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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…


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PEOPLE: Jeff Miller, the Pinball Pimp

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Jeff Miller appears to be living the pinball enthusiast’s dream. The Tampa-based graphic designer-by-day took a life-long passion for pinball and turned it into his own burgeoning restoration business. The self-proclaimed “Pinball Pimp” began turning tricks in 2005, by restoring his own Bally Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and hasn’t looked back—situating himself as one of the go-to pinball restoration artists in the south-east United States. Further, Mr. Miller has recently expanded his Pimping business (as it were): he now supplies the pinball community with high end cabinet stencils for hobbyists to complete their own restoration work in the comfort of their own workshops. The Pinball Pimp stencil store currently offers twenty complete sets of stencils across two different pinball manufacturers, with the promise of many more to come. Judging by the reception from the community, these stencils are of the highest quality, the easiest to use and the most complete versions available on the market. I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Mr. Miller concerning the manufacture of his line of stencils, the restoration business and what the future holds for the Pinball Pimp brand.

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Credit Dot: How long have you been a pinball enthusiast?

00-pimp06Jeff Miller: I have been playing pinball since I was 8 years old, dating back to 1974. I used to play the machines in front of the Danners 5 & 10 Store on Saturday mornings as a kid. I started all this as a hobby back in 2005 when I restored my first pin which was a Bally Captain Fantastic.

CD: What lead to you offering decal sets for other enthusiasts to use in their restoration projects?

JM: I have been designing vector art for over 25 years and stencils for the past 10 years. I knew for a fact that the other pinball stencils available to the public just did not have the quality of artwork and the exacting standards that I designed for my own use. I then decided to start designing my own stencils each time I restored a game and ended up with a nice collection over 10 years. After hearing the constant frustration people were having with the other stencil vendors and all the rave comments I received on my restored machines, I decided to start offering my own stencils to collectors and fellow restorers.

CD: What are some of the deciding factors when selecting a game to make stencils for? Do you take requests?

JM: I usually only put my design time into game titles that are considered more “A” list, or classic, titles people want to restore. It also depends on whether or not CPR or someone else has made a reproduction playfield for the game. I do take request and do custom stencils/work for people as long as they pay me for the design time.

CD: Can you walk us through the process of creating a new stencil set?

JM: The first step is to start with a cabinet which has nice artwork that you can get a good scan from. Taking off the stainless steel side rails and removing the entire coin door and shooter are even better so you can get scans all the way to the edges of the wood. The next step is to scan the actual cabinet, using a flatbed scanner. I scan the cabinet in sections, with some overlap on each scan, so I can weld it all back together in Photoshop as one full-size image. Once in Photoshop I may spend several hours just cleaning up edges of the artwork so I can get it good enough to make separation. The artwork is then converted from raster JPEG image to VECTOR line art which a plotter can cut. Once it’s converted to vector art, the fun begins! This is when I go into my vector program and spend between 8 to 20 hours cleaning up all the artwork based on the full-size JPEG image of the original art… smoothing curves, straightening lines, etc. Once I’m satisfied with the art and have made every tweak, I consider it a master stencil ready for cutting.

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The cleaned up colour separation of Bally Playboy side cabinet art on the left, the final pained product using the Pinball Pimp stencil on the right.

CD: How is a stencil set “cut”?

JM: Stencils are cut on an industry standard, low-tack vinyl paint mask using Roland plotters. The master line art file is sent from a computer to the plotter which then cuts the paint mask with a carbide tipped blade. Artwork is then “weeded” or peeled along with a pre-mask material applied on top so all art stays perfectly intact when applying to the cabinet.

CD: How do the Pinball Pimp stencils differ from those of the competitors?

JM: My stencils are designed from actual scans of the actual cabinet with zero distortion, rather than using photographs which can cause perspective issues, lost detail and sizing to be skewed or wrong. My artwork goes through an entire cleanup process to make the artwork for every single title nearly perfect. I also use a unique registration system which guarantees your 2 color stencils lineup perfectly every time.

CD: Your stencils are all approved under license. What is the approval process like?

