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Guide to buying EM, SS and DMD machines


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  • Guide to buying EM, SS and DMD machines

    As a service to our members, several of us have pooled our meagre experience to offer you a guide to what to look for when buying a pinball machine. You will find that there is a lot of crossover information that is valid for any type of machine, however there are certainly areas that require more attention than others depending on which type you buy. Though not definitive, we hope it is of assistance.
    The EM annd DMD sections will join the SS guide shortly
    We anticipate this guide will grow, with pictures, links and further information being added later on.

    Submitted for your the pinball zone.



    Keeping it simple (which is usually the best way to learn about anything), pinball machines can be divided up into three (3) main groups:

    EM’s – electromechanical. They use mechanical switches and electric motors. Scores are displayed by lighting a number on the backglass or rotating reels with numbers on them. Made from the 1940’s to the mid/late 1970’s.

    SS – solid state. They use electronic circuit boards. Scores are displayed on a series of digital numbers. Made from the mid 1970’s until very early 1990’s.

    DMD’s – dot matrix displays. They also use electronic circuit boards but have a dot matrix display that usually displays the scores and some forms of animation in a panel, the most common being 128 “dots” wide by 32 “dots” high. Made from the 1990’s onwards.

    Most of the advice presented here regarding what to look for when buying SS machines is equally valid for EM’s and DMD’s. We’ll break it down into:
    - cabinet (including the backbox)
    - backglass
    - playfield
    - playfield parts
    - electronics.

    The descriptions given below relate to machines found “in the wild” or “as is”, having not been restored by someone with a degree of skill or knowledge. Terminology has been kept simple, as your pinball knowledge develops you will become familiar with the more accurate and technical terms.

    Virtually all machines of this era saw work in shops, arcades, hotels and other places where the public had access to use (and abuse) them. At the end of their commercial lives, many were wrecked and/or dumped by the operators. Only a percentage would be put into storage as it cost money to do so, with others sold off to private buyers. In a nutshell most had a hard life and if the operator was not big on maintaining their machines, showed varying degrees of wear and tear.

    Cabinets of this era had their artwork painted directly onto the wood. The wood itself is usually plywood. Expect the cabinet to have at least some damage. This will usually be in the form of gouges or graffiti through the artwork and into the wood, chips off corners, glued corners coming apart. Powdery paint or faded artwork due to age or exposure to direct sunlight is common. Touchups to the cabinet artwork are not uncommon, ranging from good to woeful. Cabinets may show signs of “planking”, where the top layer of the ply has small splits along the grain of the ply, making the area affected look like it is made up of tiny planks. It will feel rough when rubbed at right angles to the splits. Check the bottom panel of the cabinet, often people will have tried to break into the machine to get coins from underneath.

    Coin doors cop a lot of abuse, many will be bowed inwards (concave) as a result of disgruntled players kicking the doors. Metal side rails are often rusty or dented. The dents often occurring when the backbox has been dropped onto the cabinet, usually when the machine is disassembled for transport. Ask or drop a coin in the machine to see if there are any coin mechanisms in the door. Does the owner have keys for the coin door lock and backbox? Are they present at all? A locked machine with no keys will need the locks picked or drilled out.

    Now is also good time to also inspect the shooter rod, lockdown bar, flipper buttons, coin door inserts panels (20c). Are the legs sturdy? It may indicate the bolts are loose or the bolt holes/screw plates inside the cabinet are stripped. This can be dangerous, to you during play or if there are young children who may climb under a machine. Make sure the power cord is in good condition, check there are no splits in the insulation. Check the playfield glass, look for excessive scratching.

    Backglasses were made by screen printing ink onto the rear of the glass. Heat from the globes behind the backglass often damage the paint as does repeated careless removal of the backglass from the machine . Look for areas of bubbling, peeling or areas of paint completely missing. The easiest way to assess this is if the machine lights up when turned on. Light from the behind the backglass will generally show any areas of concern. Some reproduction backglasses and NOS (new old stock) may be available depending on the machine. Expect to pay anywhere from about $250 - $400 for one of these plus shipping. Second hand backglasses from other machines will cost somewhat less, depending on condition. Factor in shipping and the possibility of breakage during their transport.

    Just for now, look at the playfield, don’t worry about the bits sticking out of it. Concentrate on the artwork, inserts and any holes.

