How to level a pinball machine

After setting up a pinball machine at a new location, you should take time to adjust the level and angle of the playfield. Each pinball machine leg has a leveler at the bottom, which you can rotate to extend the leg. This way you adjust the height of each leg and increase or decrease the angle of the playfield and make it horizontal level.

leg levelers pinball
Leg levelers underneath each pinball machine leg. With these you can adjust the height.

Adjusting the angle and leveling the playfield is important for gameplay. Certain shots will be more difficult or easy to make, you can make the game faster (and more fun to play). You can also influence the path of a pinball when they ie fail to get up a ramp and roll back, thus minimizing drains and frustration. How much influence it all has depends a bit on the playfield layout and what shots you have to make, but a very incorrect leveled game can be really frustrating to play and no fun at all - while a 'tuned' game set at the correct game can be a lot of fun to play.

Many people don't know how to properly adjust the level - or they know but they don't bother to check it. You even don't need a level to notice a game is misaligned. When you want to put a raised playfield (after a repair at the bottom of it) back into the cabinet and you notice the hooks at the front of the cabinet don't align perfect, this usually is an indication the cabinet is not leveled properly. Especially if you have to put pressure on the playfield to fit it, in most cases this is because one of the legs is set too high and this causes the whole cabinet to be twisted.
You have to correct this situation as it will put stres on the corners of the cabinet and also twist the playfield.

There are three things to adjust:

  1. Front of the cabinet (front legs) need to be horizontal
  2. Back of the playfield (back legs) need to be horizontal
  3. The slope of the playfield (difference between front and back legs)

No matter what, the first two should always be horizontal. If you have moved a game or have made any adjustment to the slope of the playfield, always check these again (many people quickly turn the back legs to change the playfields slope and forget to check if the back is level). As a general rule of thumb you should have a slope of about 6.5 to 7 degrees playfield angle.

A 6.5 degree incline of the playfield however is not a fixed rule. It's best to initially set it to this slope as electronic pinball machines are designed to play with this slope. Older electro-mechanical pinball machines only need about 5 degrees, but when totally revising a game it may be more fun at a steeper angle.It's a matter of personal preference, some people prefer a game that plays much faster.
After a few days or weeks of playing you can experiment with a steeper angle and see if you like more how the game plays now.
When you don't like how a pinball comes down from a ramp, you can quickly test this. Remove the playfield glass and let a pinball roll down, see where it ends. Do a significant change to the angle (I use pieces of wood that I put under the legs to quickly test different setups) and see how the path is adjusted. This way on some games you can decide if a pinball will bounce against a slingshot or will pass it so you can catch it on a flipper.

Serious tournament players should also experiment with the angle of the playfields on their own pinball machines. If you play a lot of games on a specific machine, you'll get used to the timing certain shots need. Especially if you have like an upper flipper, or a loop shot that quickly returns the pinball back to the flippers so you can quickly make another shot. Play enough games and you'll get used to the timing and can hit that particular shot with your eyes closed.
When you play the same model at another location, you usually play worse as your timing is a bit off (this can be as small as a few milliseconds). Each pinball machine is different, its flipper mechanisms can have more plays (wear), weaker or stronger flippers, and the playfield slope can be different. By drastically changing the slope of your own games, you can train yourself to adjust the way you play to different conditions.

Anyway, what are the steps required to level a game correctly ?
I usually start with the front legs. Most of the time I turn the leg levelers almost completely inside, so the legs are near their lowest setting.
Tall people may find that the front of a game is then too low and prefer to increase the height a bit. Just experiment so you find a position that suits you. Many people that have many pinball machines adjust the front of the games to have the same heigt. This way the position of the flipper buttons (and the way you stand at each game) is always the same.
First you adjust them on sight, then use a level to check and adjust until the front is really level.

level front of pinball machine
Note the level sits on the lockdown bar. Even better would be to remove the lockdown bar and measure the wood of the cabinet. A lockdown bar isn't always completely horizontal when mounted to the cabinet.
Even better is to level the playfield itself, but then you have to make sure you keep your tool totally parallel to the front of the cabinet which is not always easy to do.
Usually I put the level on the wood and double check the playfield hangs straight in the cabinet on its hooks.

level front of pinball machine
An electronic inclinometer can also be used. When measuring on the playfield, because of its slope you have to make sure it's parallel to the front of the cabinet. It would've been better to set it on one of the horizontal line in the Mansion.

Once the front legs are leveled, you do not touch them anymore !

Next step is to adjust the back legs to adjust the slope of the playfield. As said above, it's best to initially set a game to 6.5 or 7 degrees, and play the game and see if you like it that way. It is not advised to lower the incline beneath 6 degrees, as this will make the game play too slow and make it too easy and boring..

Now comes the most difficult part for many people - how to find and measure the correct inclination of the playfield ?

level front of pinball machine

If you have an electronic inclinometer, it's easy.. but we don't all have one of these toys. If you have an Iphone, there's an application available to use the phones built-in inclinometer. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it'll certainly be good enough to give you a general idea (ie if you're at 4, 6 or 8 degrees).

bubble level on pinball

A lot of pinball machines have a small bubble level at the right side. This can be used, but you have to know its limitations: it's not very accurate. It's a cheap help but depending on its construction and even on how tight it's screwed into the wood if can give false results. Anyway, if it's the only thing you have: On Bally/Williams pinball machines, the first (bottom) line is 6 degrees, each following line is half a degree. The playfield is at 6.5 degrees when the top of the bubble just reaches the second line from the bottom. On some bubble levels it's indicated with a thicker line.

Now for those of us that don't own expensive iphones or inclinometers, wouldn't it be easier if you could check the optimal angle of the playfield using a regular bubble level ?
That's why I have made this free playfield leveling tool.

Just print it, glue it to some thick cardboard (it has to be strong enough so you can put your level onto it) and cut it out. The triangle has an angle of 6.5 degrees. Put it in the middle of the playfield, put your bubble level on it, and adjust the back legs of the machine. When the bubble level indicates it's horizontal, your playfield has an angle of 6.5 degrees.

After adjusting the angle of the playfield, double check the back legs are horizontal. I usually put the bubble level at the very back of the playfield like you can see in the picture.

level back of pinball machine

A final test (you never know your bubble level isn't perfect): remove the playfield glass, take a pinball and let it roll from somewhere in the middle of the playfield. It should roll straight down, between the flippers.

Are we really finished now ? Not really. If you really want to level your pinball machine and do everything right, you have to check the tilt plumb in the cabinet. When you have adjusted the inclination a lot, it's possible the tilt has become too sensitive.

I hope you now have an idea what you can do to set up and level your pinball machine. Do you have to strictly follow this procedure ? That's your decision, I have to admit I don't follow it myself for every of my pinball machines.
Is it the only correct way to level a pinball machine ? Certainly not ! A pinball collector I know finds it important that the backboxes on each of his machines are equally high, so you have a nice row of lined up machines. His procedure is totally different from mine: he starts adjusting the back and only then levels the front legs.
What is important that you take time to level your pinball machine. Don't just attach legs to the cabinet and never adjust anything..