A Pinball Wizard

My brother-in-law Stephen is one of the coolest geeks around. I’ve known him longer than not – he started dating my sister when I was 16 and we bonded over music and art. He took me to my first live music show in Deep Ellum when I was 17 and introduced me to two of my still-favorite bands/musicians (The Flaming Lips and Bjork). He’s an incredibly talented artist and true gamer (anybody interested in a tour of his extensive gaming console collection?) and these two facets of his life come together perfectly on the pinball playfield.

What is your day job?
I’m an IT Manager at PepsiCo, working with all manner of global IT projects. 

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How and when did you become interested in pinball machines?
I’d been interested in pinball since my early childhood, though I rarely ever played a real pinball machine. I have memories of a handheld electronic pinball game called Raise the Devil where the ball was a series of red LED lights. I left it at a pediatrician’s appointment in the waiting room – never to be seen again. When I was about 5 or 6, I spent a lot of time playing a video game on the Odyssey2 system called Thunderball.  It was another early video game based on pinball and, happily, I still have this game.
I recall passing arcades in the mall as a small kid, with names like Tilt and Aladdin’s Castle - they looked so cool, dark, noisy, glowing with black lights and arcade screens. I was transfixed specifically by two pins called Pinbot and Xenon. They looked magical and yet, somehow, I’d forgotten all about most of these things until about 2008.
As an adult, I’d become a home console video gamer in my free time. I picked up the Nintendo Wii version of Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection. I knew very little about real world pinball other than the basics of: it has flippers, it has a ball, and gravity eventually wins. The video game had an awesome instructional feature that walked you through each table’s rules and how to strategically shoot for points. I was hooked, eventually mastering most of the tables.
Anyway, in 2010 I somehow happened across something online mentioning a Texas Pinball Festival. I looked into it and discovered the next show was less than a month away. I had to attend. It was such a good time and they had so many tables to play. I have been back every year since and now I bring machines for others to play.

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Did you start restoring pinball machines out of interest or necessity?
I would call it a little of both. Anybody who is in this hobby and loves playing will tell you it isn’t possible to own just one pinball machine. One is a great start, but the game is so different from machine to machine. Each table has its own rule set and playfield features - some have spinners, others have drop targets, some have animated figures or things that shake and light up. You just end up wanting to experience more of what the games have to offer.

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Brand new pinball machines are cost-prohibitive at this point for me, so I started picking up interesting pins that fit my budget. I’ve never spent more than $600 on a machine outright. I’ve been given two machines free, but with the lower initial price, it’s important to understand that you’re probably signing up for eventual repairs.
I have 10 pins in my possession now, but have seen a total of 14 or so come through my door. Several were working when I bought them, but maybe not cosmetically perfect. Others needed mechanical fixing and cleaning. I read a ton of online guides before taking the plunge - it can be pretty daunting.   
Most of the work I have done is relatively minor, just making the machines playable for my home.  I’ve only recently tried to step up my skills and take on a full restore.

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The restoration I’ve spent the most time on is my 1972 Gottlieb Flying Carpet. It’s a “sample game,” meaning it was one of the first tables produced of that title. This particular table has the lowest serial number, making it the first produced. It was filthy, in need of mechanical and electronic repairs, and the cabinet had been repainted at some point in the last 40+ years, so it didn’t look original.
It was supposed to have a pink base coat with yellow and black stencil designs. I was told it had been part of a VFW hall at one point… that may have been where it was painted white and large American Eagle decals were applied to it. I decided it would be a personal quest to bring this one back to its original state – as best I could, anyway.

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What skills, if any, did you have to teach yourself or learn for the restoration process? How did you tie-in the skills you already possess into the process, as well?
I have a painting and drawing background in art – this is useful for cabinet painting and playfield art touch-up.  I also worked in a framing shop and art gallery for 10 years.  That helped me become comfortable with woodworking and painting. I’ve worked in IT since 2000, so I’ll say some of that plays a part in deciphering technical diagrams. I’m not great at it, but I’m always improving. I’m a maker/fixer by nature. If I can do a home project on my own, I’ll give it a try.

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Reading online materials is key, but the local pinball community has been very supportive, as well. They all want to keep as many pins working as possible and will help you improve your skills. I’ve had several friends and techs out who help me along.