JM: You have to have a quality product to begin with, otherwise it will have a tough time getting licensed. I had to go through Planetary Pinball to get my stencils licensed by them. To comply with the conditions of the license, I have to purchase holographic decals and each set has its own unique serial number. The serial number and holographic decal are affixed to a Certificate of Authenticity and sent out with every set of stencils I sell. The serial numbers are also recorded and archived.

CD: For those who have never used a stencil kit before, how difficult is the re-stenciling process? Any helpful hints?

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Detail of the side cabinet art of a Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, restored using a Pinball Pimp stencil set.

JM: The stenciling process is actually not that hard at all. I tried to make it as user-friendly as possible for anyone to use. It’s basically just like applying a large decal. With the instructions and the squeegee provided it should be a fairly simple task. It’s sort of like using lettering stencils and spray paint.

[Ed. Note: Each set contains multiple stencil sheets, representing the different colours used on the side cabinet, coin door area and the head. The backside of each stencil holds a mild adhesive, making the stencil sheets good for one-time use only. If for some reason, an enthusiast encounters a problem when using the stencils due to their own “user error”, Mr. Miller is able to cut a partial stencil set and sell only the necessary pieces of the kit rather than forcing the stencilor re-purchase the entire set. This just another perk of buying from the Pinball Pimp, and should bring comfort to novice pinball restorers and old hands alike. Everyone encounters an “oops” sometimes…!]

CD: What type of paint do you recommend using?

JM: The best EASY paint to use would be Rustoleum or Krylon out of the spray cans. You could also use a water-based paint but I would suggest putting a clear coat on after that for durability. I do not suggest using lacquer paint as it tends to soften the adhesive on the paint mask and may leave residue.

CD: What are some of your pro tips for a smooth cabinet in preparation for re-stenciling?

JM: The best way to get a beautifully smooth cabinet is to strip the entire cabinet down. The more you can take off the cabinet, the easier it will be once you get started sanding and filling. I either sand or chemically remove all we old paint from the cabinet down to the bare wood. I usually fill all of my nicks and scratches with Bondo and then sand smooth. I may repeat this process 2 to 3 times in order to get a cabinet baby smooth. Once this is done, I spray the base coat color on the cabinet, which may require 2 to 3 coats, which should result in a very smooth paint job. The smoother the surface the better the stencils will work.

[The following gallery is a selection of cabinet art restored using Pinball Pimp stencils.  An extensive gallery can be viewed by following this link.]

CD: For a typical cabinet, how long will cabinet re-stenciling take, giving curing time for the separate colors?

JM: Once your base coat is dry and you are ready to use your stencils it only takes a few minutes to apply the stencil. It actually takes longer to tape the cabinet up to avoid any over-spray. Depending on which paint you use, and dry times, I usually let the first color dry for a day or 2 before spraying the second color.

CD: Is the sky the limit for Pinball Pimp stencils? Do you foresee an exhaustive line of stencils across all pinball manufacturers?

JM: As long as there are guys out there who want to restore these old classic machines, I will keep trying to design as many classic titles as possible. I’m in the process now of getting the license from Gottlieb to start selling stencils for all of their classic titles as well. I would love to be the curator of all pinball stencils.

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An example of a serial number stamped directly onto the left side of a Bally cabinet. This one from a Nitro Ground Shaker, which resides at the Vintage Flipper World in Brighton, MI.

CD: An ethical question, of sorts. Late-1970s and early-1980s Bally games have the serial numbers stamped directly into the side of the wooden cabinet. Should a restorer fill and sand these numbers when preparing the cabinet for a re-stencil, effectively erasing the unique identification numbers, or should one leave the indentations as they came from the factory?

JM: I think this depends on the individual. When I do high-end restorations, nearly half of the parts are new reproductions anyway, so I usually fill in the stamped numbers. When the final machine is done, everything is beautifully smooth. I also add a pinball pimp certificate inside the machine with a serial number of 00001, since I basically rebuilt the entire machine from scratch. The way I look at it, it is basically born again.

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A Pinball Pimp “Restoration Certificate”, included on the inside of the cabinet of each game that is made whole again by Mr. Miller.

CD: Stencils are just one part of your “Pimp” business. What kind of restoration work do you undertake?

JM: I restore machines from the mid-70s all the way up to complete decal jobs of the newer WPC games. This all includes playfield swaps, playfield touch-ups, powder coating, chrome and nickel plating parts–the COMPLETE start to finish restore process!

