Restoring a Childhood Favorite (part 1)

Back when I was 6 years old, my Mom used to take me out of school on the 2nd Tuesdays of each month. We’d head off for the local Chuck E Cheese’s because on those 2nd Tuesdays, all pizza buyers got free video games for the afternoon. For a 6 year old boy, this was like walking into heaven! I’d run around for hours playing all sorts of games: Pac Man, Centipede, Bezerk…but my favorite game there wasn’t a video game at all, but a pinball machine built by Williams in 1984: Space Shuttle.

This game rocked my world. I remember playing it over and over and over again. The lights, the sounds, the ball flying around the machine at blazing speeds; there was just nothing like it! It has never escaped my memory as being one of the coolest games ever made.

Sadly, pinball machines have lost their pastiche over the years and are disappearing. Back then there were many pinball manufacturers (Williams, Data East, Gottlieb, Stern, Bally, Sega, etc…); today there is only 1 (Stern).

As a result, I’ve been looking to restore an original Space Shuttle pinball for years. I finally found one worth fixing on Craig’s List a few weeks ago. This is the story of that restoration. Along the way, I’ll give several helpful bits of information I’ve collected  (like what color exactly the cabinet is) for those of you reading this because you’re restoring a SS yourself.

My buddy Erik and I traveled 30 minutes to pick the machine up in a borrowed cargo van. Through this experience I found out that pinball machines aren’t all that heavy, unless of course you have to travel up 2 flights of stairs! Ouch.

To move the game, the backglass comes out by using a keylock at the top of the back box. Behind it are all the CPU boards and some carriage bolts holding the back box vertical. I unscrewed these to get the back box to lay flat on the pinball machine and into the truck we went.


After bringing it into the garage I was very pleased that our trip was successful and the machine powered right up. Everything except the display worked great. That isn’t to say the machine was in good condition though: the playfield was in awful shape with pieces of packaging tape used as mylar in certain spots, several plastic pieces were cracked, mechanical pieces were broken (the plunger for instance), the cabinet had never been cleaned and had collected 28 years of dust. Still, it was SUPER cool to be playing this game in my garage with some friends!

Here you can see years of wear over the “USA” area. A magic marker and packaging tape was used to hide the damage, but it looks awful.

Basically, I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to either a) fix the original playfield, or b) remove ALL the top and bottom components and install a new playfield.

More packaging tape being used to “protect” the playfield. It is now bubbling up and steering the ball as a result. Click to see close-up.

After evaluating the surface thoroughly, I realized that either way, I would have to remove all the components on the top and bottom in order to work on the damaged areas. As I started to take off the top components, I could see that  the damage was much more extensive than I had thought. It was going to take me months of fixing the wood, resurfacing, repainting, and clearcoating the playfield to bring this particular surface back to life. I decided to scour the web and look for either “new old stock” or a reproduction playfield. I ended up buying one of the last reproduction units available from “Classic Playfield Reproductions” ( highly recommended.

Just to give you an idea of how many components are on the BOTTOM of the playfield!!

I began the process of removing all the top components. This actually wasn’t all that hard, just extremely time consuming. I did NOT want to be stuck with pieces everywhere, so I very carefully placed each piece from each section in separate baggies. I also took copious notes on where each piece went, along with snapping a ridiculous amount of photos with my iPad. In short: this SAVED my butt. If you are restoring a pinball machine, please listen to this advice: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING.

With the top bare, I began the arduous task of labeling each of every single wire, solenoid, switch, and screw on the bottom (my wife was very generous in letting me the dining room table as an operating table for a week or two). Unlike the top of the playfield, this was not easy. The top is all pretty stuff; the bottom is where the guts are.

Along the way, I also cleaned every single plastic piece by buffing with “Novus 2” (a pinball industry tip), dishwashed the playfield pieces, used steel wool on each and every metal piece, vacuumed the interior of the game, and repainted areas that were badly scratched or damaged. I also replaced a few things:

  1. all the “rubber bands” and rubber bumpers. You can see the difference in the pic to the right.
  2. the pop bumper components (the metal sleeves, the switches, springs, and bases) and soaked the tops (which cannot be found anywhere online) in bleach to get them back to their original color.
  3. All of the light bulbs (two types: 44s, which I replaced with 47s due to a lower operating temperature and therefore, less power consumption, and 89s).
  4. Finally, as with all the SS pinballs this age, I had to replace the space shuttle toy on the playfield. It was horribly yellowed and cracked. The new one looks much better and is significantly stronger.

In the next part, I’ll show what went into removing all the bottom components, as well as showing the differences between the new and old playfields…