Space Shuttle Pinball Machine Playfield Overlay Project (Page 2)

Page 1 here

A Different Approach: Direct Ink

The advent of flatbed UV curable ink electronic printers such as the Colorspan 9840uv has brought about the possibility of printing the artwork directly onto the playfield plank.  Thus instead of first printing onto a multi-layer piece of plastic, the artwork is completely sanded off the old playfield, and it is then directly used for printing.  John Greatwich decided to develop this process, and I sent my old playfield along with the modified artwork file to attempt the Direct Ink method.  My only cost was the shipping of the playfield to him.

His first operation was to sand all the old artwork off, and to level the surface.

The playfield, that was used for the overlay calibration
and test printing, sanded smooth.

Once all the old artwork was removed, a white layer needs to be applied.  This is because most printers rely on printing onto a white substrate, and as a result do not print the color white.  I prepared the artwork for this layer in Adobe Illustrator, by taking the Photoshop artwork, and drawing the outlines for all the parts that are not to have white.  A machine then takes this file, and cuts out vinyl stickers that are applied by hand to all the inserts.  John then sprayed a white layer from a spray can, and then removed the masks.  The result is below.

Step 2 is to mask the inserts and spray the white layer.

Once that is done, the playfield is ready for the Colorspan 9840uv printer.  The playfield is screwed down onto a plywood frame for stiffening, and run through for printing.

The Colorspan 9840uv flatbed printer.

The resulting product is shown in the image below.

The printed playfield at the next step: white letters.

One problematic aspect of the Space Shuttle playfield is that it has white lettering in two places: one in the U-S-A inserts at the top of the playfield, and the second are the "Space Shuttle" words around the center medallion.  These are applied after the Colorspan has printed the artwork, and is done by masking and respraying with the white Krylon paint.  The image below shows the finished playfield.  It is now ready for clearcoating to protect all the paint layers.

The printed playfield as shown at Pinball Expo 2007.
Note the misalignment of the "USA" inserts at the top.

Unfortunately, at this point in the experimental process, John hit a big snag.  When the above playfield was clearcoated with automotive clear, the UV ink was affected, and the print was damaged. 

The solution was to first clearcoat the UV print with water-based Varathane, and then applying the automotive clear.  This mishap was a blessing in disguise as the first print had a misregistration at the top of the playfield (near the "USA" inserts).  Since the application of the white masking is a separate manual process, it is possible to get misregistrations between that and the color layers.

I sent John another file with the top part skewed over (based on photos of the above), and the reprint did not have the problem (composite photo below). 

12/09 update.  I adjusted the artwork and John reprinted
the playfield.  Registration is now much better.  Click
image for full size version.

With the printing done, John was able to perform the clearcoating without problems this time, and after almost three years of waiting, I finally received the playfield on April 23, 2010.  The pictures below show how nice it looks.

First, the clearcoat layer is excellent.  John did a good job with the auto clear.

In his words, this is the process that John used:

Sanded playfield gets 2 coats varethane, mask & spray white auto acrylic
white high gloss (rattle can Sherwin Williams), 2 coats varethane,
printer inks with color span 9840uv printer, 3 coats varethane, & 2
coats of finish DuPont!

Here is the middle of the playfield.  The quality of the print is excellent.  Very sharp and
clear.  The entire playfield is wonderfully flat with no edges on the inserts.
I am quite proud of the artwork file that was printed.

Sections of the playfield.  Click for full res version.

The two playfields side-by-side.  Click for full resolution.
(Note the autographed plastics on the machine).

For now, the playfield will be used as artwork for display in my home.
It just looks really good.

I want to thank John Greatwich for his perseverance, dedication and
hard work during this experiment.  He has produced a means to
restore playfields to their original appearance using modern
technology.  The result is a beautiful playfield.

Project Log
  • July 28, 2007 - Sent old playfield and file to John for printing.
  • July 2009 - It has been two years, and John has hit a snag with the quality of printing and the registration accuracy.  He has now moved onto printing glass for backglasses.  It appears this printing process is not viable.
  • December 2009 - John has decided to try again with Direct Ink onto playfields.
  • April 2010 - I finally receive my playfield back from John, and it has been beautifully restored.

Another Approach: Playfield Remake
Another company, located in Canada, has jumped into the playfield renovation process, and has started to actually remake new playfields, backglasses, and plastics.  They are Classic Playfield Reproductions, and have produced playfields such as Black Knight, and Xenon.  One innovative idea that they have is to allow anyone outside the company to submit artwork.  Everyone benefits : the outside participants get compensated for their work, CPR gets to sell the product, and the community has these valuable pieces available. 

Artwork is submitted in vector format, instead of raster.  This allows artwork to be infinitely enlarged without problems.  A common software for this is Adobe Illustrator.  Since my knowledge of this software was poor, I decided to join forces with Cameron Jensen, and we started to redraw the Space Shuttle playfield.  

