Space Shuttle Pinball Machine Playfield Overlay Project


How it got started
In February 2007, Karl Ruehs (RGP handle is 'Karlzona') put a restored Space Shuttle playfield on ebay.  Prior to that, we had been corresponding about various restoration ideas, but the auction's photos were the first time I saw the result.  They looked so good, I decided to ask him for a scan of the playfield.  This is something I wished I had done when I restored my Space Shuttle Playfield, but I did not have the HP4600 scanner at the time.  To support this project, Karl purchased an HP4600, which is the same scanner I used for the translite project.  After some initial driver and installation issues, we got up and running, and he was scanning the playfield.


A picture from Karl's playfield auction on Ebay.  It turned out really great.

Ed
This is my playfield, post-restoration.  I think the artwork is really beautiful,
and worthy of saving.
More pictures of my playfield post-restoration.

We resolve to get the best resolution
The artwork on the Space Shuttle playfield measures 18" from left to right, and 38" from top to bottom.  This is a total print area of 684 sq. inches.  This exceeds the area of the translite project by just a little bit (599 sq. inches), so I felt my computer could handle the artwork.  We decided to try to scan at various resolution and file formats to find the optimal settings.  The file types we considered were TIFF (lossless compression, but big files), and JPG.  I standardized on one particular location on the playfield to compare the various images.  The images below are raw scans and have not been enhanced in any way.


The first scan was at 200 dpi and saved as JPG.  Note the pixelated grid lines.
Total playfield file size is about 12 MB.


Increasing the resolution to 300 dpi (JPG) causes a large increase in quality. 
Note the better grid lines and the fine lines in the white bar at the top of the image.
Total playfield file size is about 62 MB.


Resolution increased to 600 dpi (JPG).  Slightly visible improvement.
Total playfield file size is about 151 MB.


One more test at 300 dpi (TIFF).
Total playfield file size is about 256 MB.

From the trials, we could see that 200 dpi was not acceptable.  Also, there appeared to be little benefit to using TIFF format.  I know that is a lossless compression method, but the file size was just so big compared to any benefit.  We finally settled on scanning at 600 dpi, and saving the files in JPG format.


Thumbnail pictures of all the scans. 

Photoshop work
Now came the step of combining the scans and removing defects.  Karl's playfield has an overlay over the middle star base medallion that is slightly different from the original.  There was also a fair amount of fine alligator cracks in the finish as can be seen from the test scans above.  These will be removed during this step of the project.

The scans arrived in ten files, and I started to combine two of them.  The resolution was 600 dpi, and I quickly found this resolution to be impractical.  The Photoshop file grew to 344 MB, and I had only combined two of the ten segments!  Also, rasterising and saving the image took several minutes.  To overcome this, I cut the image resolution down to 300 dpi.  Merging two segments resulted in a Photoshop file size of 93 MB, a more manageable size.


The merged set of ten scans from Karl.  Note that the center medallion is a decal, and is why it looks brighter.

The combined file with all ten scans in separate layers was a size of ~450MB. I then used a 36 inch wide inkjet to print a full scale test print (Test Print 1).  This test print was a special version that was converted to monochrome and then run through Photoshop's edge detection algorithm.  This allowed the features and lines to stand out.  I then backlit the playfield to check how the inserts shine through the test print.  This is an important test to check the location of the inserts on the merged file.  It took a few iterations and tweaks, but I was able to line up everything very precisely.  Once the file was flattened to a single layer, it had a size of 180MB. 


Test Print 1 overlaid onto the junk playfield. This playfield
will be the first target of the overlay.

I started touching up the defects, and quickly realized that the only good way to handle this was to completely redraw the artwork.  This completely eliminates all defects as well as color and pixel noise from the scanning process.  One example is shown below.  Although it is possible to redraw in vector graphics, I think it would be very tedious to do it for these example areas with intricate lines and natural features.  It took one full day to redraw the upper fourth part of the playfield (above the Hubble and the 'T' target).  I only used the following ten colors: Light Blue, Blue, Orange, Red, Yellow, Light Peach (playfield background), Light Gray, Dark Gray, Black, White.  These discrete colors will be easy to replace in one operation with Photoshop tools.


Example of the redrawing of the playfield in progress.

