Monday, July 5, 2010

Building a Simple Pinball Game

When I was young, my friend Paul had a Japanese Pachinko machine. If you've never seen one of these in action, you are missing out. Little metal balls plinking back and forth down a maze of little pins. It is really something to see. Think of it as the love child of a modern pinball machine and the "Plinko" game from "The Price is Right" that grew up to be a slot machine. Anyway, it is fascinating to watch and fun to play with.

I really liked that sound and feel and always wanted one. Once I grew up, I found out that stuff like that COSTS MONEY! (Who knew?) So for Christmas about seven or eight years ago, I decided to make something similar for my daughters.

Before I share how I made mine - time to put that BA in History to use and share a little pinball history.

It all started because French soldiers brought a game called Bagatelle to America during the Revolutionary war. It caught on and stayed a part of the new country. Basically, think of it as a mini pool table with more holes. It has wood pegs blocking the holes to make it more difficult. Here is an old political cartoon with President Lincoln at a bagatelle table. (Jeeze, it must have taken cartoonists weeks to make these drawing. Makes you wonder if their editors were ever like, "This is great stuff, but the war ended six years ago so it isn't quite as topical as we'd like...) 

Eventually smaller tabletop bagatelles (begatellei? bagatelleum?) became popular as a saloon or parlor game. Metal pins replaced the wood pegs and it became more of a gravity game with a ball pushed to the top of the board and it finding its way through a maze of pins to various holes. In 1871 the patent was granted for the first plunger for launching the ball (replacing the stick) and pinball was born.
Pinball machines honestly have a bit of a shady past. They had a bad reputation partially because they were seen as games of chance and not games of skill. (The "flipper" didn't even come around until after WW2.) Free game tokens could be traded back in for cash, so they were in effect slot machines. Seeing as how those are illegal in most places, so were pinball machines. In fact, they were illegal in NY City well into the 1970s.

Study your notes on this. There will be a quiz on it next Thursday followed by everyone having to watch The Who's Tommy and pretend like they liked it.

Now on to making one.

This was one of my "proof of concept/leap of faith" toys. I knew what I wanted at the end and knew what I had on hand to make it. When you make stuff like this just take your time and think a little ahead. You'll do fine.

I had a piece of 1/2" thick plywood that was 11" wide by 17" long. Most interior/furniture plywood will have at least one smooth side. Just be sure you are using a smooth side as the playing surface. Next I did my measurements. One thing is that you want to minimize stuck marbles. The average size of the marbles I have lying around is 1/2" so I knew the space between pins needed to be at last that wide. I also knew that I don't want any marbles to have a path to just fall straight through without some plinking around. So... I set up a pattern starting 1" down the board and marked each point with a pencil where the pins/nails would be in rows with offset columns. Each nail in the row is one inch from the next nail. The next row was one inch down and then offset by 1/2" with pins one inch apart. I then had a strip of 1/2" wood as my depth guide and just started tapping in the nails one at a time until I finished 1" from the bottom. It ended up looking like this:

168 3/4" brads each driven in 1/4".
I know... I'm freakin nuts!

Honestly, you'd be surprised how fast this went. One thing that made it easy was that I was just working on a flat piece of board at this point. I had not attached the sides or bottom yet.

Next came the sides and bottoms. I had some 3/8" thick by 1 5/8" wide strips that I used for the frame on three sides. Across the top I used a piece of 1/4" thick x 1/2" wide trim to cover the end of the plywood. No fancy joinery here. I just used end buts, a little glue and few brass nails to hold it in place. Then I laid out the scoring area by cutting pieces of the 1/2" trim and gluing them on edge one inch apart across the bottom. Printed numbers on paper glued to spots finished this off.

I wanted this to be played anywhere so I added an adjustable leg to the back that lets you set the angle that you are playing at. I drilled a 1/4" hole into a 2 3/4" piece of the side/bottom wood. I then glued it off center on the back of the board. After it had dried, using a thumb screw, washers and a butterfly nut, I attached a 17" piece of that wood that I had rounded off its top.

The higher the angle the faster the ball drops. At the lower angle the balls are less likely to leave the table while falling. You can drop pennies and dimes as well and they are fun to watch, but they tend to get stuck on the 1/4" dividers at the bottom. (So maybe use thinner dividers or no nails directly over the holes.)

So there you go. Here it is in action.

We've played it as just highest score with each marble, high score with five marbles or "first one to twenty." It has held up pretty well over the years. Just the occasional nail straightening or the support arm being re-glued.

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Just Saying...

While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
- John Dunnigan


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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.