Pinball Rehab

pinball repair and restoration

Backbox Restoration Backbox Restoration Hot

I recently picked up a Terminator 2 that a guy was keeping in his garage. Normally the garage thing would make me walk away, but I really like T2.  In my opinion this is one of Steve Ritchie's best games.

The problem is that pinball manufacturers don't seem to believe in wood primer and any exposure to moisture or humidity does a real job on the cabinet.  In this case the backbox was trashed (see Images 1 and 2).

Well, I needed a project at the moment, so what the hell.

This article will cover just about everything you need to know to completely restore a backbox or cabinet (other than artwork).  In addition. I wanted to repaint the back but save the backbox decal, which is covered in a separate article: Saving Backbox Warning Decal.

Due to some physical and time constraints I decided to use a decal on the backbox sides, which were originally stenciled.  This is not my usual preference but I also don't find it abhorrent like some people do.  I will cover that process in a separate article.

Image Gallery

Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration
Backbox Restoration

Tools and Supplies

The first requirement is an orbital sander (see Image 3).  The 5" Ridgid random orbital sander I'm using cost about $70 (they're cheaper nowadays),  You'll also need some sanding pads in 60, 100 and 220 grit.  You will also need the following supplies.

Although the wood was not originally primed, it should have been, and I want this game to last another 20 years.  Rustoleum primer is fine and in my case I used Rustoleum semi-gloss black paint.  In hindsight I should have gone with a satin.

I have never found a standard sheen that works on every game (although Rustoleum Satin Black is a good starting point) so either paint a small section or make up some test samples.  Whenever I can I use spray paint to avoid brush strokes in the paint (see Painting Reference for info on how to prevent brush strokes if you prefer that method).

I also much prefer the finish of spray-on versus roll-on.

You will also need some 320 grit sandpaper for sanding between coats and tack clothes for removing dust.  Since the orbital sander probably won't get into all the spots you need it to, like around the carriage bolts, pick up some 60, 100 and 200 grit sheets of sandpaper. 

Whenever you are sanding by hand you should always use a sanding block, so pick up a couple in different sizes if you don't have any.  You can also use a piece of scrap wood as a sanding block.

The following products (see Image 4) are optional based on what wood repairs need to be done:

  1. Elmer's Carpenters Wood Patch.
  2. Minwax High Performance Wood Filler or Bondo Wood Filler.
  3. Spackling.
  4. Minwax Wood Hardener.

In general I think Minwax has about the best products around unless you go professional grade, which really isn't necessary.   For more information on wood fillers see the references at the bottom of this article.

Cleaning and Sanding

The first step is to clean the cabinet.  Simple Green works fine for cleaning.  If the cabinet has decals remove them using a heat gun and a wide putty kninfe.  Some glue residue will be left, which you can remove with 60 grit sandpaper.  I do not use Goo Gone since at this point the wood is bare and very absorbent.

Time to put our orbital sander to use.  If you previously removed a decal start sanding with 60 grit.  If the surface is painted start with either 60 or 100 grit, whichever is needed to strip the paint in a reasonable amount of time.

If you started with 60, move on to 100 and then finish up with 220 grit.  I think that's good enough for matching the original finish, but if you so desire you could move to a finishing sander and a finer grit.

In image 5 you can see that I'm almost done with the sanding.  I finished up around the carriage bolts with sheet sandpaper, using the same migration from rougher to finer grit.

Note: Due to two bum shoulders, and the vibration from the orbital sander, I did not remove all of the paint, although It did have a nice smooth finish.  It is good practice to get all of the paint removed.

Note: The best way to test the finish is to run your fingers across the surface.

Repairing Cabinet Wood

Because of the exposure to humidity the wood grain on T2 was raised and once sanded down there where small divots or indentations in the wood.  The best way to fix this is with spackle.  Thin it down to a thick-gravy consistency with water and then apply it with a spatula or trowel (see Image 6).  Hit it again with your orbital sander and 220 grit.

My next problem was the back of the backbox, which is made of pressed wood.  Pressboard is made up of small slivers of wood, glued together and the then pressed under heat.  Around the edges the pressboard was coming unglued and if you ran your hand across it, it would flake off. 

Other than replacing the entire back the best solution is Minwax Wood Hardener and some wood putty.  Just brush it on and it will soak into the wood and glue everything back together (see Image 7).  Finish off with wood putty.

With that done, I needed to patch several spots on the back of the backbox (see images 8 and 9).  If you're just doing fill-in work the Elmer's wood patch is fine.  If you're repairing a corner or need a more structural repair you should use either Minwax High Performance Wood Filler or Bondo Wood Filler (see this article on Repairing Backbox Corners). 

Note: Do not use Bondo auto products (see the references for more information).

You will also notice in Image 9 that I used the Wood Hardener around the vent holes and then patched the area.  Sand out your patch work, going from 60 or 100 to 220 grit as before (see Image 10).

See the references for more detailed information on patching wood.


At this point I applied three coats of primer to the top and sides of the backbox, sanding in-between with a sanding block and 320 grit sandpaper.  Whenever sanding by hand use a sanding block to prevent creating an uneven surface.  Use a tack cloth after each sanding.  I waited about a week and then repeated the process with black spray paint.

For most paint it is recommended that you apply a second coat within one hour or after 24 hours.  If you're sanding between coats, 24 hours is usually not enough time for the paint to thoroughly dry.  If you start sanding and the sandpaper is grabbing or paint is balling up on the sandpaper give it more time.  Depending on the humidity it may take 72 hours between coats.

If you're going to be applying decals, let the paint cure for at least a week, and two would be better.

Unfortunately I'm an idiot and did not take photos of the finished product, and have since sold the game.  Trust me, it looked good.