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Engineering Roundtable - Building A Pinball Machine with Nick Poole

Check it out as Nick does some research for his DIY pinball machine.

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Pinball is one of those classic games that always brings back memories. I fondly recall the Indiana Jones pinball machine at a local restaurant - it had a pistol grip for the ball launch that for a 10-year old was the coolest thing ever.

In today's episode of "Engineering Roundtable," SparkFun hacker extraordinare Nick Poole travels to Lyons Classic Pinball in Lyons, Colo. to do some research for his DIY pinball machine. Check it out as we get a lesson pinball history, scope out the guts of classic and modern games, and, yes, enjoy some sweet pinball action.



As you can imagine, this project is quite the undertaking and will be broken up into several videos as Nick builds his game. Please feel free to leave any questions or suggestions in the comments section below. And, we can't encourage this enough - if you're ever in Lyons, Colo. stop by Lyons Classic Pinball. It's absolutely amazing! Cheers!

Comments 33 comments

  • Just a thought...

    Pinball machines are so complicated that you might want to consider building a table-top machine first. Sort of a half-sized proof-of-concept. You'll have all the challenges of building a full-sized machine but with far fewer components. It would still be impressive, and you can get all your rookie mistakes out of the way for less money and in less time.

    Then you can scale it up!

    • That would probably be the safe way to do this, yes. I kind of feel like there may not be a huge advantage to building small in this case, though. Not that I'm qualified, in any way, to have that opinion. It seems like the electronic and logistical problems would be largely the same in a tabletop game as in a cabinet game, but the physics won't scale so the part I'm most likely to have trouble with (playfield layout, ball mobility, game design) won't benefit a lot from the scale project. I'd rather spend the resources I have on the large scale and just proceed cautiously.

      I'll tell you what, though. I do plan on building lots of little pinball toys to experiment with playfield mechanics (And to demonstrate them for video). I think that bench work will give me a lot of what I would expect to get out of building a table top game. And that way I can avoid spending time and money on tabletop parts.

      That is a good suggestion, though, and if people aren't familiar with tabletop machines I'd definitely suggest that they check them out. It would be a really good way to familiarize yourself with pinball mechanics without jumping in with both feet.

      • The "pinball toys" idea sounds really good. It's similar to what I suggested...figure out how the components work, get them perfected, and then build as many as you need. Maybe it's better than what I said.

        The really fun part will be the overall design, and setting up the various rule sets for the different modes. "Autonomous Vehicle Chase! Shoot the ball three times around the big ramp!" "You have earned a new component for your robot!" Etc.

  • Hello Nick! Very cool. I love pinball machines. It will be exciting to see how this comes out. If you are looking for clues on electromagnets and eddy sensors, check out Theater of Magic (http://www.ipdb.org/machine.cgi?gid=2845). It uses both, though the eddy sensors tend to drift sometimes and have a trim pot to adjust their sensitivity for detecting the ball. I scrounged you up some more info on them, I have that game in my basement. ;) See page 1-45 and 3-20 of http://mirror2.ipdb.org/files/2845/Bally_1995_Theatre_of_Magic_Manual.pdf Im sure there are much much more modern eddy sensors available, but I am amazed at some of the things that were pulled off way-back-when. :)

    Oh, and now you have a perfect project for the coin acceptors SparkFun started to carry. Coin-op rules. :)

    • This is great! Thanks for the Docs!

      • Have fun with it!. If you have never played a Theater of Magic, it used the under-playfield electromagnet to capture the ball to the tip of the painted-on-playfield Magic Wand and then save the ball down the flipper ramp instead of letting it run down the exit ramp. It was "Magic"... The ball starting down the exit ramp was what one of the eddy sensors was picking up. The other eddy sensor was for a large section where the ball would "hit" the Magic Trunk on the playfield to trigger various reactions.

        Have fun with this project, I will love to see the results! PS. You know this, but don't forget to diode suppress every solenoid in the thing for back EMF. :)

  • I can't wait to see this project come together. It sound loke it will be pretty awesome with all the different elements involved.