CD: What are some of the most memorable, or most difficult, restorations you have ever tackled?

JM: The most memorable was the full restoration of my 1976 Bally Capt. Fantastic machine. This being an EM machine, I disassembled every hardware mechanism in the lower cabinet, rust dipped and polished, and installed all onto new wood which was painted to match the cabinet color. A very daunting task if you know how many parts are in a 4-player Bally EM. Mind boggling!

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Detail of a stunning Gottlieb Target Alpha, after receiving a full Pinball Pimp makeover.

CD: Do you rely on restoration projects brought to you by customers, or are you surfing Craigslist for broken-down restoration candidates to fix and flip?

JM: Back when I first started in 2005 used Craigslist to find all of my pinball machines to restore. Since the pinball “resurgence” has taken over, it becomes harder and harder to find decent machines and deals on Craigslist. At this point I have enough customers across the country to where most people just send me their machines to be restored.

CD: For solid state games, do you perform your own board work as well?

JM: I do some of my own solid-state work if it’s simple, but more difficult tasks I leave to a friend who is an electronics master. Some clients have me replace they are restored machine with all new boards if they are available.

CD: You also maintain a close relationship with Classic Playfield Reproductions. What work have you done for them over the years?

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Detail from Mr. Miller’s work on CPR’s Fireball backglass repro, available now.

JM: I’m not currently working on any projects for CPR at the moment since I have my hands full with my own businesses. I have designed four artwork packages for CPR in the past: the plastic sets for Williams Comet and Bally Bobby Orr’s Power Play, the speaker panel for Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Bally Fireball backglass which is one of CPR’s latest releases.

CD: Is this a full time job for you, or just a part-time hobby? Moreover, do you describe yourself as a businessman or an enthusiast?

JM: What started out as a hobby 10 years ago has basically turned into a full time, second business. I’m still a top level, graphic designer/artist and do freelance work for Samsung and other large companies, but still love the pinball business end of it most.

CD: You are based in Florida—how would you describe the present pinball collector scene in the Sunshine State?

JM: I am based in Tampa, Florida and have been here for 25 years. I’m originally from Columbus, Indiana. I think the collector scene in Florida is probably as good as it is in any other state. Although, I don’t think as many older classic games migrated to Florida—most are still up in the Midwest, in the Pennsylvania and Chicago areas. The migration of games to the California market hasn’t been replicated on this coast, for the most part.

CD: How did you come about the moniker “The Pinball Pimp”?

JM: Around the time I started restoring pinball machines, I remember watching the TV show “Pimp My Ride”. Being in design and marketing my entire life, I thought it was a catchy and easy name to remember. Since my restorations always involved being a little over-the-top with custom accents and exacting detail, I considered my restored machines as being “PIMPED”–hence the name: Pinball Pimp.

CD: What games are currently in the Pinball Pimp collection?

JM: My collection has changed a little over the last 10 years, working towards my ultimate lineup of games—including some buying and selling along the way, obviously. My modern collection contains a Williams Funhouse, Williams Fish Tales, Williams White Water, Bally Creature from the Black Lagoon, Williams No Fear, Williams Tales of the Arabian Nights and Stern AC/DC Luci. My classic collection includes a Bally Capt. Fantastic, Bally Eight Ball, Bally 6 Million Dollar Man, Bally Playboy, Bally Eight Ball Deluxe, Bally KISS and Bally Fathom.

CD: Any closing comments to enthusiasts who may not have the nerve to tackle a re-stenciling project?

JM: Re-stenciling a pinball cabinet is not that hard when using my stencils if the instructions are followed properly. It’s not a weekend warrior project that you’re going to get done in a few hours. The more time you put into the project the better the result. More importantly, it’s about having a passion wanting to restore your cabinet back to its full glory! I guarantee if you take your time and do it right your end result will be a beautiful cabinet that you will be proud of.

