Tools & supplies required


Bitmap editing program: Photoshop is recommended, however any program which offers the ability to calibrate the color intensity of the screen image to the printer's output can be used. Separate color matching software often comes with a new monitor, as well.

Scanning software: Usually comes with the scanner


Flatbed scanner, at least 600 x 600 dpi unenhanced

If you're going to be editing images of any size, you'll want to have a fast computer with lots of RAM. As a minimum, I'd recommend 200 MHz/32 Mb (PC) or 166 MHz/32 Mb (Mac).

Video: It is ESSENTIAL to use at least a 24-bit color video mode. 32,768 colors (15-bit, or Thousands on the Mac) is not good enough. On a Windows machine, you can set this in the Desktop Properties dialog. On a Mac, you should use the Monitors & Sound control panel to choose Millions of colors (which is 32-bit, by the way.)

Printer: I strongly recommend that you somehow get access to a color laser printer, 600 dpi or better. 24-hour copy stores like Kinkos will often rent time on one. You can try using a color ink jet printer, but you will probably find that the ink does not dry evenly, and that it runs together too much to be useful for printing on transparencies.

Transparencies: These should be the ones designed for the specific printer you are using. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the proper way to insert them into the printer, since mistakes can be very expensive.

White paint: I used Testor's flat white paint, applied with an airbrush. You can probably use any solvent-based white paint, even in an aerosol can. Stay away from water-based paints, as they dry too slowly and may cause the laser toner to lift up.

Sealer: Any polyurethane or other varnish should work, as long as it remains flexible when dry. It doesn't matter if it's glossy or flat, though satin or flat probably come closest to the real thing. I used Varathane Diamond Coat with good results. This can be brushed on, or sprayed, but be careful with aerosol varnish as it may contain solvents that dissolve the white paint underneath.

Other supplies: Boxboard (non-corrugated cardboard) for mockups; hobby (X-Acto) knife or scissors; paper glue (like Uhu) or rubber cement


The way you scan the image will vary greatly depending on the scanning software, but here are some general hints:


Once you've got the image scanned, you'll definitely want to spend time cleaning it up. You'll want to even out the color variations -- particularly around the edges, where the scanner will have been looking at the edge of the plastic. You'll also want to remove any scratches and fill-in and holes for posts.

Before you do anything else, make sure you are in the correct editing mode. In Photoshop, you should be in CMYK mode. Other programs may call it other things, or may only have an RGB mode, but the basic idea is the same: don't limit yourself to a small number of colors. CMYK mode is preferable to RGB because it will only let you use colors that can be reproduced using the four primary colors used in a laser printer (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.)

The next thing to do is to mark where the posts go. If your editor has the ability to create a layer which sits above the main image, like Photoshop does, do so. Draw solid circles using a contrasting color, like bright red or green, in this layer. Make them slightly smaller than the existing holes, because the holes in plastics are almost always enlarged from wear. Besides, you can always drill the holes in the plastic bigger if you need to.

If the original plastic has holes that are not used for anything, you can leave them out of this layer and fill them in while retouching.

Next, you'll want to define the overall shape of the plastic. This is especially important if there is a section missing from it, but it's also very helpful to do right now because it allows you to draw outside the lines and then easily remove the extra pixels later on.

In Photoshop, you define the shape with a Path. This tool allows you to create a series of mathematical curves and lines that form a shape. Since the plastics on newer pinball machines are obviously designed on a computer, you'll probably find it fairly easy to fit these curves, once you're familiar with how the tools work. If you've never drawn with vectors before, I strongly recommend you read the manual that comes with your program.

When you create the path (in Photoshop), be sure you use the New Path command to start with, rather than using the Work Path. This type of path is more permanent than a Work Path.

Once you have defined the path, you can speed things up by getting rid of the extra space around the image. Use the Crop tool to define a rectangle that is just a little larger (by, say, 10 to 20 pixels) than the image itself.