Redrawing the playfield in Photoshop took almost two weeks of of intermittent work.  Work progressed steadily until near the end, when I had to figure out a way to reproduce the gradient dots that are on the playfield.  These occur in two locations.  The first is near the in and out lanes.  The color there changes from red to yellow in a gradual fashion using a mesh of dots.  I could easily have replaced this with a uniform gradient, but it is of course not entirely accurate.  After several days of experimentation and learning how to use Photoshop, I hit on a way to do it convincingly (see below).  The second area where gradient dots are used is in the background, where the color changes from black (space) to blue (sky).


The original scan of the playfield along the left outlane.  Note the gradual change from yellow to red using coarse diamond shaped dots.
Reproducing this proved more difficult than I thought, and it took several days to develop the technique.


The redrawn playfield using the gradient dots as a back layer.  This allows me to replace it later if needed.
Note that the blue is solid.  The grainy texture is due to JPG compression in this excerpt.


The completed artwork.  Every pixel you see here has been redrawn.
Note that the holes in the playfield have wood texture.  In the finished
overlay, they can be cut out, or left in place to cover the wood.

I chose to setup four layers in the main Photoshop file.  The bottom layer is the calibrated merged photographic scan.  The next layer I called 'sky' and is the black to blue gradient using the dot pattern.  Putting it on a separate layer allows the background to be replaced in the future.  The next layer is the main artwork, consisting of the upper playfield and the material on the extreme left and right.  Finally, the center of the playfield is its own layer.  Small sections were cropped, and then redrawn on their own.  Each of these subfiles has many more layers, which are then merged for one paste into the main file.  These smaller files allow easier handling by the computer, and leads to faster and safer saves.  I can also in the future open them again if I need to shift things around, and replace them in the main file.  At the conclusion of the redraw, the main file was about 300MB (~62 Mega Pixels).  The individual sub-files were about 20MB each.

Test Print 2
I ordered a full-scale test print (TP2) on the same translucent backlit material that I used for the translites.  The colors were a little muted as a result of the medium, but still very vibrant.  The intention of using a translucent material was to be able to most easily check the registration of the artwork.  Overall, the colors were the right hue, except the background blue sky was too dark (lower part of playfield background), and the dark gray was also too dark.


Test Print 2 next to the junk playfield.  The dark colors are a bit muted
because of the choice of translucent medium.


I made a simple light table by propping up the wooden playfield plank up on
soup cans, and then inserting a large fluorescent shop light underneath. 
As you can see, the inserts shine brightly through, and I can
check the registration much more accurately than with Test Print 1.

With the above setup, I could much more accurately check the registration.  The errors proved interesting.  Overall, the right hand side of the playfield had to be shifted up, and the left side had to be shifted down.  It was a sort of 'racking', or parallelogram-shaped correction.  The highest error was 3 mm, but most errors were in the 1-2 mm range.  Interestingly, there were many inserts that did not need shifting.  Possible explanations are a slight distortion of the original scan, or differences between Karl's playfield and mine.  After a few days work, the artwork file was adjusted and shifted to line up with the playfield.


April 2011 update.  This test print now hangs in the window of my NASA office and functions as stained glass. 
Afternoon sun lights the print up very nicely.

Test Print 3
For this test, I decided to print on high gloss photo paper for the best color rendering.


Test Print 3 turned out real beautiful.  The colors were very vibrant and
matched quite closely.  Only the blue background on the
lower playfield needed to be tweaked.

Although not really visible in the above image, the colors turned out very vibrant and beautiful this time around due to the choice of printing medium.  To my relief, the shifts to the artwork made from Test Print 2 were verified, and all the inserts matched to well within one half millimeter.  The light and dark grey (adjusted for this print) also matched.  However, I thought the blue background turned out too red.  Suspecting this, included a color wheel along with the artwork for Test Print 3 so that I could adjust and calibrate the printer.  At this point, the Photoshop file is 280 MB.  The print file is 18 MB.


Application of 476MP adhesive to the back of the print to make it self-adhesive.

E-mail from a recipient of Print 3:
Hi Ed, sorry for the delay.  I got the poster, many thanks.  You have done some excellent work there.
 
Thanks again Mick

Test Print 4
Now that I was confident that the artwork file would line up with the playfield, it was time to take the next step, and to print onto vinyl.  One problem with playfield overlays is that they have areas that are transparent, yet have color and black and white in other areas.  After lots of searching and phone calls, I found a printer that was able to prepare an overlay to do that.  The print proof is shown below, with the parts in pink signifying the clear (transparent) areas.

