Shopping a pinball machine


The reason why I started writing this is because most people have a different definition of what a shop job is. Most people don't know what huge difference it can make to how a game looks and plays. For most people a pinball machine is a pinball machine, they all play the same, and you only replace rubber rings which are broken.

Others cannot believe how nice a dirty machine will clean up. Almost every dirty machine which comes just from an operators location, can be restored in as-new condition, as long as there are no broken parts or there's worn paint on the playfield.
It sounds incredible but it is. All it takes are the right tools, products, and a lot of effort. But even just cleaning the playfield and ramps, and replacing every broke light bulb can already make a huge difference to how a machine looks. At the Collector Fantasies Show in Mechelen I was at the booth of an operator who had a lot of machines for sale. As he didn't have enough time to completely shop/clean every game, they were just there for sale, and when someone bought a game it was going to be cleaned/checked (or it could be sold as-is for the collector who wants to do it himself).
Someone I know said to me he would never buy a pinball machine like that, as they looked 'too deteriorated'. He just couldn't believe that a machine like that could be cleaned and come out well. That same person was at my house a year before to look at a pin he wanted to buy, and then he didn't have enough words to say how nice that machine was and how it looked as if it were brand new and had never been played. What he didn't know was when I got that pin myself, it was even more dirty and deteriorated than any machine at the show !

So the moral of the story is: looks deceive. If you have already shopped pins you know to look underneath the dirt to inspect the condition of a machine.
Playfield wear. Broken plastics. Cabinet damage. Worn or broken assemblies. That's what matters if you inspect a pinball machine.
Dirt does not matter, it will go away with cleaning and sometimes even protected the playfield against wear.

What is it ?

'Shopped' is a word you'll often read, especially when someone has a pinball machine for sale or auction. The problem is that most people have their own definition for it. In short, shopping a pinball machine means to clean it thorough. Not only cleaning (everything), but also making small adjustments and repairs: replace broken parts, or even replacing parts which are worn to prevent later problems.

That's why a 'real' shopped pin is valuable and shopping is worth the time and effort. The machine looks nice (or excellent, or at least it looks the best as possible), is clean enough so it will continue to look nice and not become dirty soon, and should be free from technical problems for a long time.
There is always something which can go wrong on used pins. Parts fail. Therefor most sellers cannot give any warranty. But a completely shopped pin, done by someone who knows what he's doing, will probably not give any problems for a long time, as possible problems are already identified and taken care off.

Now why are there so many definitions of shopping ? Because there are so many ways to do it, and one collector may be more 'anal' in how far he goes in cleaning and replacing parts. And some people just don't know what it means and say it about every pin they sell.

In my opinion, a shop job means at least to remove everything from the top of the playfield: every ramp, plastic, .. and clean it. Replacing broken parts, adjusting switches, and checking for things which are likely to fail/give problems in the future..
From the bottom of the playfield I usually only remove and clean assemblies which come in contact with the pinball (upkickers and ramps i.e.). I also clean light bulbs and inserts. I also check every assembly that it functions as it should be, and there are now 'hack jobs' on it anymore (even if they work). But some people go further and really clean everything, even every wire underneath the playfield, and even repaint parts like the inside of the cabinet (although I don't call this shopping anymore but completely restoring it to as-new condition).
How well a shop-job is done and what's included does not only depend on the person who does it, but sometimes also on the value of the machine.. Most people will not put as much effort in a $300 machine as in a $3000 machine, at least not when it's a game for sale. But most collectors don't do it to sell a machine but to enjoy it themselves, so they may put the same effort and time in every machine.

The goal of a shop-job is to make a pinball machine play and look as new, or at least as good as possible. Everything which is less or partial (only cleaning parts where you have access to, not replacing old rubber or broken light bulbs, ..) is not a good shop job.

A shopped game should at least not have any broken light bulbs, no dirty or worn rubbers, and everything should be working (unless there are important technical problems which are not easy to solve). The playfield should be cleaned, and not only parts which you can reach easily whilst you can see dirt underneath the rest.