Now select the path in the Paths palette and choose Make Selection from the options. In this dialog, use the settings shown in the picture. Select the command Select -> Inverse from the menus to invert the selection. If you have other plastics in this same image, you will have to adjust the selection using the lasso or marquee tool. Go to Edit -> Fill and tell it to fill the selection with the background color. This will get rid of any extra dots around the image of the plastic, and will speed up further editing.

Now you can start to correct the image. Here are some hints:

Why am I replacing this piece in the first place?

This is a question you should ask yourself. Is it because the original plastic has broken in a vulnerable place? If so, then you might want to look for reasons why this happens and try to correct them.

For instance on Funhouse, the blue plastic atop the Tunnel hole and eject scoop frequently gets broken because the welds on the back of the scoop break and the top of the scoop pushes up into the plastic, breaking it at a place where it is very narrow. The solution in this case is to shore-up the back of the scoop from underneath the playfield, so that it will not bend upward so much. You could also remove some of the plastic closest to the scoop, but that just makes the new plastic weaker.

If a plastic is getting damaged from frequent airballs, look for a nearby spot target that has become bent backward. Replace the target or brace it with a piece of metal from underneath if this is the case.

If the plastic is vulnerable to being broken from having a hole for a post that is too close to an edge, see if the shape of the plastic can be made larger to give a greater distance to the edge. Failing that, consider making the place for the post more of a slot than a hole. (See the image for an example.)


It is a very good idea to do at least one mockup of your plastic to make sure that its shape is correct and that its holes are in the correct locations. You can print this on regular paper using even a black-and-white laser printer; there's no need for color yet. Glue the paper image to boxboard using a glue that does not warp paper too much, like Uhu or rubber cement. Cut the images out, make any needed holes using a hobby knife, and fit the mockup to the posts of the actual pinball machine. Alter the shapes of your plastics and the locations of the holes on the computer image as needed.

Color matching

The most time-consuming aspect of creating images using a computer is getting the printer to produce the same colors as the original plastic. There are two stages in matching colors. I'll discuss the first stage here, getting the computer monitor to match the real world.

One word of advice: if at all possible, try to use the same monitor, lighting conditions, and color matching software for both the computer that you are using to edit the bitmap image and the one that is going to be doing the printing. This will make matching the colors much easier.

Color calibration can be greatly affected by the amount of light in the room. If you have windows in the room, a bright sunny day will cause the real world image to look very different from the way it would at night. When calibrating, try to choose a setup that is an average of the light levels under which you'll be working on the image.

If your monitor comes with color matching software, use it. For instance, Apple's AppleVision monitors come with a color calibration tool that you hold up to the monitor and then compare with color swatches in the Monitors & Sound control panel. Other monitors offer similar tools.

Manual color calibration

If you do not have color calibration tools, you're not completely out of luck. You'll need three things: a piece of white paper, a piece of solid black paper, and a reference to compare with, like a Pantone color book. You may be able to borrow a Pantone book from a print shop or copy store.

Start by adjusting the "white point" of your monitor. Set the monitor to full contrast, and put the brightness at a comfortable level. Hold the piece of white paper up to the screen and adjust the monitor's RGB levels until the color of the paper exactly matches a white area on the screen.

You can adjust the levels in one of three ways: on the monitor itself, through software provided with the monitor or video card (try Display Properties on a PC), or in Photoshop's File -> Color Settings -> Monitor Setup command. The PC version of Photoshop has much better controls than the Mac version where this is concerned. The best way available to me on the PC happened to be my ATI video card which allowed me to set the levels for red, green, and blue by defining a curve, not simply by raising or lowering the levels.

Having defined the white point, you may also have the option of adjusting the black point, depending on what method you have to use to adjust the levels. This is what the piece of black paper is for.

The color reference is for making fine adjustments to the color settings. If you are able to borrow a Pantone book, you can make direct comparisons between it and the reference colors in Photoshop. Click on the color chip and choose Custom. You'll see that the Pantone colors here are arranged just like the pages in the Pantone book. You can hold the book right up to your monitor and make adjustments to the color settings until the two match. Be sure to check various intensities of reds, blues, and greens.

