The 10 Commandments of Pinball Repair and Maintenance

(in no particular order of importance)

1. Thou shalt turn thy machine off when moving parts of it.

One of the most common “gotchas” when working on pinball machines is the tendency to pick up the playfield while the game is powered on. Most of the time this can be harmless, but there’s always that off-chance that a wire or solder joint can brush against a siderail, or a screw, nut or other playfield piece comes loose and shorts an electrical connection. if you need to pull the playfield up, power down the machine, lift the playfield, then turn the power on.

2. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Some enthusiasts new to pinball repair often try to clean or work on the entire machine when addressing one specific issue. The unfortunate end result can be one-step-forward, three-steps-back. This is especially true with EM games. If you find one switch that may need adjustment or cleaning, resist the impulse, while you’re there, to go through and clean them all. Until you become very familiar with a game’s architecture, it’s best to not poke around in areas that appear to be working properly.

3. Use the right tools.

Spend the money and take the time to use proper tools and techniques when working on games. From crimping and riveting to files and types of sandpaper, paints and soldering/desoldering tools, don’t skimp. Good quality tools will save you time and money. Cheap tools will give you headaches and cause damage. Invest in a reliable jack to raise and move your games. Have a comfortable, well-lit work area. Have parts well-organized and easy to find. Have plenty of spare storage bins and a system to label and store parts on works in progress.

4. Document your work!

Take lots of pictures, before, during and after your work.  If you unplug connectors or disassemble parts, take pictures of the way they were before from multiple angles.  I like to keep a little book with each game that chronicles what I’ve done to the machine and its history. I will also stick a post-it note on the top glass where I can make notes on items that need work with each game. This way when it comes time to perform maintenance on problem X, I’ll also note that while I have the machine apart, I should fix items A, B and C that are on my little post-it note. It’s frustrating to pull a game apart to fix a sluggish flipper, put it back together and then realize there are a few lights out I should have replaced at the time.

5. Keep batteries off the MPU boards and regularly replace them.

For solid-state machines, if you are lucky enough to have a vintage machine with no acid damage from batteries, don’t take any further chances. Install a remote battery pack, memory capacitor or other solution which will eliminate the problem. Change your batteries in the machine once-a-year just to be safe.  Many of us also believe not all battery brands are equal. (I will not put Engergizers in my machines)

6. Replace the balls and keep the playfield clean.

The #1 cause of damage to playfields is the result of aging pinballs that start to get scuffed or corroded and end up acting like sandpaper, tearing up playfield art, mylar, clear coat and everything else in their way. Balls are cheap. Regularly replace them if they begin to look even the slightest-bit rough. Also make a point of routinely dusting/cleaning the playfield. Swiffers work very well for getting into tight places and removing grit that could cause wear or balls to get stuck. Waxing (with 100% Carnuba wax) is always a good thing to do too, but be careful about getting wax residue in places you can’t clean it away.

7. Look for simple solutions first.

A 14th century philosopher, William of Ockham is credited with the maxim, “Occam’s Razor” which states, “Simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones.” Don’t make an issue more complicated than it needs to be. If your machine suddenly says 7 different playfield switches are no longer working, don’t assume you have 7 different switches broken; instead perhaps there is a common wire that has failed which is affecting all 7 switches? Look around for anything unusual and if you see something odd, use your eyes and experience to deduce where it needs to be.

Usually when things go wrong, beginners will get bogged down in seemingly more-direct “solutions” when the problem is the result of something even more simple than they imagine: a flipper not working? Beginners might start replacing coils and rebuilding things before checking to see if a fuse is blown, wire broke off or a connector isn’t plugged in all the way. You can often save time by pursuing the most common/easiest-to-fix cause of an issue, as opposed to the most obvious potential failure point. Along these lines, it’s safe to first check things like: fuses (noting that on most games there are fuses all over the place, even under the playfield itself – don’t assume a fuse is OK unless you physically remove it and check it), connectors (loose connectors or bad pins on connectors are a major cause of most problems), bad grounding (again, loose wires or boards not properly screwed into a grounding backplane).

