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Keeping classic hobby alive, Greenfield man restores old pinball machines

  • Ben Miner plays one of his pinball machines at his Greenfield workshop. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Diner,” a 1990 game Ben Miner refurbished. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The people in “Diner” rock back and forth with the motion imparted by the player on the machine. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Ben Miner shows a new playfield for “Black Knight,” a 1980 game he is refurbishing. Replacement playfields with protective automotive clearcoat are available for many classic pinball machines. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Ben Miner points out the wiring for a typical pinball machine, which uses three different direct current voltages: 50 volts to operate the electromagnetic flippers; a lower voltage to operate the drop targets, kick out holes, magic posts and other kinetic devices that affect the game; and a third lower voltage that powers the lights. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ



Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2018

Pinball is in the same class of things as rock ’n’ roll and comic books: “quintessentially America,” says Greenfield resident Ben Miner.

He discovered pinball as a child, when it was not uncommon to find pinball machines in arcades, restaurants and bars.

“I liked the mechanical physicality and ingenuity of pinball over videogames from the start,” Miner said. “There are some basics that remain the same on all pinball machines, so you have a baseline familiarity with what to expect when stepping up to one in an arcade. This matters when you are 12 years old and have 10 quarters in your pocket.”

Now as an adult, Miner has turned his old interest in pinball into a new hobby. A cabinetmaker by trade, he has bought four old pinball machines since 2012, which he repaired to look and play like new.

“There aren’t very many places to play pinball anymore,” he said. “If you want to play games that are reliably maintained, the only way to ensure that is to own it yourself.”

Old, made modern

The first game Miner bought in 2012 was “Pin-Bot,” a 1986 model designed around the concept that the whole machine is a robot with whom the player is interacting.

“Nostalgia was an impetus for getting back into pinball,” he explained.

He bought it for $700, a relatively low price for a pinball machine. The seller thought it was beyond any possibility of restoration, so it was considered a “player’s game” rather than a collector’s piece, which was fine by Miner, someone who believes pinball machines are meant to be played.

“I can do some pretty high end (restoration work),” Miner said. “But I also appreciate the attitude of, ‘the game is here to be played.’”

Miner aims to keep games from wearing out, and to make sure they continue to be fun to play. Often, his repairs to his machines would start out small.

“You quickly learn that you need to understand how to rebuild flippers,” Miner said, “and eventually, if you are fussy like I am, you start realizing there is a lot more you can do to improve them and even make them play better than new.”

The problem with classic pinball machines, Miner said, is that they were built to last no more than a few years in an arcade setting. The hobbyist community of collectors and refurbishers, which Miner said has only developed in the last 10 to 15 years, has given rise to industries that cater specifically to the desire for the machines to last longer.

One of Miner’s machines, “Roller Games,” a 1990 model he bought as a pile of parts, was originally built with a weak plastic piece next to the ramp, where it would eventually crack from being repeatedly hit straight-on by balls aimed for the ramp that missed their mark. The problem was common enough that a replacement part made of harder plastic is now on the market.

Similarly, there are companies that sell replacement playfields for popular games, made to look as close to the original as possible, but built to modern standards. Miner bought one for “Black Knight,” a 1980 model he is currently restoring.

“It’s a dead ringer for the original, except they didn’t have automotive clearcoat in 1980. Now they do, so they topcoat everything,” Miner said. Clearcoat protects the surface from the wear of the steel pinball.

He also works with the wiring and electronics of the machines.

“Some people only want to have incandescent lamps, because they’re the purists,” Miner said. “But LEDs consume a lot less energy. … And you can make the colors really pop, because you can get them in any color you want. So wherever there’s a red insert, I put a red lamp. You get a candy-colored glow where a regular lamp would be a little less rich.”

Renewed interest

Miner estimates he spends about 80 hours on his restoration projects, from the initial teardown to reassembly with new parts. Each of the four restoration projects he has done in his Greenfield workshop (where the games also remain for Miner to play when they’re finished) has taken several months to complete. Old games typically require about $200 to $300 of new parts, he said.

Miner is currently restoring a machine for Mystic Pinball, an arcade in Turners Falls. But because of the amount of time it takes him to do a restoration while juggling his full-time job, he typically doesn’t take on projects for other people.

The recent resurgence of interest in pinball, Miner said, has changed the nature of the hobby. Whereas pinball machines were originally built to last only a few years, “now, the market is, there are middle-aged white guys who love this and miss it and want there to be more, and they will pay $5,000, $7,000 to have a brand new game that they will own and keep for however long.”

“That’s also given rise to games that have a much more complicated ruleset,” he continued. “A lot of pinball machines were made to be comprehensible to guys that are half drunk in a bar. The new ones are, they want it to keep being interesting because they know people are going to own it for a long time and they need it to not get boring. … It’s still trying to shoot things with flippers, but where you’re shooting and why and when becomes a lot harder to get right off the bat when there’s a whole strategy in play that isn’t there on an older game.”

But Miner’s hobby is still limited to classic games, mostly from the 1980s, which he calls the “golden age” for pinball design.

“A lot of what happened later was, they would license a theme and everything became movie tie-ins,” Miner said. “I much prefer a game where somebody came up with an idea and ran with that idea, and had to use their design chops to bring that idea to life.”

Playability is ultimately what is most important to Miner, who plays his machines regularly. They’re not just display pieces.

“With car collectors, there are guys that have a beat-up-but-still-running car and they drive it and use it a lot, and then there are other guys who bring the car to a show on a flatbed trailer. They don’t drive it, it’s got mirrors underneath so you can see all the chrome, the engine that’s never had a drop of oil put into it. There are the kind of guys who are that way (with pinball), which seems ridiculous to me, because its entire purpose in life is to be played.”

But ultimately, classic cars and pinball machines have a key difference in Miner’s eyes.

“With vintage cars, you can drive them around, but mostly you have to spend lots of money to garage it and everything,” he said. “With pinball, when you’re done, you can have all your friends over and play pinball. There’s a payoff. It doesn’t just sit there.”

Staff reporter Max Marcus started working at the Greenfield Recorder in March. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at: mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.