Building an Arcade Emulation Cabinet Part Two: Hardware & Contruction
This is the last part of a two-part series on building an arcade emulation cabinet for home use. This article will focus on the actual construction of the physical cabinet and on the various hardware components involved in completing the project.
The main reasons I decided to embark on this journey to build a full-sized arcade cabinet for home use in the first place was because A) I was an arcade fanatic, B) I had an older 22″ CRT monitor collecting dust in my basement that I knew made older arcade games look nearly as good as they did on an arcade monitor, C) I had an aging computer that was about to be replaced that would make for a good emulation computer and D) I already had some arcade controllers in my home office including a huge X-Arcade Dual Tankstick with Trackball that I used to play arcade games that were unwieldy and unsightly. Another arcade peripheral I had was a pair of Arcade Lightguns which were somewhat difficult to use in that office space. I had to do something with all that stuff!
I figured that I since I was mostly “there” with the hardware I might as well combine all these elements into one cohesive whole. I wanted to create something that could be more accessible to family members and visitors than my desktop computer emulation set-up. The full arcade experience. A stand-up cabinet just like the ones in the arcades! My boy-hood dream! Little did I know that it would take me a little over a year to realize my dream.
As it turned out, shortly after beginning the software part of the project, my designated emulation computer blew up and died. Click here for the full story. I ended up buying a somewhat newer computer for my emulation project from someone I found in the local online classified ads. This was a smarter choice anyway. I ended up with a very fast dual-core (Intel E8600), 64-bit PC running Windows 7. Plenty of memory for what I needed and a decent Nvidia video card. A much better PC than the one that blew up and good enough for my goal.
When I first started to look around the internet for sources and inspiration for my cabinet design, I found that there were a ton of websites out there that people had created showing their work. Some were better than others at showing and describing how they got it done. I was especially interested in sites that used the X-Arcade Tankstick as the controller. After sorting through them all I found the following websites to be the most helpful in helping me understand how to design and construct my planned “Super Arcade”:
This was by far the #1 go-to site for me. Mike’s (site owner) 1st cabinet design gave me a solid idea on how to incorporate the X-Arcade Tankstick, however I ended up referring to his cabinet 2 plans for most of the finer details and descriptions. Mike was also really great about offering help via email when I really got stuck or confused. Now that I’ve completed my arcade cabinet, he’s included me in the News section here: http://www.arcadecab.com/News.htm.
This was my second favorite site for inspiration and guidance. David Dahlstrom did a nice job outlining his build on this site and offers some excellent descriptions of key construction points. He seems to be a perfectionist like myself so I was naturally drawn to his logic on how to solve many of the same issues I had. I was particularly impressed by his back-side cabinet and marquee mounting solutions. Mine are very similar.
The forums at ArcadeControls.com is an awesome site for help and support with a project like this. In fact, the entire site is devoted to arcade enthusiasts like myself all over the world. There are many threads that describe how to get things done with both software and hardware. Check out my “project announcement” thread here.
Key help with monitor and plexiglass mounting was found here. Lots of other good info to be found as well.
Scott Hanselman created an interesting read on a his cabinet conversion project. The biggest idea I gleaned from his write-up was the idea for the remote powerstrip. It turned out to be the perfect solution for turning my cabinet on and off with one simple external switch like a real arcade cabinet. Awesome.
Below are some photos with rambling comments on key points of construction. Click on any of the photos to see a larger version of the same. Feel free to contact me or better yet, post a comment here, if you have any questions about any section.
I was very fortunate to have a friend who owned a cabinet woodworking business. He allowed me to work on my project in his shop with all his high-end tools and machines. I started with the basic plans available from www.arcadecab.com that used the Tankstick but altered the side cut-out plan a bit because I knew I needed the monitor angle to be closer to parallel with the user so light guns games would work at an optimal level. If you’d like to download my modified side cabinet plans click here.
After cutting out the sides, I moved onto building the base. A basic mitered corner base with a shelf top and bottom boards to support the wheels. I didn’t actually attach the castor wheels until after I had finished painting the main cabinet. Rotating castor wheels were placed on the front. Straight-set wheels on the back.
Because I had raised the angle of the cabinet monitor face to be more steep, the top end of my X-Arcade Tankstick would no longer clear it so I had to carefully measure and notch a small section for the horizontal face of the Tankstick to fit once inserted into the cabinet. This notch proved to work out perfectly. Next, I used my actual CRT monitor to figure out the correct angle for my monitor shelf. It helped to use the actual monitor I planned to use while trying to adjust the monitor base to allow for the least steep monitor shelf angle as possible.