Further Reading:

Pinball Pimp Restoration, Sales & Service – Homepage
Pinball Pimp Cabinet Stencils – Homepage
Pinball Pimp – Pinblog
Classic Playfield Reproductions – Creature from the Black Lagoon Backbox Speaker Panel
Pinside – PINBALL PIMP – Bally STRIKES and SPARES – Museum Restoration
Pinside – For sale: PINBALL PIMP CABINET STENCILS – AVAILABLE NOW!
Pinside – Twisted Pins Stencils are Garbage
Tampa Bay Times – In Tampa, Two Pinball Wizards Work to Restore their Hobby, January 7, 2010

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REVIEW: Pop Bumper Showdown, Part 3: The Wrap-Up

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Part One, featuring BriteMods, can be found here.  Part Two, featuring Comet Pinball, can be found here.

I don’t think there is a clear cut, flat out winner in the Pop Bumper Showdown. Like Art from Comet Pinball is known to say: it all comes down to personal preference. Different games call for different lighting solutions. Pin*Bot will be keeping a set of Comet’s 6LED Crystal Fans installed, paired with a set of Dennis Nordman’s sparkly pop bumper “thingies” (see below). The Comet fan offers a more traditional feel–the upper bagatelle playfield that lies atop the Pin*Bot pop bumper nest calls for a less harsh lighting option than the SMD rings and discs provide. As far as non-traditional pop bumper options go, I would recommend either Comet’s Pop Bumper Rings or BriteMods’ BriteCaps EVO. Both look fantastic installed, and both light the playfield beneath the pop bumpers (by way of bottom mounted SMD lights) which is a major selling point for both of these lighting options. The interactive flashing of the centre SMDs on the EVO is a nice touch, but in itself does not make the EVO a clear cut winner. The Comet rings just look darn cool and really pop, so much so that pinheads and non-pinheads alike have been marveling at the rings installed in my Mousin’ Around (its yellow pops are smack dab in the centre of the playfield and are now bright and bold thanks to the Comet touch). The Comet rings, however, may have a few points deducted because of installation issues (I had one short out on me, thanks to user error in test). The BriteCaps EVO lose points for the possibility of fit issues in areas with tight clearance, an issue I ran into on Pin*Bot during test. When all is said, the price really sets these options apart. If you want a great looking non-traditional lighting option at a great value, choose the Comet rings; if you want a total light experience with build quality akin to a Sherman tank and money is not a factor, go with the EVO. A clear cut winner is difficult to choose, given that, in the end, one man’s eye candy is another man’s eyesore.

All of the games that I used on test had pop bumpers with static lighting. Pin*Bot, Rollergames, Mousin’ Around and World Cup Soccer ’94 have pop lighting that is either on or off without the aid of computer controls. I attempted to test all of the available options in Funhouse, which has computer controlled lighting, and it was an utter failure. All of the options suffered from ghosting and leakage. The small amount of voltage present in the line which is burnt off by the incandescent without lighting the bulb is actually enough to fully light the lower voltage LED/SMDs. The newer technology doesn’t contain enough resistance to eat up that lingering voltage. In Funhouse, the SMD rings and discs were lit when they were not supposed to be, and even when one pop bumper was trying to behave normally, it still flickered and ghosted something awful. An LED OCD board would do the trick here, however, a two hundred dollar solution to a ten dollar problem isn’t something I’m willing to consider.  I’ll stick with incandescent bulbs in the Funhouse pops for the time being. This should serve as a word of warning to those wanting to mod games with computer-lit bumpers (it’s mostly Lawlor games, lets be honest).

Those Sparkly Thingies

00-pbwrap04The name itself is ridiculous: “Nordman’s Sparkly Pop Bumper Enhancement Thingy”, but it really does wonders in a pop bumper. I used them to bolster the look of Comet’s traditional LED choices in Part 2 of the review with fantastic results. It’ll come as no surprise from the name, that the little plastic disc was designed by famed pinball designer Dennis Nordman. The beauty of the design is in its simplicity. The plastic nests into the pop bumper body, and its sparkly design does a good job catching and reflecting light. Furthermore, it covers up the ugly guts of the pop bumper giving it a more clean look overall. The discs work great with a traditional 555 incandescent bulbs but really stand out when using a Comet bulb that directs light, such as the 6SMD Crystal Fan. It is a winning combination. The design is simple, and to be honest, can be easily replicated in your home workshop with a piece of Lexan and a roll of foil gift wrap. For those less inclined, the discs are available through Pinball Life for $2.95USD per “thingy” and are well worth the money…even though spending nearly ten bucks for a set of three pieces of plastic sounds kind of ridiculous!

