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How I built an arcade machine from scratch

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I mixed old hardware with new materials to make a full-sized retro cabinet that fits in a small apartment.

Everything started back in 2013 when I luckily won a starter kit from Make: Magazine with a Raspberry Pi Model 1.

Raspberry Pi kit

Since then, I was looking for something interesting to build, but it was more difficult that I thought.

I’ve almost gave up when I found RetroPie.

RetroPie

This project allows you to turn your Raspberry Pi into a retro-gaming machine. So I made a quick test with some ROMs to check how it worked. It was effortless to have a working retro console with almost zero configuration.

Super Mario Bros. 3 running on RetroPie

It took me many attempts to setup RetroPie to make the most of it, but everything was worth in the end.

Goals

When I had RetroPie running, I realized that I could fit everything inside an arcade cabinet.

I started looking everywhere for cabinets to restore. I only found costly wooden boxes in very bad conditions.

Most of them were:

So I realized that the only way to get the results I wanted would be by building my own arcade cabinet from scratch.

In that terms, I was looking for something that was:

The plans

Right after I defined what would be an ideal arcade machine I looked for some information on how to build one.

I found Project MAME that provides open source plans to build an arcade cabinet from scratch.

Original cabinet from Project MAME

It was planned to hold a PC with keyboard and everything. But it was also a good adaptation from old-school cabinets. The most important feature is that it was made to fit a flat screen inside.

One of the cabinets that came up from Project MAME was this beautiful Paper Mario themed arcade.

Paper Mario arcade cabinet

This maker improved the original plans to use only MAME controllers and to have a larger marquee. He also made available the side art and a SketchUp model.

3D model of arcade cabinet

I only had to modify the width of the original plans by 2cm so the cabinet could fit an old 26” monitor that I’ve already had. The rest was followed as specified.

A model in cardboard

The first approach to test the size and position of the elements was making a 1:10 model in cardboard.

That way I was sure that all made sense and I was able to check if something needed to be adjusted or redefined. Especially after the width modification that I had to do.

Model in cardboard

The model is 17cm height and it was very helpful on defining the size and distribution of the speakers.

Materials

Before I spent money on materials, there was a very important decision to make about what kind of wood I should use: MDF, plywood or particleboard.

I chose MDF, but if I would know at that time how hard is to clean up the thin powder result of sanding, I would chose another material. But in the other hand, it was a very versatile wood: easy to cut, drill and shape.

MDF boards

The materials I used trough the entire project were:

MDF boards (15mm):

Crystal clear acrylic sheets:

Others:

First cuts

After bringing home all the MDF boards, I started drawing the shape in both laterals based on the plans. I’ve also used a pair of compasses to draw the curves.

Drawings on the board

I joined both laterals with paper tape to make only one cut. Then, using a jigsaw, I went from bottom to top. I always recommend to move with caution to stick to the line as much as possible.

Jigsaw Boards after cut

When I finished cutting, I learnt some things:

Sandpaper

I used 80- and 360-grit sandpaper. The first one is a coarse grit for smoothing surfaces and removing imperfections. The second one is a fine grit for finishing surfaces smoothly.

White sandpaper

After sanding all the edges I achieved great results giving a rounded shape to the corners and fixing some mistakes I made during the cut.

Both boards sanded

One of the boards sanded

I later used the 360-grit sandpaper to smooth the surfaces between each paint coat.

Strips

I decided to join all the pieces with strips, glued and fixed with screws. That way I had millimetric precision to position the MDF boards.

I cutted a bunch of 4cm x 2cm pine strips to the size of boards they had to join.

4cm x 2cm strips

It’s not necessary to use glue when you’re already using screws, but I decided to use it anyway to hold tight the entire structure. I’ve also made a bigger hole for the head of the screws to give the strips a better finish.

Holes in strips

I attached all the strips to both lateral boards using #6 x 1¼” golden screws and carpenter’s wood glue.

Attached strips - both laterals Attached strips - top Attached strips - middle Attached strips - bottom

First assembly

I put all the pieces together to see the final shape and size. My first impression was to see a huge fridge inside my apartment, but it was improving as the project progressed.

First assembly First assembly top details

I started by joining the front and back panels with #6 x 1½” black screws but using no glue until I made the final touches.

