Plastic

Tools & supplies required

The plastic itself: Some people swear by Lexan, but after talking to the owner of a very well-respected glass shop, I decided on regular Plexiglass. Get the thinnest you can; I was able to get some that is 3/16 inch, which is only a hair's width thicker than the original plastic. You will want to buy more than you need, because you're bound to make mistakes cutting it at first. Make sure the sheet you buy has the clear plastic film ("masking") completely intact on both sides. Otherwise, the plastic is most likely already scratched.

Cutting: A Dremel rotary tool, scroll saw, or handheld coping saw.

Drilling: A variable speed drill and variety of drill bits.

Finishing: Sandpaper, a bench grinder, or a small sanding stone to fit your drill or Dremel tool.

Mounting: I have had success with two different products. The first, Liquid Laminate glue, is a product from Signature Crafts. It may be available under other names, but not that I have found. This product dries to a clear, hard surface, much like acrylic.

You can find this product at craft stores like Michaels and A.C. Moore. If you can't get to their Web site, here is the company's info:

Beacon Chemical Company
125 MacQuesten Parkway S.
Mt. Vernon, New York 10550

Tel: 914-699-3400
Fax: 914-699-2783

email: info@signaturecrafts.com

The second product I have used is Varathane Diamondplate finish. This is not an adhesive, per ce, but a hard, acrylic finish for wood and metal. It has the advantage that once it is dry, it is slightly more flexible than Liquid Laminate. It is also a little more forgiving with respect to the amount used.

Misc.: Scissors, hobby (X-Acto) knife, a test printout on paper, rubber cement or glue stick (like Uhu) to mount it, clear plastic packing tape or self-adhesive clear plastic sheets

Layout and cutting

One important thing to remember: Try to keep the clear plastic masking film intact as long as possible. It prevents the Lexan or Plexiglass underneath from getting scratched. If the masking peels away, replace it with packing tape.

Begin by cutting out the image you want to mount from the paper test printout. Cut the edges as accurately as possible. Now select an area on the large sheet of plastic to cut from. If the image you are cutting has a long straight edge, use the finished edge of the sheet for that edge. Glue the paper image to the masking of the plastic sheet, using rubber cement or a glue stick. Other glues may warp the paper too much, distorting its shape. Glue the image so that the printed side is on the top, facing up.

Here's where you get to have some fun: cutting the plastic.

Unless you're using a hand saw, start by making a rough cut around the image. This will make it easier to get in there with the tools for more precise cuts. If you are using a hand saw, you'll only want to have to cut once, so do the final cut now.

If you have a Dremel rotary tool, you can use a cutting disc for straight lines and use the cutting bit (looks like a fancy drill bit) for the rest. Keep the speed at a fairly low setting because the plastic will melt otherwise. Read the instructions: they show you which way to cut (clockwise vs. counterclockwise) in order to keep the bit from "skipping".

When making the final cut, it might be a good idea to go slightly larger than you need to, by a hair's width. You probably won't have a perfectly smooth line, which means you will have to grind down the edge somehow, so you need a little extra material to grind. If the plastic is too small the transparency will hang over the edge.

Inside corners are the hardest things to cut. If they are rounded, it may be easiest to start by drilling a hole to fit the curve. You can then cut up to that hole and not worry about going too far.

Be on the lookout for weak points where your cutting may cause the plastic to break unexpectedly. This is the very reason you bought more plastic than you thought you'd need.

Finishing the edges

After you've cut the outline of the plastic, you'll definitely want to clean up the rough edges. You can do this with sandpaper, a file, a bench grinder, or a small circular stone that attaches to a drill or Dremel tool. I picked up a 1-inch stone at a local surplus store for less than a dollar. I also have a 1/2-inch stone for my Dremel tool.

Drilling

Some hints:

Checking the fit

At this point, you can probably remove the masking from both sides of the plastic (and the paper image with it.)

Test the locations of your post holes by fitting the plastic onto the playfield. If necessary, you can enlarge the holes slightly. In fact, it's probably best for the holes to be slightly larger than they need to be for the posts, since this will allow the plastic to move a little instead of breaking if it is struck by a pinball.

Mounting the artwork

At last, it's time to mount the transparency onto the plastic! Start by cutting the image from the transparency sheet. I find that scissors work better than a knife for this. It's far better to cut toward the inside of the image than it is toward the outside, since this prevents any of the white area around the image from showing on the final plastic.

Cut out the post holes now as well, using a hobby knife. It's easier to do it now than it is later on.

Now you need to make sure you know which side of the plastic is which. The unpainted side of the transparency will be glued to the plastic. So cover the opposite side with clear plastic packing tape or self-adhesive laminating material. Be sure the edges and any areas around post holes are firmly stuck to the plastic. This will prevent the glue from getting onto the top side of the plastic, where it is very difficult to remove without harming the surface.

Trim off any excess packing tape, to within about 1/8 inch from the edge. This will make it less likely for the tape to get stuck to your hands in the next steps.

Dry-fit the transparency onto the plastic to be sure the post holes line up. It's OK if they are a little off, but if they are too far off, you should probably re-cut them now.

Spread a thick, even layer of the Liquid Laminate glue or Varathane finish along the entire bottom side of the plastic. You can see that it forms a uniform "puddle" if you hold the plastic in your hand while doing this and tilt the plastic to reflect the light in the room. Go to within about 1/16 inch of the edge. Try not to go over. Try to get rid of as many air bubbles as you can.

Place the nonwhite side of the transparency onto the Liquid Laminate or Varathane. You can lightly pat the edges of the transparency to make sure it is making contact all the way around, but DO NOT PRESS DOWN. It is very important that you not press on the transparency, because doing so will lessen the amount of glue in between the two pieces of plastic. If you use Varathane as the glue, you don't have to worry as much about it oozing out of the edges, since it tends to hold just as well when there is a little less of it.

You should also try not to get any of the glue on the white side of the transparency, since it will make the surface look less professional. Don't worry about small amounts of it that may get onto the edges of the plastic; these can be trimmed with a hobby knife later.

Drying

Set the plastic aside somewhere where it will not be disturbed.

Now you wait. Because very little air can get in to dry the glue, it will take anywhere from five to seven days (yes, DAYS!) to dry. Be patient. You can test to see if it is dry by gently pushing the white side of the transparency with your finger. If it is not dry, you will be able to see movement in the glue, when viewed from the other side. (You can remove the packing tape after the first day or so, to make checking easier.) If you push too hard, you'll push the glue out along the edges, and this is a Bad Thing. Varathane starts out with a milky-white color which eventually disappears.

As the glue dries, you will probably notice small bubbles forming in it. Drying does mean that something has to evaporate, so this is unavoidable. They really aren't all that noticeable unless the light hits them just right, and you are looking up-close.

Finishing

After the glue has completely dried, you're ready to clean up a bit. Remove the packing tape if you haven't already. You may need to use some Novus #1 to remove any residue, but there really shouldn't be any after only a week. Whatever you do, don't use a solvent to remove residue, as this will damage the plastic.

Check to see if there are any places where the transparency hangs over the edge of the plastic. If there are, trim them off with a hobby knife, to prevent a ball from striking these edges and causing the transparency to peel away from the plastic. Similarly, check for overlap in the post holes, so that the transparency will not be pulled away from the plastic when you place it onto the threaded posts on the playfield.

If, for some reason, the transparency does lift away from the plastic, you can squirt more of the glue between the two layers and let it set again. This is the advantage of having the toner side away from the plastic.

Congratulations! You've reproduced a playfield plastic! (Insert annoying audio clip of applause and cheering here.)

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