Once I figured out where and at what angle I needed to secure the monitor shelf I attached the base and was ready to screw on the second side of the cabinet. I used a middle support board under the center of the monitor shelf for long-term support. During the entire process my goal was to never have any external screw holes. I generally screwed all wood supports and external panels into the sides from the inside or used a pocket-screw technique when that was not possible.
At this point I was able to stand the cabinet up for the first time and started to get a sense of what it might look like when done. I placed the monitor and my X-Arcade tankstick in their respective locations to make sure they would fit OK. Everything fit fine. Since the sides were cut out using a professional Cytrix machine, the sides matched and the X-Arcade controller seemed to fit perfectly. I knew I could always use a bit of T-molding to tighten things up at the final insertion stage.
These shots show the ledger supports for the external panels. I ran one long ledger on both sides of the back of the cabinet to support the back panels, two of which were designed to be removable. Shown also are the ledger supports for the upper-back, top, and speaker panels.
I used 1″x 2″ boards for all ledger supports. Only the very top panel was screwed in place from the outside.
I used aluminum wall corner protectors from Home Depot as my marquee retainers. Cheap, solid and quite professional looking. The toughest part was figuring out how to attach the lower marquee retainer on the angled speaker panel. The answer came from the sachi.sytes.net site listed above. I simply cut an angled slit into the plywood and then mounted the lower marquee retainer to hold the marquee plexiglass at the correct angle.
These photos show rough external panel placement. I would later have to remove these panels before painting. Some panels required careful measurement of angled edges to they would fit together snugly.
I created a sliding drawer just below the control panel area to house a keyboard for the occasional back-end software tweak. Shown here also is the pre-cut hole for the coin mech on the lower front panel of the cabinet. This panel would be hinged after painting and completed with a utility lock. I found a decently priced, working coin mech at X-Arcade. A working coin mechanical that accepted real quarters was an important part of the finished project for me. All part of the “arcade experience”.
I cut two ventilation holes in the cabinet. One on the lower back panel and the other on the upper angled panel. Many arcade cabinet builiders install fans as well, however, after doing some research it didn’t seem necessary to add fans to these ventilation holes. There seemed to be plenty of air flow inside the cabinet. I haven’t had any heat issues at all. Shown at the far right are the various panels and drawer racked and ready to paint. Painting the panels separately and then re-attaching them later seemed to work best.
Here you see me starting the prime painting of the cabinet and detached panels. I was lucky to have use of an air sprayer and professional paint area. I painted two coats of matte black on the inside and outside of the cabinet after priming. Scuffing and sanding in between each coat of paint made all the difference in creating a smooth, professional looking paint job. I also used tack cloth and a clean white cloth to make sure there wasn’t any debris left between coats of paint.
I had pre-slotted the plywood sides right after cutting them out so they were all ready for T-molding immediately after finishing the paint job. Black T-molding was carefully installed with a rubber hammer. I had to cut out small “V” sections of the lower insert bead when I came upon a corner in order to make sure the T-molding would always lay flat in the groove. Once the T-molding was done, I assembled the rest of the panels including the front door which used two zero-clearance inset hinges on the left side. I installed a utility lock toward the top right of the front panel and then installed the coin mech following the vendors instructions. I left a 1/4 inch gap between the top of the front cabinet door and the bottom of the keyboard drawer to allow for the lightgun cables to pass. My florescent marquee light had to be somewhat custom built at Lowes from a kit because I needed the electrical cord to be longer than 6 feet in order to safely reach the power strip inside the cabinet.
I needed to find a way to have the power strip cable exit the cabinet cleanly without having to disassemble or cut the cord in any way. I cut a 1.5″ hole in the lower back panel in order to install a small office utility wire covering. This allowed me to pass the large cord head through to the outside and then be able to close the hole up around the cord itself. This solution worked great and looked very clean and professional.
As stated in the “Inspiration” section above, I followed an idea I found on a site by Scott Hanselman which showed how to use a Belkin Conserve Energy Strip to turn on entire arcade system at once with one external switch. This remote switch was placed on the left side of the angled back panel. The key is to set the PC to boot up immediately whenever power is restored to it. This is set-up in the BIOS. All other components such as speakers, marquee light, monitor, and coin mech are permanently set to “on” and plugged into the this “smart strip” which in turn only receives power when the external switch is turned on.
