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(Topic ID: 176862)

PLAYFIELD RESTORATION - rub-on transfers

By Drano

3 years ago

Topic Stats

  • 68 posts
  • 27 Pinsiders participating
  • Latest reply 2 years ago by tandem2
  • Topic is favorited by 99 Pinsiders


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#1 3 years ago

Hey Everyone,
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.

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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 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 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.


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#3 3 years ago
Quoted from Tighe:

I wish I had the time to do this right now. You did an amazing job Drano!

Thanks Tighe... and yeah, it can be time consuming but I think any playfield work is. If you're a little bit artistic or at least the type of person that enjoys detail work (puzzles, model making etc..) I think you'd be okay with this process.

Doing the text this way is actually the least difficult option IMO.
I also make machine-cut stencils for my black rings and outlines so that speeds things up even further.

Maybe I'm cheating little... but I believe in working smart and not hard (when I can)

#7 3 years ago
Quoted from Tighe:

It's not cheating, it's better! What type of clear are you using? Triple Thick?

OH NO!!!

Triple Thick is only for sealing the back of backglasses. It's more of a spray-on 'glaze' and would likely not hold up very well on a playfield.

I typically use a 2 part automotive clearcoat with a reducer. It's just a BASF brand that we use here at work so it's easy for me to get my hands on in quantity.

#9 3 years ago
Quoted from dr_nybble:

This looks like a great way of restoring a lot of text, especially if it is not black. I found a video on how they make these dry rub on transfer sheets, it is a very similar process to silk screening where a layer of photosensitive emulsion is used with a mask to form the sheet. Looks labour intensive and no doubt accounts for the hefty price. I suppose it is with rub on transfers (Letraset) that silk screen films were originally lettered in the first place?

Exactly. This is why the results looks so close to factory. The thickness of the transfer is also very similar to silkscreen.

#11 3 years ago
Quoted from OCD_pinball:

Maybe I missed it, but WHO determines the size and style of the text. Do you design the wording text style and size, and send it to reprograhx, pick the color you want, and they make the decals. I just want to know the process of how I convey whats on my playfield to reprographx so I can have said decals made.

I perform a direct 1 scale scan of the text using an old HP windowpane scanner which is NLA. This is sort of a necessary step and there are also handheld scanners that could be used.

Once scanned, I bring that image into a program (in this case Adobe Illustrator) and I create new text on top of the image; being very careful to not scale or distort the original image. I also use an online service such as "what the font" where I submit an image sample of the font and the website determines the closest match.
If I don't have that particular font I install it and then use that font to perform my 'trace' or overlay of the text, being very careful to match size and orientation.

Of course, the digital font can never be a perfect match for the old analog method of laying down copy. Once I am close enough, I explode the text into vector outlines and use the software to play around with individual character placement and even distort certain letters as necessary to better match. In the case of QS, the numeral "1" had a slight variation to the one in the font I was using. The good news is that these variations are consistent throughout the playfield so I could just copy and paste as needed.

Once I had traced all of the various sections of text, I grouped them and then arranged them tight onto a letter sized sheet template that you can download from the Reprographx site.

It's a bit of work and does require some basic knowledge of graphics software... but pinheads are pretty resourceful in my experience
If anyone needs to do this for Quicksilver, just shoot me a PM and I can share the file I created for that machine.

#14 3 years ago

I've added a link to the Quicksilver AI file in my original post up top for those who have requested it.

10 months later
#15 2 years ago

It's been a while since I started this topic and I'm glad to see that several people have been using this method with some great success.

Over the last few months I've been playing around with using the rub-on transfer method for more and more of my detail work.
On recent playfields for Seawitch, TMNT and soon a Bally KISS, I've even started using these for keylines and difficult dithering/halftone dot patterns and gradients.

I also recently helped a local collector get transfers made for a huge dithering pattern for his Stern VIPER restoration.
Hopefully I can get him to post his experiences here as well.

Here are some recent images of my Seawitch in progress. All the text in the lower playfield was painted over when I airbrushed the light blue. Then multiple colors of text were printed and re-applied, as well as all of the black keylines.

I'll update with KISS and TMNT once complete.

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#17 2 years ago
Quoted from dr_nybble:

Have you looked at in BC? They seem a bit cheaper.
What is interesting to me is that they break out the film negatives versus the transfer price. Seems to me that multiple folks could leverage the same negatives!

Awesome! Thanks for the tip.
Truthfully, I have not explored multiple vendors yet. The process with Reprographx has been so easy from using their templates, selecting custom colours on their ordering page and then ease of uploading and proofing art, that it hadn't occured to me to look elsewhere yet.

I wonder if allout is feasible for one-off orders? I'll shoot them a message on my next project and see what they say.

#24 2 years ago
Quoted from dr_nybble:

Drano, I see the obvious advantage of using this approach for white text!
Do you feel that even for black it is superior to waterslide decals? More opaque, easier to handle?

Most definitely. I would shy away from using waterslides for black... especially around inserts. I never have great results unless you double-print and that adds yet another level of complexity and is still not foolproof.