You will probably find that the monitor looks much darker now that it has been calibrated this way, and that white looks more like brown. Your eyes will adjust, believe me.

After you have calibrated the monitor to the real world, you can adjust the colors of your bitmap image so that they match the original plastic. Just hold the plastic up to the monitor and fiddle with the image's color until it matches. You will probably find the controls in Images -> Adjust -> Hue/Saturation helpful here. You can select the areas of the image that are of one color using either the magic wand or Select -> Color Range. All of these tools can take some getting used to, so be patient and remember to use Undo if you don't like the results.


Conserving supplies

Color laser toner is very expensive, as are the transparencies you'll be printing on. Printing a full-page color image can also take a long time for the data to reach the printer. So keep these tips in mind:

Create a mirror image

One important thing you have to do before making your final printout is to reverse the image. In Photoshop, you do this with Image -> Rotate Canvas -> Flip Horizontal (or Vertical).

The reason for this is that we are going to be adhering the smooth side (the side without toner) to the plastic. This is because we do not want the glue to harm the toner. Purists will probably also like the fact that having the toner on the underside of the plastic produces the same sort of "embossed" look on the underside as the original silk-screened plastic.

Color matching

Now comes part two of the color matching saga: getting the printer to accurately reproduce what you see on the monitor. Unless you are working at a professional design house, the printer is most likely not calibrated correctly. Even the age of the toner cartridges can have a significant effect on the color of the output.

Create a small test image (about 2 inches square) that has areas representing all of the major colors in your plastics. Print this out, and be prepared to be amazed if it actually matches the real plastic.

Assuming it doesn't match, it's time to adjust the printer driver's settings. On the Mac, you do this by going to File -> Page Setup -> Adobe Photoshop -> Transfer. The settings here are similar to the Image -> Adjust -> Curves dialog, so refer to that section of the Photoshop manual for more details.

I don't have access to a color laser attached to a PC, but I believe the setup dialog would be in a similar location.

Keep doing test prints until the colors match. If you find that adjusting one color is causing another to vary away from what it should be, you may have to make a change in the image's colors instead. Try to avoid this if you can, though.

When you think you have all of the colors the way they should be, do a printout of the actual image. On the Mac, you have to save the transfer settings to a file and load them into the image of the plastic, because the page settings are held separately for each document. Save at least one full-page test printout for use later on!

Once you've verified that the full-page test image is correct, you can do the final printout on transparency. Be sure to read the instructions that come with the transparency and/or printer concerning the proper way to load the transparency into the printer. Putting it in the wrong way can cause a jam on some printers.

Be very careful when handling this sheet after it has been printed. Toner will pull away from a transparency much more easily than paper, and there may even be small "bubbles" of toner that flake away.


Now that you've successfully printed the artwork, you have to paint it white. For this I use Testor's flat white model paint, applied with an airbrush. You can probably use any solvent-based white paint, even in an aerosol can. Stay away from water-based paints, as they dry too slowly and may cause the laser toner to lift up. Experiment on a test piece to make sure the toner will not be affected.

If there are to be clear areas that are not painted white, you should mask them off before painting. Clear packing tape would probably work for this, but I have not had to do this yet so I can't say for sure. Essentially, it needs to be something that can be removed later without denting the transparency, and cut easily with a hobby knife.

Apply 2-3 even coats of paint, directly onto the toner side of the transparency. You may find it helpful to tape the sheet down so that it will not curl as you are painting. Let the final coat dry for at least an entire day before going on to the next step.

Now you need to seal the white paint and toner from scratches and damage from hot GI bulbs. To do this, use a coat of polyurethane or other varnish. The important thing is that the sealer you choose must be flexible when dry. (Try it on one of your small test pieces.) It doesn't matter if it's glossy or flat, though satin or flat probably come closest to the real thing. I used Varathane Diamond Coat with good results. This can be brushed on, or sprayed, but be careful with aerosol varnish as it may contain solvents that dissolve the white paint underneath.

Let this dry completely before going on to mount the artwork.

[ Contents | Plastic ]

Entire article and photographs copyright © 1998 Dan Wilga. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without permission.