take much less goo because most of the grain will
already be filled from the first coat
- Repeat for a third coat
- Let the last coat dry overnight, and lightly hand-sand smooth
- Make sure the surface is very clean and free of dust by wiping or vacuuming
- Apply two coats of a filler primer paint. I've had better results
spraying than brushing (in my case, using spray paint in a can, but
a paint sprayer would probably be even better). My experience with
brushes and rollers is that both leave a texture that shows through
Some people like to wet-sand after each primer coat, typically with a 400-grit
sanding sponge, to get it even smoother. If you do this, do it
by hand and go lightly. I've had mixed results with this;
it probably depends a little on the paint and more on technique.
- Apply one or two top coats of paint that matches the color of your
decals around the edges. You really only have to paint around the
cabinet edges for this coat - the point is to hide any seams at the
edges of the decals by matching the underlying paint color to the
decal background color. You don't have to color-match in the middle
where the decal will totally cover everything up - the primer layer
should be just fine for adhesion.
The result should be quite smooth to the touch. Most of my attempts
at this left just a little wood grain still visible to the eye, but
not enough that you can really feel it. That seems to be good enough
to hide the grain from the decals, so even if you don't achieve a
"piano finish" after painting, it'll probably still look really smooth
once the decals are on.
Decal application is scary the first time you do it, especially since
the decals are expensive. And there are some horror stories on the
forums. But it's one of those things where you don't need special
magical skills. If you follow the right procedure, you should be
able to get good results reliably.
There are two basic techniques: the "wet" and "dry" methods. Each
method has its advocates, who will tell you you're crazy to
even think about doing it the other way.
- The "wet" method involves spraying the surface and the back of the
decal with a soapy solution just before application. Older decal films
needed this as a way to release air bubbles, so it was absolutely
necessary in the past, but newer films don't require it because they
have tiny pores that release the air bubbles on their own. But some
people still like the wet method for a whole separate reason, which is
that it keeps the decal from attaching too strongly at first, so that
you can slide the decal around to fix any initial alignment errors.
- The "dry" method simply applies the decal directly to the clean, dry
surface. Newer films don't need any help releasing small air bubbles, so
there's no need for soapy sprays. The decal adheres strongly right
away with this method, so you don't get to slide it around to play
with alignment - but you shouldn't have to do that if you use the
right procedure, because you'll get it aligned beforehand.
You can find lots of Youtube videos for both methods. This is a good
subject to preview on video so that you can get a little mental
practice before attempting it. Search for "pinball decal dry
method", for example.
As with surface preparation, I'd always take your vendor's advice on
application method over anything generic that you see in the forums or
from me. Some media might require the wet method, while others might
not be able to tolerate the soap or water.
Personally, I prefer the dry method. It's the one that my decal
vendors recommended, and it seems simpler to me. I can understand the
appeal of the do-over possibilities of the wet method, but at the same
time, it seems prone to a little less accuracy exactly because of the
The key to making the dry method work is to lock in the alignment
first. Here's the procedure I use:
Most print shops will print the decals slightly larger than the final
size you want to install, usually about an extra inch on each side.
This is intentional; it's to give you a little room for error in the
The standard procedure is to align the decals, affix them, then go
around the edges with an X-Acto knife to trim the decals to be exactly
flush with the edges. This is surprisingly easy; you just let the
edge of the wood guide the knife. As long as the knife is sharp,
it should make a perfect cut exactly at the edge.
Cutting out holes
When you design and apply the decals, you should simply let them cover
the holes in the cabinet for the flipper buttons, front panel buttons,
and coin door cutout. After installing, use an X-Acto knife to trace
around the edge of each opening. Cut from the outside, and let
the edge of the opening guide the knife - the same procedure used to
trim excess material around the edges.
Finding a printer
My decals were printed by Brad Bowman a/k/a
(also reachable at
highly recommend him. Brad is a serious virtual pinball enthusiast
who also happens to run a professional sign printing shop. It's great
to work with a printer who knows how pin cabs are set up, because that
means he'll be able to picture what you have in mind for any special
customizations. The decal stock that Brad uses is also just great:
very easy to work with and very durable. I of course can't guarantee
that Brad will still be offering print services by the time you read
this, but you can always drop him a line to find out.