I really liked the idea of making the rear panels accessible at any time. This was accomplished by following another idea I found on the Project X blogsite referenced above in the “Inspiration”section. I installed large cabinet screws to secure the removable panels (the second and fourth panels) and simple black cabinet handles toward the top middle of each for easy handling. This gave me easy access and a solid finished look to the rear side of the cabinet.
At a fabric store and I purchased a little bit of black speaker cloth and used it to hide the shape of the PC speakers from the view of the player looking from the outside into the speaker holes. Probably not really needed, but I decided to do it anyway. A set of 5.25″ plastic car speaker covers where placed on the outside of the speakers holes where the player stood and offered visible shielding as well while allowing sound to travel to the player.
I then needed to build a “light tent” around the speakers so light from the marquee light immediately above would not leak through the speakers holes. I had planned to simply use heavy black cloth but I discovered something even better at the fabric store… a special white fabric used by hotels as a support to their room curtains that completely blocks sunlight. This stuff doesn’t let a drop of light pass through it. All special fabrics were affixed using wood staples.
I had a difficult time figuring out the best installation technique for the smoked plexiglass monitor cover. For the lower support I ended up buying a couple of industrial strength, metal mirror holders/clips at Home Depot and affixing them to a small angled board at the bottom of the viewable area. I also installed two small strips of wood along the inside of the cabinet (not shown here), on each side of the monitor to support the plexiglass vertically and keep it from falling backward into the cabinet. The top of the plexiglass simply slid up behind the back of the speaker panel. The plexiglass was now removable but secure. The bezel would sit sandwiched between the smoked plexiglass and the wood supports hiding all other spacial gaps and the ugly computer monitor casing.
The best and cheapest bezel solution came from a forum thread on ArcadeControls.com. Click here to see the technique for the $2 Bezel which I followed. Using this idea, I first created a working template out of white construction paper as shown in the photo. I included a cut-out at the top for the IR sensor needed for my lightguns. The IR sensor becomes invisible behind the smoked plexiglass. Once I was satisfied with the bezel template, I used it to cut the final bezel out of a somewhat thick, black, art-store quality paper.
By now, my arcade cabinet was out of the wood shop and inside the house already getting plenty of play by my sons. The lit-up marquee and completed monitor area were enough to make it look enticing. Of course, no arcade cabinet is complete without side art. As a graphic designer, I had the know-how and ability to get this created and printed on adhesive vinyl. Each side is similar in design style but shows different arcade characters from real arcade cabinet side art. My side art supported the marquee branding of “Super Arcade”. Vector artwork for this type of thing can be found on various sites including here and here, but if you’re interesting in using the artwork I refined and created, you can download it in the Artwork Download section below.
Now I just needed to install my lightguns complete with a holster solution to finish off the project.
I considered many options and ideas for a lightgun holster but finally settled on using a canvas side arm made for a pistol with an attached laser sight (bigger holster area). I bought a couple of these in the gun department of a local Scheels sporting goods store. The thing I liked about this solution was that it was a side mounted solution, lightweight, and didn’t require me to put any permanent holes into the side of the cabinet in order to secure them. I attached large black velcro strips to the cabinet itself and then attached the holsters to each velcro strip. The sides of the canvas holsters were already velcro ready, however, I did have to carefully strip each holster down to it’s bare element to make it work. They worked great and were still in keeping with that true arcade feel!
Download my marquee artwork in both vector and rastar formats here. Opens with Adobe CS6 or higher.
Download my side cabinet artwork here. Vector based files. Will open with Adobe CS6 or higher.
OPEN HOUSE PARTY
To celebrate the completion of this project, I decided to have an open house to “wow” friends and family and have some fun. I created a series of mini postcard-type announcements which I physically handed out or digitally sent to invitees.
I caught some grief in the ArcadeControls.com forum for using an X-Arcade Tankstick for my controller rather than building my own custom control panel. I chose to do it this way because I had already invested in one, it would make for a less complicated build, and this was my first time taking on such a project so I didn’t want the cost or hassle of building an all new control panel. However, one day I would like to update and expand my control panel to include higher-end controls from the likes of Ultimarc. Such upgrades may include a spinner (for games like Tempest, Arkanoid, Discs of Tron), a couple of U360 joysticks which switch between analog and digital control, and perhaps even a detachable steering wheel for driving games.
All in all it’s been quite the journey to complete this project but I enjoy having dared to take it on nearly every day. Coin up!
SUPPLEMENTAL VIDEO OF SUPER ARCADE