8. Inspect a game before powering on, after moving it.

Any time you’ve transported or picked up a new game, resist the urge to quickly plug it in. Even if it was working 100% before you put it in your vehicle, transporting a game can cause things to shake loose, especially connectors, and you don’t want to run the risk of damaging the machine. Before turning the game on, go through the entire machine and make sure all the connectors are properly seated and nothing looks out of place.  If you turn a game on and a high power coil is locked on, power it down before the coil burns out.

9. Know how to pack, move and store a game properly

A lot of times games are damaged or even destroyed as a result of people not knowing how to pack and move a game. NEVER transport a game with head upright (for modern games the head can be folded down; older games the head should be unplugged and detached from the cabinet). If you don’t have 2+ people to move a game, do not try to do it yourself, or break the game down and move it in parts. It may be a pain to pull the playfield out and detach/re-attach things, but it’s much better than screwing up your back or damaging parts trying to move everything all at once.

Also be aware that there are many fragile parts to these games. Be extra careful with any tempered glass and backglasses. They can easily get scratched. Tempered glass, while designed to be impact resistant, is also very sensitive to “exploding” if damage is caused along the edges, or is exposed to rapid temperature changes. Also remember that moisture is a killer! Some backglass artwork can instantly delaminate if gotten wet. Some cabinets are made out of medium-density-fiberboard and will puff up and start to disintegrate if exposed to water. Extra care needs to be taken. When moving machines, always tighten down the cabinet, BUT NOT TOO TIGHT or you can break glass or ding the head and siderails. Always remove the balls from the machine and any other parts (or coins) inside the cabinet that could bounce around in transit.

10. Use your eyes!

The best way to find out what’s wrong with a pinball machine is use your eyes. Examine the game in detail and look for anything out of the ordinary. Even if it seems unrelated to a problem you’re having, like a light not going on or a switch not registering, and you find some odd, loose wire at the other end of the playfield, there’s a good chance they’re related.


28 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments of Pinball Repair and Maintenance

  1. Mike, excellent words of wisdom that new (and probably even a few experienced) collectors need to hear! I particularly appreciated the 10 commandments and the “essential” tool list you provide on Amazon… My entire Christmas list was composed of goodies discovered here! Thanks for sharing and have a fantastic 2013! James

  2. We just purchased a refurbished Ballys 1986 Gold Ball machine and it worked great for 2 weeks — until we wanted to show a neighbor and friend the circuits under the horizontal play field and lifted it up with the power on — when we replaced the playing field we found the automatic ball ejector not to eject the ball into the launch canal and alslo the central bumpers did not deflect the ball with power — all the lights and sounds, and scoring works well as does the flippers when restarted. We did detect that no power is going into the selonoid that activates the automatic ball feed and that a loose wire underneath the switch going to the solonoid but connecting it did not bring power to the solonoid so we are stumped -= any ideas??

    Thank you !!


    • You probably shorted one of the solenoid power lines – it’s always a good idea to not move the playfield with the power on unless you know exactly what you’re doing – first, check for any wires that may be damaged along the edge of the playfield where you pulled it out. It’s not uncommon for a wire to be pinched along the side. Then check the fuses in the cabinet. You may have blown a fuse.

  3. i live in Guymon, okla. in need of someone to fix an X-files machine and Maverick machine

  4. This design is spectacular! You definitely know how to keep
    a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I
    was almost moved to start my own blog (well,
    almost…HaHa!) Great job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
    Too cool!

  5. I have an Escape From the Lost World and need to replace the battery. I watched your video on using a 3 v 2032 button cell. The battery in my machine says its a 3.6 v does the difference in voltage present a problem and is the lithium button cell rechargeable?