Where’s CoinTaker?

Conspicuous by their absence in the Showdown were products from CoinTaker, but I’d like to give them some attention here in the wrap up. Their pop bumper-specific product is called the Afterburner, a disc-like lighting option akin to Comet’s disc. I was not able to do a full scale review of the Afterburner, as the products I bought for test, to be frank, blew up. I installed a red Afterburner in Pin*Bot as I did with the other lighting options, and when I gave the machine power, a loud pop was heard followed by smoke and that concerning smell of burnt plastic components. I feared the worst, obviously. Taking out the Afterburner, I noticed one of the components on the Afterburner was completely obliterated. I replaced the Afterburner with a Comet LED and (thankfully) there appeared to be no permanent damage to the game itself, however, the Afterburner was toast. I thought user error might have played a part, or even faulty wiring in my game, so I tried to install the remaining two Afterburners in both Rollergames and Elvira and the Party Monsters. However, the same meltdown results occurred to the Afterburner, which points to an error in the CoinTaker design, or a bad batch of components. I have emailed CoinTaker about the issue, but as of writing, I have received no response, explanation or replacement. I was informed that the red Afterburners used in the Pin*Bot test were a newer version of the product which boasted non-ghosting technology. I tested out an older version of the Afterburner in white, apparently without the non-ghosting technology, in my World Cup Soccer ’94, and it lit up just fine. I’m awaiting CoinTaker’s final word on why a set of their Afterburners went up in smoke in three different games of mine. The look of the Afterburner, once I got it lit in the WCS94, is very similar to that of Comet’s 11-SMD disc. Both products carry the same lighting pattern and come in a similar color palate, but the main difference is that Comet’s disc can have its brightness adjusted via an adjustment screw, whereas the CoinTaker Afterburner cannot. The price really sets the products apart: the Afterburner is $4.99USD for white but if you want colour you’ll have to pay $1.00 more (!) while the Comet disc is $4.95USD each across the board. The brightness adjustment feature and value give Comet the upper hand over the Afterburner.

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CoinTaker’s 4/1LED bulbs.

CoinTaker also carries a pop bumper light that I was not able to test, which contains four side SMDs and one on top. I was able to test the forerunner to that 4/1SMD, which is essentially the same lighting layout, except using LED technology. I tried to locate this product on the CoinTaker’s new website, but could not.  I did, however, find the product here on the old CoinTaker website. The 4 perimeter LEDs actually did a good job lighting up the pop bumpers without being too harsh on the eyes, allowing the bulb to be a viable alternative to anything sold by Comet.  Check the picture below where the two right pops contain the CoinTaker4/1LED in green and bathe the area in a nice green hue.  I cannot speak to the SMD version of the bulb, but both the SMD and the LED versions have a price comparable to that of Comet’s “Crystal Fan” option.

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Left pop bumper contains a warm white CoinTaker Afterburner, the right two contain a CoinTaker 4/1 LED.

As you can see, my attempt at reviewing CoinTaker products kind of fell flat and was an overall disappointing showing from a traditionally cutting-edge leader in the hobby. I don’t base that statement solely on the faulty products I received from the company, either. For a long time, CoinTaker was the only lighting game in town, their name synonymous with pinball lighting alternatives. CoinTaker LED kits used to be the gold standard in modding and was major selling feature for games that had them installed. However, with the emergence of Comet LED, BriteMods and other pinball lighting companies, it appears to me that CoinTaker has not stepped up their game to match or exceed the ingenuity, value and choice being offered in a cutthroat lighting market.

WINNERS!

To end on a positive note, the random winners of the BriteMods contest are Katie C. and Stephen L. Katie C will receive a set of BriteMods BriteCaps EVO and a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. Stephen L will get a set of BriteMods BriteButtons. The winners of the Comet Pinball contest are Josiah C. and Tony L. Both winners will receive a prize pack including some of Comet’s pop bumper lighting solutions as well as other Comet goodies. Thanks to the great people over at BriteMods and Comet Pinball for their generous donation of prizes! Thanks to all who emailed in—the response was overwhelming. I guess everyone loves free stuff!