As one can see, there are certain challenging areas.  For example, at the top of the playfield, the letters "U-S-A" are in white color.  They float in the middle of an insert.  The next example is in the center of the playfield, where there are six circular inserts with the white words "Space Shuttle" crossing ink/clear boundaries.  The printer needs to be able to print white ink on clear, or use a multi-layer process, where white vinyl is first used, and then the clear areas cut out and removed. Afterwards, a protective clear layer is applied.  In the case of Test Print 4, the latter process will be used.


A major step forward is printing on vinyl.  The parts in pink will be clear to allow the inserts below to show.

The file with the color artwork was imported into Adobe Illustrator, and the lines to be cut were then drawn in that software.  The finished file can be sent to the printer.

The advantage of using vinyl are two fold:
  1. It allows the use of a liquid to 'float' the overlay while it is drying so that it can be precisely positioned to align with the inserts.  See a link below for such a product.  If paper were used for the overlay, it would probably absorb this liquid, and swell and distort.
  2. The clear parts would not have a 'ridge' that could affect ball movement.  In addition, the clear areas will allow the inserts to be visible with their full brightness. 
The alternative to the latter point is to have the inserts be covered by colored vinyl, but this would darken them in my opinion.  Click here for photo of an Addams Family overlay, also printed on white adhesive vinyl.  However, you will note that the inserts are not clear.  The producer of this overlay is most likely "RnR" (defunct company).

Here is another overlay for High Speed that is of inferior construction.  It was on Ebay in August 2009, and sold for about $190.


Print 4 on adhesive vinyl with clear and color parts.


Close-up of the center of Print 4.  Compare with this view of my restored playfield.

This test print had some small defects: 1) some lettering was on the top of the clear vinyl, which means it would not be protected, 2) the size was 0.8% too large (about 5/16").  This means that some inserts on the ends of the playfield would not line up, and 3) the blue sky background turned out a bit purple in this printing.  A subsequent test print will address these problems.

Test Print V
Test Print V corrected most of the issues above.  The size was perfectly aligned with the test playfield, and the insert text is applied separately.  An important benefit of that is that the user no longer needs to sand the entire playfield to bare wood.  If the inserts on the subject playfield are reasonable, they can be preserved, and after proper sanding to smoothen out the old paint, the overlay can be applied.  The user can also apply the insert text only on the inserts that need them.


Test Print V.  The insert text is now separate.

Test Print 6A & 6B


Test Prints 6A and 6B were done in miniature to try and get the blue sky color right.

I was still not satisfied with the blue sky background, and ordered two small test prints to check the color accuracy.  This was not fully successful as can be seen in the photo above.  The one on the left was too dark and purple, while the one on the right was too light.  The printer then had the good idea of sending me a sample of blue colors on the actual white vinyl with the RGB values written into the samples.  This would allow me to nail the right value to use.


Color sample with the blue Pantone colors and their RGB values printed
with the same printer on the same substrate.  This is much more accurate
than the color wheels I was using in the corners of the artwork.

Print 7
This print is the culmination of a lot of effort to get things right. 


Betcha can't tell which one is the real playfield 8-).

Edward,

I got it today!  I will be sure to sent pictures.  My playfield is sanded, just need to get some 1000 grit for the final sanding then I will coat it and go for the install! The mylar, then re-assembly, testing and ....cabinet next summer.

Thank you!!  It looks great!!! Nice Job!!!!

Christopher K.
Note from a recipient of Print 7

Overlay Installed
I no longer have a playfield to apply the overlay, but below are several users of the overlay that sent me their photographs.


Restoration #1 by Daniel C.  The result is absolutely stunning.  Click on the image for a full resolution photo.

Ed,

I received your overlay a few months back…took me a while to build up the nerve to attempt the task.

As you requested in your custom overlay instructions, attached are a few photographs of the finished product, minus the glass, for clarity.

The overlay was perfect.  Installation was not too bad.  I used a soapy water solution for the placement of the overlay on the empty playfield.  One thing that sorta threw me was all the clear mylar areas had moisture trapped behind them.  But with time, approximately one week, that problem cleared up.

I am very glad that you took the time in preparing your web pages with so much care.  I took at least 100 pictures of mine game while taking the playfield apart, but I seemed to have missed a few areas that became important during the re-assembly of the playfield.  I must have at least 100 hits on your web site.  Each visit answered a question or pointed me in the correct direction to proceed…a thousand thanks!