  • So you want to build a Pinball Machine? Nick, you probably have the best workplace in the world! haha Let me know if you need something, I will be pleased to help you :)


  • Ditto, If you ever find yourself in Lyons, check this place out. I was blown away by the variety and quality of the games. Not to mention, Kevin really digs what he does and it makes it a cool place to hang out.

  • very nice....is there a dev blog to follow this...? Jpop

  • Hi Nick. Where can I find the rest of the videos on your pin ball machine project?

  • Nick, a couple of things...

    First, buying old pinball parts may be a good choice when you have an old machine you are trying to restore, but if you are trying to build a brand new machine, and AREN’T going for a particular look, there are consequences you should consider:

    1. Buying old pinball machine parts prevents restoration of an older machine. Let’s not advocate damaging history. :)

    2. Parts from an old pinball machine are likely rather worn.

    There are lots of places to buy brand new (that means RELIABLE) pinball parts from. Don’t resort to e-Bay!

    Second, you should make sure to do your physics homework on this one. You have to figure out the most efficient path for a pinball to take going up and down a playfield so that the ball isn’t losing too much (or too little) speed as it goes around your orbits and ramps.

    Third, some ideas for your play field and play modes:

    Use the Sparkfun Soldering Kits as “toys”. It just makes sense, and works well with a “Maker Faire” play mode. A stopwatch toy is obvious for an “AVC” play mode. An active webcam toy would be cool too, letting people scope out the action remotely from a playfield view!. XD It also works out well with a “New Product Friday” play mode. A blinky miniature Sparkfun Server toy would go well with the Free Day play modes and the “Friday New Product Post” play mode.

    Free Day 1: Hit drop targets spelling “Refresh” to activate. Within the time limit, hit the “Refresh Key” target repeatedly until the “Free Day” indicator/light/display message comes up, then fire the ball up the “Free Day” ramp to score.

    Free Day 2: Hit drop targets spelling “Captcha” to activate. Fire the ball into the pop bumpers to fill out a Captcha, and fire the ball up the “Free Day” ramp when it is correctly completed to score; repeat as possible within the time limit. One of the bumpers, or a nearby target, may inject a “spelling error” into the Captcha submission, requiring you to fire the ball up the “Free Day” ramp to clear it and start from scratch before trying again.

    Inventory Day: Jackpot starts at a high number and slowly ticks down; the faster you hit EVERY playfield element at least once, the larger the jackpot you receive. Kickbacks and extra balls should be activated to compensate for having to “take inventory” of the Outlanes.

    AVC Day: Fire the ball around the orbit 4 times, and fire the ball around the ramp 4 times (I presume in the same direction as the AVC itself, clockwise or counterclockwise). Each time you start an orbit or a ramp, a rollover starts a stopwatch; if you successfully complete the orbit, a rollover stops the stopwatch; the time is subtracted from the jackpot, so faster times will score more; if the ball falls prey to hazards, and does not complete the “course” (orbit or ramp), and the ball returns to the flippers, a rollover (or some other playfield switches) apply a “Did Not Finish” score penalty to the jackpot. Points are awarded after 4 attempts of the orbit and 4 attempts of the ramp are made.

    Maker Faire: Hit the playfield element for each toy to “solder” the kit. Then, test the kit to make sure you soldered the kit correctly; for instance, with the Simon kit, you have to hit the target corresponding to each Simon button. If you hit the targets in the Simon sequence displayed when you “soldered” the kit, you get a bonus for winning at Simon. After “soldering” the Big Time watch, fire through a spinner to set the correct time. A bonus if multiples of each kit are completed, and if all kits are completed at least once.

    Friday New Product Post (Multiball): After locking down “new products” (various toys scattered around the board), hit the target at the webcam to activate the New Product Post. Then, fire the pinballs through the ramp or orbit past the camera to “film the new products”, to increase the jackpot.

    Good luck with the pinball project! I look forward to hearing more about it!

  • If the relays clean every time they wipe, couldn't there be a "clean button" that, when pushed, runs all the relays 2 or 3 times to remove any oxidation? Then again, playing the machine to clean it is WAY more fun...