Other options include VirtuaPin
offer custom decal printing. VirtuaPin specializes in pin cabs and I think
they use similar print stock to what Brad Bowman uses. GameOnGrafix
is more oriented towards home-brew video game cabs, but they also
provide a template for pinball cabinets, and anyway it's basically
the same sort of decal for either type of machine.
You can also try any shop that does commercial sign printing. This is
a common commercial service, so you can probably find local vendors in
your area, especially if you live near a major city. The type of
adhesive plastic material used for pin cab details is also commonly
used for commercial signage.
Most print shops will expect you to provide your artwork in an
electronic format, such as JPEG or TIFF. Check with your vendor for
their requirements and recommendations. You should be able to use
just about any photo editor or painting program on your PC to create
the graphics and convert them into the vendor's preferred format.
Decal printing is essentially the same as printing on a home ink-jet
printer. The only real difference is that the decal prints are
physically a lot larger. So keep in mind that the pixels you see on
the computer screen will be spread out over a much larger area when
printed. Images that look smooth and sharp on-screen might be fuzzy
with jagged edges when blown up to pinball decal size. To look good
at full size, the final image will need a pixel resolution of about
300 dots per inch (dpi) when printed. The side panels of a full-sized
pinball machine are about 50" x 24", so if you want to fill that space
at 300dpi, you'll need the source image to be about 15,000 pixels by
7,200 pixels - about 100 Megapixels.
Creating your artwork
There are three main options for creating your artwork.
Design it yourself. If you're feeling creative and you're good
with a graphics editor like Photoshop or Illustrator, you can design
your own original artwork.
Opting for a completely original design gives you the freedom to
come up with whatever look appeals to you. But starting with a blank
page is also pretty intimidating. Here are some ideas for where
- If you want to create something in the style of the real machines,
start by choosing an era. Go to IPDB
and browse through pictures of machines from the era, to get a sense of the
prevailing graphic style. If a particular machine's design strikes
you as particularly appealing, use that as your starting point.
- Choose a name for your machine. That will automatically plant some
ideas about its theme. A lot of pin cab builders name their machines
after their favorite movie, TV show, or comic book character,
following the long tradition in the real machines of using licensed
- A popular motif is to focus on the virtualness of the
machine and/or its ability to run many different games: "Multiball",
"Megapin", "Pinball Holodeck", "Pinball Matrix", etc.
- Another way to emphasize the multi-game aspect of a virtual cab is
to use a collage of prominent artwork elements from your favorite real
pinball machines, such as Rudy from Funhouse and the
Addams family characters from The Addams Family.
- There's a lot of public-domain (copyright-free) artwork on the Web
that you can use as a starting point. For example, if you like space
themes, check the NASA, JPL, and Hubble Space Telescope Web sites for
some very pretty, high-resolution astronomy images that are free to use.
I used a Hubble photo of the Carina nebula as the backdrop for my own
cab side art. (Do be sure that any images you take from the Web are
truly public-domain or licensed for free use. Reputable print shops
won't accept artwork that you don't have the proper rights for.)
Commission original custom art.
If you're not interested in
creating your own artwork, but you still want something original, you
can find an artist to create something custom for you. For example,
stuzza on vpforums
creates original art for
forum members, for a fee. A stuzza design is generally a pastiche of
pop culture clip art based on a theme you provide. See the
Artwork I have created
" for his contact information and examples
of his work. VirtuaPin
offers custom graphic design services for a fee.
Use a pre-made design. Stuzza on vpforums has also released a
number of free designs that you can download and use without a
commission fee. See the "Cabinet Artwork" thread mentioned above for
links. I've also come across occasional pin cab artwork
elsewhere on the Web; try an image search for "pinball cabinet side art".
Reproduce artwork from a real pinball.
Some cab builders opt to
use the original artwork from their favorite real machine. Be aware
that the graphics from virtually all historical commercial machines
are still under copyright, so a reputable print shop won't accept an
order that reproduces a real machine's artwork without proper
clearance from the rights holders, which almost always requires paying
a license fee. VirtuaPin
authorized reproductions of the original art for several popular
classic pinball titles. You can also find ready-to-use decal sets
with reproduction artwork from many more titles from pinball supply
vendors - search for "pinball cabinet decals".