Black is much more cost-effective so I would certainly use rub-on transfers if I wanted to do an entire playfield... or if I could pool together black elelments for several playfields (as in my picture above). This method is perfectly opaque.

#26 2 years ago

Probably thicker than waterslide... But feels almost like a silkscreen. You still need to be very careful sanding that first layer of clear for sure.

Unlike a silkscreen, the bottom layer of these is white. If you burn through the top colour then you start to see white... or it disappears completely

#34 2 years ago
Quoted from SteveinTexas:

Does Chris Hutchins of HEP fame use this method?

I'm not sure if anyone out there has posted anything regarding rub-on transfers for playfield work.
If they used them, it was a well kept secret

As noted at the top of this thread, I did a ton of research when trying to work on my classis stern playfields and came up empty. Basically just lots of trial and error and finally my desire to find custom "Letraset", which I had used many moons ago in school. I never imagined you could make your own... but was lucky to find a service that did just that!

#37 2 years ago
Quoted from SteveinTexas:

Absolutely your solution is original . When I researched fixing a Nags play-field that I needed to do a lot of work on I explored letraset type transfers but found nothing. I learned about Illustrator and Photoshop and can make decent waterslide decals now. However, my application of decals is not perfect. This appears to be a superior way to fix a multitude of play-field issues and will use this idea on my next play-field repair. Thank you very much for the clear tutorial.
Chris Hutchins does not use waterslide decals either and has written about silk screening his lettering if I recall. Impressed with both of your work. Thank you

I fear Chris would consider this method akin to cheating
But, for us mortals, this is an easy and accessible option for sure.

I've seen examples of people attempting to silkscreen original art back onto a playfield and it looks awesome... but a ton of work.

#41 2 years ago
Quoted from dr_nybble:

Drano, can you provide details on the transfer types you've ordered from
Are you using "standard colours" or specifying a Pantone colour?
Their prices do seem very reasonable.

I've done both.
Black and white are the least expensive. Standard colours are a bit more and Pantone matching is pretty stupid... but often necessary.
I've spent upwards of $100-$150 for a single custom colour sheet and there arent many economies of scale unless youre making dozens.

Quoted from g94:

I have second thoughts though when seeing the technique used to recreate these huge halftone screen areas on the VIPER restoration above. It looks great, but what I remember from using Letraset in the very early days from my carreer as a designer, is that it was easy to apply (much easier indeed than silkscreen) but also very fragile: rub on stuff doesn't stick very well. When protected with clearcoat I'm confident that small text areas will hold well, but I can imagine that larger areas could get loose due to ball impact (similar to ghosting effect on inserts). I hope I'm wrong

On the halftone, the back colour is actually painted first, so all you're applying is the 2nd layer of dots.
They certainly don't release from the backing sheet as easily as the lettering or larger stuff, but I think they would actually have better adhesion.
I guess time will tell if there is any separation, but I've had very good results once fully sealed in clear. And this has also gone for waterslide decals and vinyl cut text alike. None of these mathods have really failed yet due to separation from stress or ball strikes.... but I suppose it's not inconceivable either.

#42 2 years ago

Here's a few more pics of those other projects I mentioned earlier.

First, a few images of rub-on transfers being applied to a friend's KISS playfield after the middle section had been sanded down, cleaned and the whites repainted.

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And here's a TMNT I've been working on. Before and After pics.
This is a combination of airbrush work with rub-on transfers applied for the black and white text, as well as the outlines.
No clearcoat has been applied yet. Doing that today.

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#44 2 years ago

The edges raise a bit and clearcoat does tend to damage around the perimeter. Just gotta be gentle on that first sanding. By the 2nd coat it's pretty smooth.

*meant to say the clearcoat tends to "DAM" not DAMAGE" around the perimiter

1 week later
#51 2 years ago

Congratulations! I'm happy that worked out for you.

Looks awesome

1 month later
#54 2 years ago
Quoted from sohchx:

Glad I found this thread!!!!

Go to the Quicksilver owners thread/club
I may have more info there on what I did for that particular game

#57 2 years ago
Quoted from PinballAir:

So, if the order has already been made for a particular game with this rub off vendor, would they still have the artwork for the games that have been done or does it all have to be re-submitted?

The vendor likley has no idea what the original order was for and certainly no reference to Quicksilver, for example.
I would imagine they would want to treat each order as unique.

I suppose the original buyer could call up and say, please re-print order #12345

I think it would still be wise to get some pantone swatches and match the colour to your specific playfield. I know it's not a huge deal if you're covering all the text, but that's just me. If you're slightly off on your application or something moves with the clear, an exact match won't be as obvious.

The ordering procedure isn't that hard. Select the sheet size (letter sized in the case of QS) then select the colour option (custom PMS and enter the code) then upload the file and select your required production speed. Each of these options carries a different cost factor.

4 months later
#67 2 years ago

Looks to me like most of the damage on those inserts is on the background color. I'd repair that with paint.
The dot pattern or "dithering" is a pain, but the damage in those areas appears very small. You might get away with solid colors.

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