Applying the Overlay

First written: Fall 2007
Most recent update: Feb 2010

The overlay artwork consists of three parts:
  1. The main overlay sheet.  This is the large vinyl sheet in color.  Unpack this as soon as you receive it, and store it flat.  The shipping tube may have caused the overlay to 'creep' along the back sheet, and may have ripples when you unroll it.  It is important to let these flatten for the best results.
  2. The black insert text.  This is the smaller sheet with the black text of the inserts.
  3. The white insert text.  This is the smallest sheet with the words U - S - A in white.
Items that you need to obtain:
  1. Liquid to 'float' the overlay for repositioning.  You can use this or some have also used soapy water.
  2. 800-1000 grit wet/dry sand paper.
  3. A cleaning solvent such as Isopropyl alcohol.
  4. Clear high-gloss polyurethane.  I have successfully used water-based polys such as Varathane and Olympic.
  5. A large (20"x40") piece of clear plastic.  Commonly available at hardware or home stores in rolls.
  6. You may also consider a large sheet of mylar to top coat over the overlay to protect it.

1. Research.  I would read as much as you can about applying overlays as you can find with web searches.  Some like overlays to restore machines, others do not.  Decide for yourself.  Some good pages are here:
2. Make your own custom template. The large clear plastic sheet in item 5 above will be used to make a template to guide you with the insert text, and to see how the overlay matches your playfield.  This step is not absolutely necessary, but highly recommended.  Lay the overlay flat and cover with the plastic sheet.  You may need to use tape in the corners to keep the material taut.  With a fresh Sharpie, mark the edges of the inserts that will have insert text.  These are for example, the row of 1X, 2X, etc.
  1. Lay this template onto your playfield, and see how the circles line up.  This step is important!  I have encounterd slight variations from playfield to playfield.  If your overlay does not line up, you may return it for a refund (presuming it is still in original condition).  This is your chance to find out how well the overlay will fit onto your playfield before you go any farther.
  2. Using a pair of scissors, cut open the centers of the circles, but leave the dark line onto the plastic sheet.  See below in Step 4 how this is used.
3. Surface Preparation.  This is probably the most important part.  If the insert text is in poor shape, you will want to sand the playfield clean of all color, and seal with a few coats of clear polyurethane.  Spray application with a can or sprayer is best for large surfaces because the layers will be flat.  After it dries, sand with the paper to give the next layer something to bite into.  If the insert text is in good shape, just sand until completely flat and smooth.  Then wipe down thoroughly with the alcohol.

Space Shuttle playfield sanded down to wood.

Another example of sanded playfield (photo courtesy Dana).

Photo from Keith N.  He decided to paint the area around the inserts black in case some of the wood
will show due to misalignment.  He chose to mask and spray, but I think a good method is simply
painting the wood by hand.

4. Applying insert text.  The insert text is sandwiched between two layers.  The top layer is referred to as 'application tape'.  This is lightly sticky.  Under that is the actual insert text.  At the bottom is the 'backing', which protects the adhesive.

This is a photo of the white insert text artwork.

The proper way to remove the backing is to peel it back while keeping the lettering flat as shown below.  Peel slowly, you want the insert text to stay on the application tape.  If that does not occur, you need to peel back at a sharper angle.

Peel the backing off by keeping the transfer tape flat.

You will find that the U-S-A letters are already at the correct spacing for the three green inserts at the top of the playfield.  Apply the application tape with the insert text onto the inserts, and burnish down firmly to press out all air and cause the adhesive to stick down to the playfield.  Then, slowly peel the application tape away.

Apply the insert text by taping the clear plastic template that you made onto the playfield.  Center the template as best as possible to optimize alignment.  The holes that you previously cut in the template will guide you to precisely center the insert text.  If there is an insert that you forgot to mark and cut, you can still remove the template and add it.  At this step, use a Sharpie to draw in the holes in the playfield that will be cut in the overlay (see tip by Daniel below).  This includes location of fastener holes that exist on your playfield.

5. Applying the main playfield overlay.  Refer to steps on to this guide to perform the installation.  Note that since you used a template, the distance between the insert text will match the overlay's.  This will ensure all the insert text will be centered in each of the openings of the overlay.  Also, be careful pealing the backing off in the area of the  center of the playfield where inserts around the center medallion (by the "SPACE SHUTTLE" insert text).  Once the overlay is installed, you can put the template back on, and find the locations to cut through the overlay for holes and posts.

I recommend applying a Carnauba type wax onto the finished product to polish and protect the surface.  I have tested also Mill Wax, and since the top layer is clear vinyl, the artwork is unaffected by the wax.  When installing posts, be sure to not overtighten them, or do not apply a twisting force in the first few weeks after using a 'float' medium.  This is to prevent wrinkling of the overlay before it has completely dried.  Also, some inserts may cloud up and take a few weeks to clear due to trapped moisture of the float medium.