    Artwork on EM and SS machines was protected by a thin layer of various types of clear lacquer (different to “diamond coat” finishes of later DMD’s). To protect the lacquer and artwork underneath, playfields were meant to be kept clean of debris, waxed regularly and old balls that could scratch the playfield replaced. High wear areas are generally located where the ball was present the most such as down near the flippers or pop bumpers. Edges of saucer kickout holes also cop a beating. Additional wear can often be seen around playfield inserts that regularly raise or sink below the level of the playfield causing lips that the ball rolls over and wear. This raising/sinking is caused by the heat of the globes underneath the inserts. Poorly adjusted flippers or worn flipper parts often result in scratches in the shape of an arc where the flipper sweeps back and forth.
    The easiest way to check the playfield is to “quarter” it. Look at each quarter carefully before moving to the next. A bright torch is a good idea if lighting is poor. Have the owner take the glass off if possible so you can physically feel the playfield as well. Look for touchups to the artwork, you can often feel this with your fingers or see it, if it is a poor job.

    Working up from the playfield, have a look at the posts. Are the plastic posts chipped, a mix of different colours? Chipped posts may indicate is has been played with broken or missing rubbers on them. What condition are the metal posts? Heavy corrosion may suggest exposure to damp conditions that may have caused other issues. Check the targets, both stationary and drop. Are they intact or worn? Are the general illumination lights working? No lights could me more serious electrical issues. Now check the plastics. Quarter the machine as before. Look for chipped corners, warped or missing plastics. New plastics and playfield parts are available for most SS machines.

    Consumer electronics was still in its infancy when SS machines were first developed. Unlike consumer electronics of more recent years, these first machines did not always use “off the shelf” parts or used parts that have long since been made obsolete. Repair and replacement of parts can sometimes be problematic. Fortunately, reproduction and “all in one” boards (one board that can run a series of titles by one manufacture by dip switch selection) are now available for the more common manufacturers of SS machines (Stern, Bally, Williams, Gottlieb).

    Things to look for on the electronic boards include acid damage from leaking memory batteries. Probably the most common issue is corrosive leakage from batteries that were used on the main boards (MPU). It can eat into all components, making the board non-functional.

    Poor repair jobs, incorrectly fitted parts (or wrong parts) can also render the machine non-working or not working correctly.

    Connectors between boards can also wear out. The pins lose their tension and may not make contact with the pins of the boards. Sometimes wiggling them will result in a machine working or a working machine not working. Just something else you will have to factor in when buying a machine.

    Do your research before going to look at a machine. Check the internet pinball database for what a machine should look like, how many were made etc.

    Factor in the price of repairs and replacement parts when buying. You may be happy to live with a little playfield wear, a few worn targets or chipped/cracked plastics, but if you want to restore a machine to good condition, it will cost you.

    Listen carefully to what the seller has to say and how they say it. They may have absolutely no idea about pinball themselves and not be able to answer your questions. They may also be a used car salesman and lay on the charm or talk complete crap. If you buy privately, expect no warranty. If buying from a retailer, ask about warranty and repairs.

    If in doubt, ask your fellow members on Aussie Arcade.


    * The most important rule in buying a pinball is to make sure that the asking price is a reasonable reflection of the machines quality. For example $2500 for a fully working Fishtails with sound cabinet decals and plastics is a reasonable price, however a faded and gouged cabinet, a few GI strings out, some non-working switches and significant playfield wear probably drops the price to around $1800. Start a thread on AA and describe the machine you are looking at. Ask the members how much you should be paying.
    *Many items in this list are cosmetic, and do not affect game play. They reduce the value of a machine, but if you are OK with them then you can greatly reduce the price you will pay for a pinball.
    * Pretty much any electrical problem with a pinball can be repaired. There are a number of very good tech's on AA who will do first class repairs on your circuit boards and electronics.
    * Download a manual for your prospective purchase. Manuals for most DMD machines can be downloaded for free at . Having the manual on hand will help you make sense of much of what you see in these guides. Never mind that some of it is too technical, or does not make sense. The manual will help you know your machine once you buy it.
    *Download a rule set. DMDs often have complex rule sets. If you have some idea of what you are supposed to be able to do in the game then you will get a better idea if the machine is fully working when you play test it before buying. Read the rules in conjunction with the diagrams in the user manual.
    *The in-experienced buyer should ALWAYS play test a machine before buying.
    *Do a search on Ebay to see what parts are available for your machine. Also search major pinball parts sellers. If you find a part broken when you go to look at the machine it will be an advantage to know if it can be replaced, and roughly how much this will cost. Not all parts are available as reproductions for all machines at all times. Ramps and plastic parts particular to your game are the most important to find out about.
    * Read the Aussie Arcade thread to see what problems are typical on your machine. If it is not listed, start a thread to find out what you can expect. Again, the manual will help you work this out.
    * Play a good working version of the game from another source if you can. Many Aussie Arcade members have meets. Get along to one and have a game / ask some questions.