First assembly middle details

I’ve also installed the bottom cover and attached two wheels to handle the cabinet around. I made a diagonal cut in both laterals to let the wheels lean on the floor when the cabinet is inclined.

A wheel installed Both wheels installed

Monitor

I had a good old Samsung T260n 26” LCD monitor that was perfect for this cabinet. In my opinion an ideal size would be about 23”, but I wouldn’t spend money in a new monitor when I had this one at home.

There was one constraint: this monitor has no holes in the back to attach to a wall mount. But I luckily found an unofficial mount that replaces the original base.

Mount

I installed the mount over a “T” board of 25cm x 62cm that I improvised to support all the weight it could handle.

T support

To make the maths to align the monitor, I made a paper doodle with the size of the screen and installed inside the cabinet.

Paper monitor Real monitor Installed mount, fixed inside structure

Using some strips leftovers, I cut two back supports for the monitor and two triangles to hold the acrylic cover.

Monitor batten supports Acrylic batten supports All the batten supports for the monitor area

Controllers

It’s plenty of controllers available for DIY projects out there. I bought a MAME kit which includes:

I made a little research about button positions in arcade cabinets. I found this complete article about the most common panel layouts.

The author of the article has also made his own distributions based on an average of all the controllers.

Joystick layout

I used a mix between some Sega layouts and tested on a cardboard box.

Controllers mounted in cardboard

I drew the layout for both players on the MDF board and drilled.

Controllers draw in wood Controllers holes in wood - close Controllers holes in wood

Then I installed the MAME kit including both joysticks, 14 push buttons, 1P/2P buttons and the USB board.

Installing controllers Controllers installed in the cabinet

Speakers

I had a Genius 2.1 channel speaker system with wooden cabinet that I bought back in 2007 with my first job. It has an exceptional deep bass.

The cardboard model was very useful to make a first check on speakers size and distribution. Then I used some paper stencils to make adjustments in the actual cabinet to find the perfect spot for speakers holes and grills.

Speaker holes

Besides the speaker system has only one subwoofer, I decided to make two holes to hold a 140mm computer case fan.

Bottom stencils

Attached cooler

Speakers installed

I found generic speakers grilles at AliExpress.com:

Acrylics

I bought some crystal clear acrylic boards to cover the monitor, controllers and marquee.

Monitor cover

After sanding some edges of the acrylic board of 55cm x 62cm x 2.4mm, I attached it to the triangle strips and put some screws in the back of the speakers board.

Attachment to triangle strips Attachment to speakers board

Marquee

I used 2 acrylic sheets of 13cm x 62cm x 4mm to hold a transparent print in between. I attached both sheets with 4 stainless steel clamps.

Marquee

Controllers cover

I had to drill 18 holes in the acrylic sheet of 25cm x 62cm x 2.4mm for the controllers. So I decided to got one extra sheet to make some tests.

It was the perfect choice because the first experience drilling acrylic was awful. The sheet melted down over the heat of the drill bit and gave uneven results.

Melted holes

Then I realized that using water keeps the drill bit and the acrylic sheet cold.

Drilling with water

It took nearly 10 minutes to make each hole, but with a lot of patience I finished the job.

Final acrylic holes

Painting

Paint kit

Wood putty

I covered all the screws with wood putty and sanded until I got a smooth surface.

Putty

Primer

I applied white primer paint for MDF to the entire cabinet. That seals the pores of the wood and set a base color to apply another painting coats.

First coat of base paint Base paint

Black and white

I masked all except both laterals and one of the faces of the controllers board.

Mask in black

Then applied Krylon Colormaster Gloss White where all the printed art was supposed to be placed, to highlight the colors.

White spray paint White controllers

I used Krylon Colormaster Flat Black for the rest of the cabinet:

Black on top Black on middle

Black and white

Self adhesive vinyls

The author of the Paper Mario arcade cabinet made available the side art. I printed it in vinyl and installed in all the white sides.

Vinyl in controllers Vinyl in marquee

Vinyl in left side Vinyl in right side

Vinyl installed in right side Vinyl installed in left side

Finale

The last piece in this 2 years long puzzle were the white buttons in both sides to play pinball games. Those HAPP buttons are connected as an extension of the left arrow of the 1P joystick and one of the buttons of the same player. That’s because every retro pinball game I installed uses that controllers as a standard.

Vinyl and pinball buttons installed in its final form Vinyl installed - front view