  6. I had just finished changing the rubbers ony 1962 pinball. I went to plug in the machince and it wouldnt turn on. I checked the fuses and they were good. I dont know what else it could be

    • Did you hit the left flipper button to see if that turns the game on? Some games don’t light up until you press the flipper button.

  7. Happy Thanks Giving to our neighbors in the United States.

    Just getting into this to help a friend, maybe you can help me help him.
    He has a machine that was set up to work in his home with no coins and now something has changed and now it requires coins.

    I have never worked on a pinball machine but am kind of savy about tech stuff.
    It seems to me that there must be a bypass switch on the coin box and that this should be really simple to fix.

    Can I have your initial thoughts?

    I have not seen the machine but can get you any info you need.

    Cheers, from Sunny Vancouver Island.

    • not possible to know where to begin without more information, especially what game it is, but if it’s now accepting coins, and it’s a solid state, my guess is the batteries on the cpu board went dead and reset all the settings.. replace them, and go back into setup and change the game back to free play.

  8. I have been asked, as an old electrician, to troubleshoot an old electro-mechanical machine. It has a couple of rotating drums below the deck, a few fuses near the front (player’s end), and a maze of moving parts and wiring.

    Thanks for the 10 commandments! I’m about to start inspecting and looking for the easy stuff. The machine was recently shipped to this museum and likely has several loose connectors, corrosion, and hidden fuses. My first look inside made me stagger back half a step, but you gave me a bit of confidence.

  9. In your article, you stated that one of the most common “gotchas” when working on pinball machines is the tendency to pick up the playfield while the game is powered on. My wife and I were going through my mother’s basement and found my dad’s old pinball machine but it didn’t work anymore. I wonder what type of tools most repairmen would use to revive this old machine.

    • The most important tools are your eyes and your brain. Take a look around for anything that looks damaged. That’s the first priority. After that, things like a multimeter are next, followed by other tools that vary depending upon the age and configuration of the machine.

  10. hi
    i have a 1978 bally strikes and spares that has been sitting in my basement for about 2 years. It worked fine fine before but now the lights come on but no sounds and nothing else works. Any ideas what may be wrong?

  11. Looking for advice on this machine.
    We are an Estate Sales company in Winter Haven, FL and have a DataEast Time Machine Pinball inside a very nice home with air conditioning, bought from RR Games Sales & Service in Birdsboro, PA.

    Flip the switch all lights up, but no sounds.
    Drop in quarters, no ball loads, no sound.
    1) Bounce rubber laying loose on first center right side bounce bar
    2) 2 of the left side metal targets seem to be leaning together
    3) No Flipper action
    Your opinion would be greatly appreciated as to if worth the repair for us to sell?
    If you know of an in-home service tech in Central Florida, would love to have that info as well.
    (so far I’m out 2 quarters!)

    Thanks for any thoughts you can offer

    • In a general sense, it’s very hard to estimate costs to repair machines. There are so few people around that do this and their rates may vary, but most importantly, it’s hard to tell how much time it could take. Often times it’s a simple issue, other times it could be a very complicated problem.

  12. I notice you have (or had) a Top Score “300” – I recently acquired a 1975 Top Score and it’s in pretty decent shape. But an annoying thing with the bonus balls – after one gets kicked up the chute, the mechanical kicker won’t reset at the bottom for the next ball. It seems to be sticking until some other event happens and knocks it loose. I’ve tried by hand and the mechanism seems to be working fine. Also cleaned all the moving parts, thinking that might be the problem, but it still happens every so often. Could it be the solenoid, and if so, how do I check it?

  13. I have a Bally See-Saw machine (1970)
    The post between the flippers works. But the light is burned out. I cant see an easy way to get to it. Any suggestions?

    • I’m not familiar with that game unfortunately. In some cases, if you can’t get to the light from one side, try from underneath, and if all else fails, remove some components.

  14. Your good. I crown you an EM wizard. No doubt – your there. Technicians like us never die, we just time out.
    Thx good article have fun.

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