    The Cabinet
    *Is it solid and undamaged? extensive damage can mean that it has been dropped in the past.
    * Is it water damaged?
    * Is there damage to the cabinet art and head box art? Replacing these is a HUGE job, although they can be touched up if you have the artistic skills. Machines that are ten (10) plus years old seldom have perfect art and there is no guarantee that you will source replacement decals. In many cases you may just have to live with the art the way it is.
    *Check the translite for damage, especially from burnt bulbs. These can also be difficult to source if damaged.
    *Did the game come from the factory with a topper? Many are cosmetic only, but you need to decide if you can live without one or not.

    The Playfield
    *Is the playfield clean? Pinball's pickup dirt and run it all over the machine, causing damage to playfield art. Most playfield wear occurs because of dirty machines and rusty pinball's
    *Is there visible wear on the playfield? Although this will often not affect the way the machine plays, it is a major factor in the value of the game to a buyer in the know. Reproduction playfields are sometimes available but are seldom cheap. In the end you are the one who needs to be comfortable with the buy, so make sure the degree of damage to the playfield (if any) is accurately reflected in the price of the machine.
    * Check spots where the ball drops onto the playfield, as well as where it is kicked out of holes for wear. May games will have a repair decal available to cover these spots if the damage is common.
    * Check plastic ramps and custom moulded plastics for damage.
    *lift the playfield and check underneath for burn or damaged components. Smell it as well. If a component has burnt you will smell it before you see it (not as common on DMD games as it is with EM or SS games). Also check for hacked or poorly repaired components. DMD games are generally well put together. A hack job should stand out to you, even if you are not familiar with the game in question.
    *Run your finger over the playfield inserts (the clear plastic buttons set in the playfield wood. Raised or lowered inserts will divert balls and make the game play poorly. They are a pain to fix but it can be done.
    *Check for burnt out lamps. Although most are simple to replace, a lot of burnt lamps may indicate that the seller has not taken as good care of the game as they should have.
    *Can you see build up dirt / grim in spots that are hard to get to with a rag? Balls get into every crevice on a playfield and can track dirt up and foul your freshly polished playfield

    Circuit Boards and Dot Matrix Display (DMD)
    *Have the seller open the back box and let you inspect the boards. A visual inspection is a must. Look for burnt or damaged components, plugs and wires.
    *Smell the back box. Does it smell as though there are burnt components?
    * Are there any noticeable repairs that look poorly done? Hack jobs will often standout. Look to see if plastic plugs have been removed in preference to wires soldered directly to connectors. This is a good indication that poorly executed repairs have been undertaken.
    *Look at the battery on the board. Is there evidence of damage due to corrosion from leaking batteries. This is a major cause of damage to pins owned by careless people, or pins that have been stored for a long time.
    * Look for obvious rough fixes like nails as fuses (Don't laugh, this has been seen before)
    * Is there any unusual noise coming from the game? If so, is it related to changes in the DMD picture. This can mean that the DMD board needs rebuilding.
    * Is the DMD complete and clear? No missing lines or faded areas. A display for Bally Williams pins can be bought for $200 or less, but some makes of pins (eg Sega) use a larger DMD which is very expensive. A faulty DMD can be either the glass display or the board operating it.

    General Electronics
    * Most DMDs have built in tests to verify that lamps, flashers, switches and solenoids are working, although it is unlikely that you be able to run through all of these before buying a machine. Read the manual and do as many of the recommended tests as possible before you buy.
    * Turn the machine off and then on again and look for an error report on the DMD. Many machines will report bad switches and problems as part of their boot sequence.
    *General Illumination (GI) in the back box should all work with no burnt bulbs. Strings (connected lines of bulbs) can stop working for a number of reasons but can generally be repaired by a good tech without too much trouble.
    * GI on the playfield (general lamps, not the lamps under coloured inserts) can fail in a similar way. In general they are not too hard to repair.
    *Look for loose or unconnected wires.
    Last edited by furballx; 11 October 2012, 08:00 PM. Reason: DMD Guide added 11-10-12

  • #2
    Thanks Brad. Concise,well written and easy to understand.


    • #3
      DMD section added 11-10-12. Needs a little clean-up right now, but you get the idea
      ************************************************** *******************
      Remember--The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese!


      • #4
        A good start would be to not buy any Moroccan Specials
        I'm a member of the Brian Eddy superfan club


        • #5
          thanks for the link very helpfull.


          • #6
            Excellent advise for someone like me that knows little about these things.
            Thank you.


            • #7
              This is an amazing guide for all first timers.. Wish this was available to me when i fisrt started..

              Sent from my HTC_PN071 using Tapatalk 4


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