  • I played a game once that had magnets underneath certain parts of the play field that caused the ball to randomly change directions. Just an idea for an easy play field component. Cleverly used electromagnets might make interesting non-mechanical play components as well.

    • I've been playing with the idea of incorporating electromagnets and eddy sensors. I know that Jeri Ellsworth's "As Seen on TV" pinball game uses an electromagnetic ball diverter instead of a trap door on one of the ramps, I thought that might be something interesting to incorporate into this machine.

  • This is an exciting project that I've been interested in attempting for awhile. I can't wait to see what you come up with. I will also second "Zoomer" and say that Ben Heckendorn would be a great resource for you guys. I know he is tied to Newark and may be a competitor but you might find a away to work together on this. At the very least his videos will be invaluable in learning about layout and the like. One thing I would ask is that when you design the MPU/CPU system please post schematics and board files. In my research this is something I've had trouble locating. Who knows you may end up with a Sparkfun pinball board for sale that could really push the DIY pinball games forward. Stick with it Nick!

    • Ben's Bill Paxton pinball machine is a work of art! lol. I'll definitely try to learn as much from that build as I can. And when I design the control board I'll definitely make all of the design files available with some barebones code on our Github repo!

      Thanks for the encouragement, I'm excited about this one.

      • Looks like Ben is working on another one called Ghost Squad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHuNjz6P7kU&list=UUgeStlUnitobx8QcSxTw2aQ&index=3

        Looking forward to the Sparkfun build!

        • See the up close look at of the new table at the bottom of this article: http://www.engadget.com/2012/11/19/visualized-a-tour-of-ben-hecks-lab-video/

  • Awesome, love pinball!

  • Nick, Ben Heck built a Bill Paxton pinball machine. Spoiler alert, this might be too much information that you would rather discover on your own. Check it out: http://benheck.com/03-16-2010/bill-paxton-pinball

    • Lots of videos here: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Bill+Paxton+Pinball

  • Nice production quality on the video. Sparkfun TV coming to Discovery?

  • Ha! I live in Lyons!

  • The hard part will be "stuff". Electronics, lights, control etc, can all be figured out. Just takes time and energy. But, getting the physical stuff, bumpers, targets etc, that's the hard stuff. Decent looking play area that doesn't look, quite frankly, nasty. If your interest is in the control side, you might be better off buying a cabinet that has old electronics that can't be repaired for cheap. Then retrofit modern solenoids, new control logic boards, mp3 player chips etc. Basically, reinvent an old machine.

  • Do you have a source for all the specialized components like the flippers and bumpers? Even the ball(s) gotta come from somewhere!

    • Nowhere in particular. I've found that people tend to break down old games and sell them bit by bit on eBay, though. I'm basically just scouring the web.

      I've actually just ordered three pop bumpers, a pair of slingshots, a pair of drop targets and a bag of finger switches from a guy on eBay who appears to have just disassembled a Stern "Hot Hand" machine. I got such a good deal on all these parts that even if I have to rebuild them, It'll be worth it.

      As far as some of the more elaborate playfield toys are concerned, I may end up fabricating some stuff.

      • Hey Nick, (I'm the guy who said on YT who said I was building a Mario Kart themed machine) I get most of my parts brand new from pinballlife.com. I didn't want the extra task of having to clean or restore the mechanics on top of design. There is also marcospecialties but their site is MUCH less friendly to a builder. Also Nick, one of my best discoveries is you can make ball gates (which are difficult to find and very expensive) out of .5x1/16" aluminum strip and "piano" (high carbon steel) wire, both available from a hardware store. Just do some bending and it works perfectly.

        • Those look like great sites, I'll probably end up buying a few parts from them as I rebuild these old bumpers.

          And thanks for the piano wire tip!

      • Come on! If you were to use the laser, you could post the files to cut this stuff and share files. It could end up being one off mass production as people all over the world repeat variations. Just a thought.

  • Here is a video of an arcade version of rockem sockem robots that a friend and I made. Still trying to figure out the direction we are going with it but thought it would be of inspiration for your pinball machine. video

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