The playfield is printed with the authentic silk screening method.  This allows very saturated inks to be used with the 'true' color.  This is superior to "process color" methods used by four color ink printers (such as the Colorspan 9840uv).  As a result, the artwork needs to redrawn in separate layers, each layer representing one screen.  Our artwork file has over ten layers, and includes the calibrated Photoshop file.  Having this latter file made the redraw process much easier, and we surprised Kevin Wayte (from CPR) with the speed of our progress.

Animated GIF showing the various layers of the Illustrator file. 
The pink layer represents the bare playfield.

The above animated GIF shows the various layers.  The layer representing the bare playfield wood plank is pink/fuschia.  As a result, at the end of the printing process, the remaining pink areas is then exposed inserts and bare wood.

The layers are printed from light to black, and are as follows:
  • Pink - the bare wood
  • White
  • Light Yellow - for the areas under the plastics and the main ramp.
  • Yellow
  • Light Blue
  • Light and Dark Grey - combined into one layer here for file size
  • Orange
  • Red
  • Dark Blue - mainly the sky in the lower playfield
  • Black - the upper playfield space background, and all the artwork lines.
Note that the artwork creation process needs to take into account the potential slight misregistration of layers.  As a result, colors 'undercut' each other to avoid gaps that would erroneously show the bare wood.  Each of the layers are therefore hand drawn.

One area of considerable effort was what I called the 'gradient dots'.  This was of some difficulty in the overlay as well, and Cameron was able to find a way to define a series of dots with increasing size.  This ballooned the size of the Illustrator file from ~2MBytes to 8MBytes, but there is no other way to transition color gradually when using silk screening as the printing method.  This is shown in time image below.  Each object has been 'selected' causing an outline of it to appear.  One can see that the dots are individual circles in the file.

Close zoom of the ball lock area shows that the gradient dots are
individual objects.  This drastically increased the size of the file.

playfield being
In the Fall of 2011, the playfields started to be printed.  This is an image
of the layers without black.

Click here for a YouTube video of Space Shuttle being printed (Sept 2011).

Mike at CPR posted the following note on 9/14/11 regarding their progress:

Ok, it''s not exactly a Hollywood Blockbuster but we think it's pretty cool. Space Shuttle seemed like a cursed PF.

The original holes were cut slightly too small which meant none of the inserts fit. Each and every PF had to have each and every insert hole and GI bulb hole sanded out by hand using a dremel. We went through nearly 400 3/8" little sanding drums! Then we had many of the lips the inserts sit on cut to the incorrect depth, too deep and the inserts slipped below the surface and had to be removed and replaced. Too high and the drum sander basically sheared them off and they had to be removed and replaced. Lots and lots of removing and replacing! There were hundred of inserts that had to be replaced along the way and that was after each and every hole had to be size corrected!! In all there were hundreds of hours spent fixing these cutting errors.  But the nice thing is that we have encountered all these problems before on previous PFs but other than Flight 2000 we had never seen these problems in these numbers! Our past experience allows us to repair almost anything that happens to a PF because, well because you have to. The wood is dear and the inserts that are glued in properly cannot easily be replaced from the maker so you MUST fix the PFs or lose them. 

Anyway they turned out SWEET!

In the middle of March 2012, I received the finished playfields, and was very happy with the result.  Kevin at Classic Playfields produced a special 'white' version with the Commemorative Space Shuttle logo design.

Left: Direct Ink.  Middle: Screened playfield.  Right: Screened 'white' version.

This is a close-up of the medallion with the
Space Shuttle Commemorative design.

CPR webpage on Space Shuttle playfield
Above: Screen snap of CPR's webstore page.
Click image for the photo gallery

autographed playfield
I received this playfield and signed it for the purchaser.

How do the various restoration methods compare?  Here is my opinion:

Cost Range
-Lowest Cost.
-Due to one-pass printing, layers will not have misalignment.
-Not directly printed on playfield
$100 - $200
Direct Ink
-Lowest cost for non-overlay process
-No change in location of inserts and posts due to an original playfield being used.
-Need to completely strip playfield including all parts, wires, and fasteners.
-Process in development.
New Playfield
-Most original restoration and the best looking colors.
-Playfield swap requires completely removal of all parts, including wires and fasteners.
-Highest cost.
$600 - $800

Project Log
  • July 5, 2008 - Start of construction of vector Illustrator files from bitmap Photoshop files.
  • August 30, 2008 - Files completed and submitted.  We now await the playfield to be made.
  • July 17, 2009 - Kevin sends me an e-mail asking me the exact size of my playfield (41 7/8" x 20 3/8").  They are placing the order for the wood.
  • August 19, 2010 - Website shows orders for Space Shuttle have closed and that it will be the next to be made.
  • September, 2011 - Kevin is printing the playfields and sent me a photo of the status.
  • October, 2011 - Playfields are shipping.  See the gallery.  What a nice result.
  • 15 March, 2012 - I received three playfields from Kevin.  One is the commemorative 'white' edition.

Page 1 of the Space Shuttle Playfield project here

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