6. Installing the parts.  When tightening posts do not apply a lot of torque or rubbing onto the surface of the overlay.  Ways to prevent this are to use a washer under the post so that the rubbing occurs metal-metal.  Posts that clamp down by tightening a nut in the back of the playfield (thus down force only) are less of a concern.

Example of wrinkled overlay due to force being applied along the plane of the overlay.

Photo by Keith N.  He decided to Varathane the final product.  This is a photo just after application of
the spray.  It is recommended to apply thick enough to cause a white milky appearance.

Keith N. writes:

I'll send you pics when we're done, but I thought I'd send these over so you can see how I painted around the inserts before I put the overlay down, and there is a (bad) pic of the overlay after it was coated with varathane.   I think it is a definite must do - it makes the edges of the overlay fit seamlessly against the cut out holes - like where the ramp raises shield hole - you would never be able to tell it was an overlay just looking at that area.

installed pf
Photo of Daniel's overlay installed.

Here is a tip from Daniel, who sent me the image above:
One thing I did before attaching the overlay was to place a sheet of tracing paper over the empty table, locate, and label all the holes.  Once the overlay was installed, this was my guide on where I needed to pierce the overlay.

A tip from Ken Carpenter, another person that installed the overlay:

I started by making a custom table to lay the playfield in.  The table essentially has no "top" but has a cutout area for the playfield to fit in flat.  The table has 4 leg levelers in it to adjust so that the playfield is perfectly level, which I leveled with a small carpenter's level on the playfield.

I sanded it completely smooth, and started it off with two coats of polycrylic.

I then applied the Text, followed by a soapy water solution then the overlay.

I could move the overlay around with little effort, and then pushed out all the water.  It took about a week to dry in my hot garage- during that time the clear insert areas went from cloudy (soapy water) to clear with the exception of one are in the "S" part of USA.  For some reason it had a partial area that remained cloudy.   It isn't very noticable, so I left it as is.

Sanded the overlay with some 800 grit, and followed up with Naptha.  Then came the first light coat of polycrylic.  I followed this up with 5 coats of polycrylic applied heavy.  My goal on each coat was to "Spray until it was smooth, not orange peel"  This proved to give it that 'milky' color, which dried clear.  After the last coat I let it dry for 3 weeks.  The end result was very smooth and level, With no block sanding needed. 

I ended with a hand Novus polish with novus #2, and a good waxing (3 coats) with Carnauba wax. 

Then the fun began with reattaching everything!!

I was very happy with the results. I didn't know how the the polycrylic would adhere or look in the end, but I see no issues.  It plays great!

>Question from me:
> How did you apply the insert text?  What I mean is how did you know
> how to center it in the insert.  I ask because the previous person
> that sent me pictures ended up with the text not quite center in the
> opening of the overlay.  As a result, I modified my instructions to
> use a plastic sheet to copy down the location of the openings.  Did you do that?


I used a variation of that.  Instead of plastic, I used a thick tracing paper.  The paper had all my screw holes punched in there as well.

Looking back on this, I don't think there was any other way to do it.  You have to use the holes on the overlay as a guideline for centering the text.  I could have centered the text on the inserts themselves, but the registration shifts slightly once the overlay is applied. 

On another note, I had two triangular inserts that would not line up exactly the the overlay windows.  I think there is some variation from playfield to playfield that you just can't possibly account for every manufacturing tolerance.

By the way, did you notice I used your space shuttle toy stickers as well?  I stripped the stickers and epoxied the holes.  I also used an old PCB blank I had laying around, and traced/cut it to fit the underside of the shuttle.  Then epoxied that into place.  It really stiffened it up.  Then I lightly sanded the shuttle, and used the Krylon white for plastic paint.  Applied the stickers, then sprayed the whole thing down with a light coat of Krylon triple thick.  Worked well.

Notes from Dana:
Hi There Edward,
    Please find attached some pics during the restoration.  I disasembled all the top parts and choosed to not remove all bottom parts but rather pull the switches and so on down and leave attached. The light sockets and varoius holes i put foam into during sanding and clear coat applications. I sanded down the playfield to be carefull to only remove the paint and found the paint remival a good judge of how much to sand. I applied two coats of clear, applied the text, and then the overlay and cut out the holes with a hobby knife. I did not paint around the inserts prior to the overlay but would consider this to be a wise decision. Most of my inserts did line up with the overlay , with small wood areas visible on extra ball insert, lock inserts, open inserts and 20000 spot shuttle insert. I touched these up with black paint and then applied two coats of clear over the overlay to seal. You would not be able to tell that these inserts were touched up and the results were very good. I only had one text that was placed a little low for the overlay and that was the left spot shuttle insert. After the overlay was finished i began the assembly process.

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