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I’ve had to work hardest to improve my troubleshooting skills as related to deciphering electrical schematics and then locating where the corresponding leaf switches are in my older machines. From there, it’s usually a matter of cleaning or making minor adjustments so the metal on the electrical contacts can make and break cleanly. It’s vital so the flow of electrical current will make everything happen as intended on the machine.
My next skill to improve will be soldering on circuit boards for my more modern machines. Replacing aging components is sometimes needed for modern machines, so I’d like to improve my skills there.
 
How many pinball machines have you owned? How many of those have needed restoration?
I’ve owned 14 machines since 2010. Almost all needed some minor level of initial repairs to make them playable. About 8 required additional work to clean, level inserts, and touch up artwork, cabinets, or printed plastics. Some were too much for me to handle early on, so I sold or traded them away. I think the current project machine backlog is within reach of my skillsets. I have 3 machines in need of repairs in my garage. 
 
What is your favorite pinball machine that you’ve owned or restored?
As far as picking favorite from all my pinballs... that’s like asking me to pick my favorite child. 
Speaking of which, all three of my daughters have decided which machines they want when I’m not around to play them anymore. One daughter chose Dixieland. Two of the girls both wanted the Gottlieb Circus pinball – it’s a 1980 extra-wide- body pinball with 5 flippers, a roto-wheel, drop targets, a kick-out hole, and a spinner. They had a winner-take- all-game and my middle daughter won. My oldest daughter settled for the Gottlieb Count-Down pinball.

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My favorite restore has been Flying Carpet because it was my first full restore. Williams Ding Dong is next in line, so I’ll have a point of comparison for full restorations later.
 
What is most challenging game you’ve played?
Wow - there are a ton of games that can be tough during one play and the next game it all comes together. Many older electro-mechanical (EM) pinballs are considered tough because they use smaller 2” flippers and the gap in-between flippers is sometimes wider than modern pinballs. I have a 1968 EM pinball called Dixieland by Bally that I always called “mean.” This particular jazz-themed pinball has some big outlane gaps on the sides where you can lose the ball in a heartbeat. It also has a number of gates that redirect the ball. Depending on their position in gameplay, they will either save the ball or cause you to lose it. It’s so mean! For a more modern game, I think Flash Gordon and Pharaoh can be tough. It doesn’t stop me from playing them.

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Which game is the most fun to play?
I gravitate to 1964- to 1985-era games. I like simple rulesets and original themes and artwork. But I’ll play from any era. I absolutely loved playing Stern Quicksilver a couple of years ago. 
 
What’s the highest score you’ve ever had? And on which game?
Most older pinballs can only display a specific maximum score due to the number of score wheels installed in the head of the machine. The same concept applies to earlier digital score displays. When a player exceeds the top score that can be displayed, it’s called “rolling” the machine. I’ve rolled a couple of tables: Space Mission, Galaxy, and a 70s pin with a billiards theme. I was really excited to roll the Galaxy pinball. The max score it can display is 999,999; I scored just over a million. Technically, I could upgrade the Galaxy displays to a 7 digit model, but then I’d never be able to roll it again!

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What is your favorite aspect of the restoration process?
When the painting, cleaning, and repair work is done, and the machine has been fully reassembled, you finally get to play that first game where it all works. Some of these games have sat idle for years or even decades and you’ve brought life back into them. That first game is really excellent, even if the score totally stinks. You feel like you’ve saved a part of Americana from the junk heap. You’ve brought a little more fun back into the world.

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What resources or communities would you recommend to somebody just getting into pinball
machines?

Facebook has tons of national and local groups related to pinball. 
PinWiki is good for loads of repair info, Pinside has an active community and IPdB is the best resource for finding quick info, ratings, and pictures on nearly every machine that was ever in circulation.

There are pinball conventions all over the US – and visiting one with a friend is the best way to get somebody into the game. With loads of working machines, you can try all the eras, features, themes and see what you’re drawn to. There are also a lot of barcades opening up in recent years and they can be a good way to have fun playing pinball with friends. It’s more fun to compete!

The North Texas Pinball Festival is coming up (March 16-18) in Frisco, Texas. I’ll be there and so will Stephen – go and get flipped! 

 

Posted on March 12, 2018 .