A good shop-job takes a lot of time. Games with an 'easy' playfield like the first generation of electronic games, or electro-mechanical games can be done in less than a day or even in a few hours. But on average you should reserve 2 full days for a modern game. For complicated games like Star Trek the Next Generation or Twilight Zone, we're talking about 30 to 40 hours, and then no complications may occur (repairs, touch ups to damaged paint, ..). And yes, you can also do it in 3 instead of 30 hours. But a cleaning like that is more for a game which goes back out on location and which will be cleaned again in a few months, not for a home-use which you don't want to completely strip and clean for the next years.
Time also depends on how fast you work and what tools you use. Electric screwdrivers, buffing machines, .. speed up the process a lot.
The long time involved is also one of the main reasons why you should learn to do it yourself. If you're going to pay someone to do it (the way it has to be done and take no shortcuts) it will cost you a lot because of the time spent. Keep that also in mind when you're buying a game and don't want to clean it yourself, usually it's better to spend $100 or $200 more and buy a shopped game from a collector, than trying to save some money and pay someone else a lot more later to clean it.
Should you hire someone to shop a game for you, be sure to ask what he'll do and not do.
If you buy a game from someone who has 20 machines for sale, don't expect him to have put as much effort into it as a collector who's selling one game from his personal collection (although this is a generalization, there are always exceptions).

Why do you need to shop a pinball machine ?

A full shop is necessary to make sure a pinball machine is completely clean and will stay clean for a long time. Gameplay on a pinball machine will generate 'black dust'. If a game has black rubber rings, these will loose small parts which get distributed over the playfield. Metal rails also loose small particles when the ball hits them. And underneath the playfield the coils and plungers may also generate dust and become dirty. Mix all this with sometimes a bad pinball technician who uses oil or WD-40, which gums up everything, and you get a playfield which is totally BLACK, top and bottom side, every assembly inside out.

If you only clean the top side of the playfield, you'll notice it will only take a few games until everything is dirty again. Every time the ball leaves the cleaned playfield, it will pick up dirt and drag it with it and spread it again over your cleaned parts. So it's better to clean it thorough once, than to do only half a job because in the end you'll have to clean more often. It is better to clean a new game well once, and then only wipe the playfield off every six months, than to leave it and clean the playfield every 3 months and still have a game which looks and plays bad.

As said above, ideally you can also identify and repair problems before they occur. So the 'downtime' of a pin will be less. Less warranty calls if you sell the pin, less complaints and lost revenue if it's out on location, and more time to play and not to worry about what's wrong now if it's your own game.

And why is a cleaned or shopped game important ? For fun !! How well a pinball machine plays and how much fun it is, depends a lot on its condition ! It does make a difference. But that's something which cannot be explained by words. You just have to play games and compare them. A shopped game will play better, faster, the ball will have more action, i.e. stay longer between pop bumpers, flippers will be stronger so it's easier to shoot up ramps or make difficult shots, .. It'll also look a lot brighter, better. And finely adjusted assemblies will just throw out the ball like they should, so i.e. the ball will not be launched somewhere and drain without anything you can do. So in the end you get a much better pinball game !
Most people just cannot imagine what difference to gameplay new rubber and a few coats of wax can make, especially on older games.

Pictures usually don't show how much difference a shop-job can make, and just how nice a machine looks afterwards. If you have a dirty machine, just try it yourself to see and even feel the difference.

How do you shop a pinball machine ?

Here is a description of how I shop a pin, added with things I know some other people do. This whole document started with just describing a shop job and ended describing a total restoration. Maybe I still forgot some parts, there will be people which go a lot further than me.. But at least you have a good idea what it's about. It is also something you have to learn and sometimes experiment with. Your first shop job will not be as good as your second or third. You have to decide yourself how far you go, as some parts may be difficult to remove (i.e. pop bumpers).
I also don't say that this is the best or only way to shop a pin. Everyone has an own way of shopping. I don't claim to have invented any of these methods used, other people probably have documented them long before me.

Indiana Jones pinball machine in parts
Some people prefer to disassemble each part at a time, but as Pascal was going to redecal the cabinet he stripped and cleaned everything at once.
Photo by Pascal Leroy.

Some products I use may not be available for you, but others may work just as good or even better. So you don't 'have' to buy the products everyone uses (ie Novus, Johnson's Paste Wax, ..). If they are available then it's good for you, as someone else tested them. But that shouldn't stop you from trying products which are available to you and of which you think they can also work well or better.
Especially in Europe it's difficult to find products used by Americans. But instead of trying to import it or find an expensive source, just go to a good local car parts shop or drugstore and you'll find similar products. Just be sure if you use an unknown product, to first test it somewhere on a part which is covered by something else (so don't test paint stripper in the middle of your playfield !).

At this site you can see how someone else shopped his pinball machine.


Some techniques described in here are advanced and should only be done by people who know what they're doing and practiced a lot on old playfields or parts. Even though this document is very long, some techniques are explained too simple in here, especially some parts which are not about cleaning but are about restoring. So if you want to try something new, be my guest, but please search for more information about it, email me with questions about it, and test or practice first on something where it can't hurt if it fails.

