Games consoles might be fast and have great graphics, but they’re no match for the entertainment value of a proper arcade machine. In this month’s issue of Hackspace magazine, you’re invited to relive your misspent youth with this huge build project.
There’s something special about the comforting solidity of a coin-eating video game monolith, and nothing screams retro fun like a full-sized arcade cabinet sitting in the corner of the room. Classic arcade machines can be a serious investment. Costing thousands of pounds and weighing about the same as a giant panda, they’re out of reach for all but the serious collector. Thankfully, you can recreate that retro experience using modern components for a fraction of the price and weight.
An arcade cabinet is much easier to make than you might expect. It’s essentially a fancy cupboard that holds a monitor, speakers, a computer, a keyboard, and some buttons. You can make your own cabinet using not much more than a couple of sheets of MDF, some clear plastic, and a few cans of spray paint.
If you want a really authentic-looking cabinet, you can find plenty of plans and patterns online. However, most classic cabinets are a bit bigger than you might remember, occupying almost a square metre of floor space. If you scale that down to approximately 60 cm2, you can make an authentic-looking home arcade cabinet that won’t take over the entire room, and can be cut from just two pieces of 8 × 4 (2440 mm × 1220 mm) MDF. You can download our plans, but these are rough plans designed for you to tweak into your own creation. A sheet of 18 mm MDF is ideal for making the body of the cabinet, and 12 mm MDF works well to fill in the front and back panels. You can use thinner sheets of wood to make a lighter cabinet, but you might find it less sturdy and more difficult to screw into.
The sides of the machine should be cut from 18 mm MDF, and will be 6 feet high. The sides need to be as close to identical as possible, so mark out the pattern for the side on one piece of 18 mm MDF, and screw the boards together to hold them while you cut. You can avoid marking the sides by placing the screws through the waste areas of the MDF. Keep these offcuts to make internal supports or brackets. You can cut the rest of the pieces of MDF using the project plans as a guide.
Attach the side pieces to the base, so that the sides hang lower than the base by an inch or two. If you’re more accomplished at woodworking and want to make the strongest cabinet possible, you can use a router to joint and glue the pieces of wood together. This will make the cabinet very slightly narrower and will affect some measurements, but if you follow the old adage to measure twice and cut once, you should be fine. If you don’t want to do this, you can use large angle brackets and screws to hold everything together. The cabinet will still be strong, and you’ll have the added advantage that you can disassemble it in the future if necessary.
Keep attaching the 18 mm MDF pieces, starting with the top piece and the rear brace. Once you have these pieces attached, the cabinet should be sturdy enough to start adding the thinner panels. Insetting the panels by about an inch gives the cabinet that retro look, and also hides any design crimes you might have committed while cutting out the side panels.
The absolute sizing of the cabinet isn’t critical unless you’re trying to make an exact copy of an old machine, so don’t feel too constrained by measuring things down to the millimetre. As long as the cabinet is wide enough to accept your monitor, everything else is moveable and can be adjusted to suit your needs.
Make it shiny
You can move onto decoration once the cabinet woodwork is fitted together. This is mostly down to personal preference, although it’s wise to think about which parts of the case will be touched more often, and whether your colour choices will cause any problems with screen reflection. Matt black is a popular choice for arcade cabinets because it’s non-reflective and any surface imperfections are less noticeable with a matt paint finish.
Wallpaper or posters make a great choice for decorating the outside of the cabinet, and they are quick to apply. Just be sure to paste all the way up to the edge, and protect any areas that will be handled regularly with aluminium checker plate or plastic sheet. The edges of MDF sheets can be finished with iron-on worktop edging, or with the chrome detailing tape used on cars. You can buy detailing tape in 12 mm and 18 mm widths, which makes it great for finishing edges. The adhesive tape provided with the chrome edging isn’t always very good, so it’s worth investing in some high-strength, double-sided clear vinyl foam tape.
You’ve made your cabinet, but it’s empty at the moment. You’re going to add a Raspberry Pi, monitor, speakers, and a panel for buttons and joysticks. To find out how, you can read the full article in HackSpace magazine 35.
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