I know a lot of guys a lot better and more practiced than me have done a great job of documenting some great playfield restoration techniques. I'm a bit self taught and always learning and experimenting. I've picked up a few tricks from speaking with guys like Chris Hutchins, Ron Kruzman and from reading a ton from the likes of VID and others here.
As the title indicates, I wanted to share a small bit of my experience in dealing with small text and difficult details on some of my playfield work.
This is one aspect of restoring classic playfields that I've always found challenging. Specifically I am thinking of early solid state era playfields like the ones you might see from Stern. Larger text, like you might find on a 70's Gottlieb can usually be easily masked and sprayed new but, for smaller text, the options are more limited.
Your options are:
-Freehand/brush, but unless you are Michelangelo, your results will likely never look close to factory
-Frisket masking and airbrush, but this is super hard to cut, especially at smaller sizes
-Machine cut masking. I've attempted this with a vinyl mask. It looked really good coming off the cutter, but it also tends to fall apart at very small size text when peeling and applying. Controlling paint bleed is also tough.
-Machine cut vinyl letters. This is a decent option but finding a colour matched vinyl is really hard unless you just want simple white or black. Clearcoat will do a fair job of 'burying' the excess height of the vinyl if handled properly.
-Waterslide decal. This is a decent option but you may have trouble with colour saturation. Also, if your text is white, or close to it, you are SOL. most printers don't print in white.
A few years ago I was asked to restore a Cheetah playfield. This thing was a disaster. Almost ever major colour needed to be sprayed and there was no way I was masking around all the text. I had to spray right over most of it and then figure out how to put it back.
I tried a few of the techniques mentioned above and finally settled on getting the text machine cut out of vinyl. It was mostly an off-white and I was able to find a decent match and then I scanned the playfield so that I could trace the text exactly. That trace was then used to machine cut the text. I spent a long time 'weeding' the vinyl (process of removing the negative vinyl I did not need) and then I masked it from the top for easy application. It worked fine but I swear that project took years off my life and added a few grey hairs. I swore I wouldn't undertake another. Here are a few pics.
Fast forward a few years and now I'm a classic Stern junkie and I've acquired quite a few of these beauties and some of them need the same attention as that Cheetah. Yeah, life is funny that way
I set about trying to find a better option. One that would be even more flexible in terms of colour options and ease of application. I wanted to see if I could find a way to make a rub on transfer. Anyone older than 40 probably remembers Letraset. Sets of letters you could buy from art supply stores and place them over your work-surface and then simply rub them on.
I explored some home options. There is a kit from http://www.decalprofx.com/ that requires you to buy some custom equipment. Not a huge investment but I wanted to try a more professional approach first. I ended up going to Reprographx at http://www.rubontransfers.net/ and ordering a letter-sized sheet of their custom colour rub-on transfer decals.
I did this just recently for my Quicksilver playfield. It has text all over the place and it's a sort of light cream colour with a hint of green. This allowed me to order all new text for the entire playfield, but I still used a Pantone book to get the closest possible match for my particular playfield.
The bad news is that it cost a ton. A single sheet of custom colour ran me about $150 Canadian with shipping. It's obviously less in USD$
The good news is that, when they finally arrived, they were a near perfect match for the original text and colour.
This allowed me to perform my usual structural repairs to the playfield and then frisket, trim and airbrush repairs to the main green colour without having to worry about any of the original text. After various layers of clear and repairs and the final step of applying new black keylines and outlines, I simply trimmed each section of text, taped it down and then used my fingernail to rub each section on, working my way from top to bottom so as not to damage the delicate rub-on transfer.
Once it was all done, I applied a coat of clear in very light passes. It seemed to pool around the text.
After that I used an RO sander at 400 grit to level the clear that had collected around the text... being very careful not to burn through. Then i used a sanding pad to finish off the low spots. The next layer goes on much more smoothly and the same process is repeated one last time for the finished top-coat which is perfectly flat by now.
Here is a link to the AI file with the text in case anyone wishes to place their own order. I requested mine in PMS 616. You can either order the same or test your own specific playfield for an exact match.
Below are some photos I captured along the way. Hopefully this will be of benefit to some of you.
I'm already prepping my Sea Witch for the same treatment.