When first started as a pinball operator I had no idea how to fix pinball machines. The inner workings of pinball machines were a total mystery to me.
I laugh about it now, but back then I didn’t even know how to replace a burnt out bulb. I was even afraid of damaging the machine if I even tried to clean the playfield!
Instead I relied on a great pinball repair guy I’d known for ten years. He was great, often making repairs the same day. The problem of course was the cost of labor.
After a few months it became clear the machines were modestly successful. I realized that I was running a real business, and I had to start treating it like one. That meant not using contractors unless it was a last resort.
Learning to repair pinball machines
I couldn’t support an employee, so I had to learn how to do pinball repair and maintenance myself. I started slow, taking on the common, basic things. Clearing coin jams and cleaning the playfields helped me get comfortable. Every time a problem came up, I tried to figure it out myself.
I found the process quite fun, and it took up most of my free time in the evenings reading up on pinball tech. Before long I was correctly identifying problems. After a few months I was able to handle most of the repairs myself. Because I had spent so much time learning about other people’s mistakes, I made less of them myself.
I learned almost everything from two places: Pinside and YouTube.
Pinside is an incredible resource. Often just searching the forum turns up the exact solution to your problem. If not, posting to the forum gets quick answers from great people. The community is great. They helped me diagnose problems, pointed me at resources on the web, and have been just hugely supportive.
YouTube was also very helpful on tutorials. Being able to watch someone taking flippers apart makes learning easy.
The process of learning how to repair and maintain pinball machines has taken more than a year. At this point I can fix nearly everything that can go wrong with a pinball machine. I haven’t yet learned how to repair bad transistors or do other board repairs, mostly because I don’t have a good enough soldering station. I’m sure I’ll learn that soon!
How much time does it take?
Of course, doing my own pinball repair and maintenance takes time. I think right now it is about an hour per week per machine. But I’ve found that I really like working on pinball machines. The non-pinball ‘normal’ work I do is very challenging. Working on a pinball machine is relaxing and helps me recharge. It’s quite nice to take an extra 15 minutes at lunch and clean up a pinball machine, or do a couple of hours of work in the evening to keep a machine tuned up.
And I think that’s the biggest gain – spending more time on maintenance. The machines are breaking less than they used to, despite being used more.
I find that I quite like being a pinball operator. While you are working with the playfield up it’s like a magic people magnet. Folks rarely see the underside of a pinball machine and they stare in wonder at all the wires. Even with just the glass off or the coin door open people come up to you and ask questions. I love hearing that enthusiasm for pinball. Many times I’ve been thanked for keeping my machines working and clean (just today in fact!), and that’s a great feeling.
Have I saved money doing it myself?
Yes, but it took quite a while to realize the savings.
At first all the savings I made in contractor labor was offset by the tools, tool cases, storage boxes, and spare parts I’ve had to buy.
But at this point most of that investment is behind me. I go on site, I have the right tools, I generally know how to fix a problem, and I often have the spare part I need to fix it.
This year have I only had to call in a repair expert a couple of times. And twice I’ve had to have boards sent out for repair. I still have significant ongoing expenses with parts, which I’ll also write about another time, but I’ve been able to channel a lot more money to buying pinball machines!
I can see a time when it makes sense as a pinball operator to have someone help with maintenance and repairs as I add more machines. When I open my own barcade/pinball museum that will be a priority.
Looking back, I should have learned to do the work from the start instead of relying on a contractor.
Next I’ll write about some of the things I’ve had to overcome on my path to being a great pinball operator.