Again..I want to thank you for your efforts with the overlay.  I bought the machine sight unseen, and was very disappointed with the playfield condition.  With your efforts and care, the look of the game is the same as I remember.

Daniel



It is very gratifying to see another machine beautifully restored (Restoration #1).

Restoration #2: Here are pictures from Ken C., another person that installed the overlay.



Restoration #2: Note that Ken did a better job with the insert text. 
This playfield looks really beautiful.

installed overlay by Andrew
Restoration #3 courtesy of Andrew.  Note the similarity with #1, except Andrew
repainted his bullseye targets for a very complete restoration.  Click
the image above for an overall view.


Ed - The overlay looks awesome.  You helped save an otherwise nice machine from being parted out!  If I can find another back glass at some point I may redo the other one.  I might consider using a translite - I saw you were doing work on them.  I'll see how this goes and may be in touch later.  Thanks, Scott C.



Restoration #4 from Dana in Canada.  Click image for full size.


#5 from Joe.  He will be repainting the Shuttle and targets next.
It looks great already.


I put the overlay on and the game look so much better. I didn’t use the insert text since mine was in good shape except the space shuttle center inserts and I over sanded the stop and score insert. I sanded out the space shuttle text since your font was different than what my machine had. I left the partially missing stop and score as is. I leveled by clear coating my existing field. Almost all of the original paint is still on the board minus what was missing from the wear that necessitated the overlay in the first place.

I’ve got a cleaner unbroken shuttle in the house already, but I’m testing a protector under the old broken one before I install the nicer one. I also have the new T target, just not installed yet. The bullseyes are also going to get touched up. I just got it back together and fully working this evening. If you want to throw those pics on your overlay page feel free. There was also missing paint around the top of the pop bumpers. It looks great now.

Joe


Unit #6 from Greg B.


Another photo from Greg (time lapse).


Overlay #7 from Brian B.  He writes:

Hello Dr. Cheung,

Well, should have paid more attention to the "making a template" for text placement but everything was SO CLOSE I just centered the text on the inserts.

I slid the overlay as far up as I could for the HEAT SHIELD hole (see pics) but it wasn't enough for the angled S-H-U-T-L-E letters.

Skipped the black painting around the inserts part, the original playfield had a few off center mistakes so this didn't bother me.

The overlay was easy for one person to do, used soap & water and it was so thin it didn't take much effort to flatten it out.   

It's not perfect but I had fun doing it, thanks for sticking with your efforts to provide an affordable overlay 

Thanks also for your ramp repair section, worked well for me.
- Brian


overlay from chris
Overlay from Chris G.

Size Reference Information


To compare the size of your playfield with my reference unit:
  1. Place the zero mark at the center of the green "A" insert at the top of the playfield.
  2. Measure to the 'bottom' of the Heat Shield hole at the other end of the playfield.
  3. Mine measures 34 7/8".

Other Overlays
Spurred on by his success in installing my overlay, and the instructions on this page, Daniel C. decided to make one himself for his 6 Million Dollar Man machine.  The photo below shows the installed result.  It looks amazing!


Photo by Daniel C. and the overlay he made for his Six Million Dollar
Machine.

Page 2 of Playfield Page




Links
Project Log
  • February 23, 2007 - 600 dpi scans received from Karl Ruehs.  The ten JPGs total 151 MB in size.
  • March 12, 2007 - Finished redrawing one fourth of the playfield.
  • March 23, 2007 - Finished redrawing the entire playfield. 
  • April 20, 2007 - After a few weeks off from this project to get my Pinbot working, Test Print 2 is done.
  • May 25, 2007 - Test Print 3 done.
  • September 5, 2007 - Test Print 4 on vinyl.
  • October 13, 2007 - Test Print 5 corrects the issues with TP4.
  • November 3, 2007 - Test Print 6A and 6B.
  • November 17, 2007 - Print 7 is done.
  • February 6, 2008 - Installed pictures.
  • August 10, 2008 - Installed pictures from Ken C.
  • December, 2008 - Keith N. reports that his playfield is 1/4" longer than any of the ones I have seen before.  Fortunately, I had a print that was erroneously printed too large that will fit.  As a result of this, the install instructions are updated. 
  • July 2009 - Another user reports the same problem as Keith above.  He too has the playfield with the 'kidney' shaped inserts in the middle.
  • November 2011 - Added sizing information.
  • January 2012 - Switch from calendared to cast vinyl.  The latter is more expensive, but is more stable in size and thinner (from 7 to 5 mil).

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