Do not overestimate yourself ! Especially if you're new to shopping pins, don't start to disassemble everything until the very last screw and then complain to me you don't remember how everything went together. Don't remove anything you are not sure off you know how to put it back.

This list tries to be as complete as possible, and therefor is too much. It is not a list you have to follow step by step. A shop-job is not finished if you've done everything on this list, only half of the things may be enough. Probably no one in the world will do everything that is said here on one game, even for complete restorations. But one person will do something another doesn't. So read it, and decide every step for yourself if you want to, need to and are capable of doing it.

Products to use

Everyone who shopped some pins before will have their own favorite products. If you're new to shopping pins you probably do not know what you need or can use.

On the internet there are several shop guides available, or advice about what product to use and what not. Take these with a grain of salt. Especially in Europe a lot of the products mentioned are just not available. It's not because one product is used by a lot of people that any other product is bad and you have to use only that specific product. It's nice to know if a product works well and has been tested by others. But in the end you just have to see what's available to you. Go to a local drug store, go to a specialized car parts store. Check what products they have. But first read all instructions and warnings very well, and always test somewhere in a corner to make sure it will not damage or dissolve anything !
Diamondplated playfields are protected by a clearcoat, which is similar to the clearcoat used on cars. So most products to clean or protect cars can be used, as long as the playfield is in good condition.
For non-diamondplated playfields it is better to search for products which are suited for furniture or wood floors. Be sure to always use the clear version as most furniture products have a color !

Products required:

  • playfield cleaner or wax remover
  • Cleaner for the cabinet
  • Glass cleaner
  • Plastic cleaner
  • Plastic scratch remover
  • Stainless steel cleaner
  • Chrome polish
  • Playfield polish
  • Playfield wax

This sounds like a lot of products, but in the end one product can be used for multiple goals. But you can always check if you find a product which works very well on a specific type of product.

As a general cleaner I personally always use Zep Powerhouse. Available in spray cans, easy to use and very powerful. It's a wax remover and degreaser, made for use on stainless steel, tiles, .. I use it on cabinets (with decals, not painted cabs !), coin doors, playfields (sprayed directly onto diamondplated, or I make a towel wet and use that to wipe the playfield of non-diamondplated playfields or damaged areas). You can also use it to clean glass, plastics, metal (wireframes) and translites. To conclude: a strong universal cleaner, ideal if there's heavy dirt-buildup, but it's best not to use it on bare or fragile paint.

Stainless steel parts I clean with steel wool. Only if the metal is really dirty or greasy I clean it with HG Staalpolish. It's specifically made for stainless steel and does an excellent job. Chrome polish can also be used.

Plastics I also clean with Windex if they're slightly dirty or with dish-washing products. Very dirty parts I clean with Powerhouse.

To remove scratches and buff the playfield I use Commandant 4. It's an excellent product, created to be used on cars. Novus 2 is a popular plastic polish, which can also be used. Or just about other polishing compound will do the trick. Any car parts shop can help you with a product for manual polishing.

To remove scratches in plastics I use Commandant 4 (and 5) can also be used but you can get better suited products in car parts shops. Novus 2 and 3 are most used in the USA.

As playfield wax I use Turtle Wax.

When you're not just shopping/cleaning a pin but totally restoring it, you may need a lot of other products too. A lot of very specific parts are just not for sale anymore so if they're missing or broken, you have to create them yourself. You may need to make plastics (flat plastics), maybe use some type of vacuum molding or make a silicone mold in which you pour an epoxy. Ramps can be repaired with fiberglass or other clear epoxy products.
In Belgium a company Voss Chemie makes a lot of products which can be used to make parts or repair ramps. I'm sure in other countries there will be similar products available. So look around a bit and get enough information about the products that exist and how to use them.

Click here for more information about vacuum forming (by Clay H.)

Clearcoating a playfield can be done by yourself, or you can also search for someone who does bodywork on cars, or who makes furniture. They can also spray clearcoat and probably do it much more professional and better than you can. Some things just have a high learning curve or require (expensive) specific tools. Or they require bad smelling or even toxic products. So for some things you're better off to find someone who can do it for you, instead of trying to do everything yourself.

Btw I don't often link to pinball parts shops, but if you want to follow this pinball shop/restore guide, I suggest you take a look at what's for sale at This website has a lot of parts and specialized tools for sale that are very useful when you want to restore a (WPC) pinball machine into brand new condition..