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Building an Arcade Cabinet - Part 1: The Plans

Some of my favorite childhood memories revolved around the arcade. Whether it was playing arcade games (which I rarely had the spare cash to do), watching others playing arcade games, or just hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere. There was always something magical about the gorgeous graphics, the booming sounds, and the colorful cabinets. For much of my life, I’ve wanted to have an arcade cabinet in my own home, but it was always out of reach for some reason. Finally, I took the plunge and just decided to try building my own. The good news is that I’ve got some limited experience with wiring, designing graphics, and arcade emulation software. The bad news is that I have almost no experience with woodworking or applying vinyl.

The Plan

Any large project is 90% planning and only 10% action; especially if you’re going to need to learn skills along the way. Fortunately these days we have an amazing internet where helpful guides, ideas, and obscure parts/service providers are everywhere. I spent a lot of time reading builders’ blogs (like this) and seeing all of the different parts of such a project. Seeing how it was done gave me a lot of confidence that with some patience and a willingness to re-do some parts as I learned that I could get it done.

There are a lot of different cabinet styles: traditional stand-up, cocktail, candy, pedestal, bartop, etc. I went with a pedestal because I didn’t want to fuss with increasingly hard-to-find/repair CRT monitor and the cabinets designed for flat screen monitors have awkward-looking proportions. The games I really wanted to play were two-to-four player 2D fighting games, shooters, and beat-em-ups, so a cramped bartop, candy, or cocktail were out. That left me with a pedestal style. One nice bonus of a pedestal is how easy it is to upgrade the monitor later if I choose to.

I strongly considered just getting a pre-cut cabinet from a company like Monster Arcades, but the more I read, the more I really wanted to be able to really choose my own control layout and have more control over the cabinet’s shape. I was particularly emboldened by this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-themed build and its relatively simple design, so I decided to just sit down and draw my own. Unfortunately, I’m not a CAD guy. I spent a few hours frustratingly trying to understand Sketch-Up before settling down and just sketching out plans the old-fashioned way: pencil on paper.

The speakers and amplifier.The speakers and amplifier. In the process of this, I also needed to research what kind of components I would use to make sure that everything had adequate space. For example, I wanted higher quality sound than the monitor’s built-in speakers, so I looked at inexpensive two-channel solid state amplifiers and four-inch car stereo speakers. Some folks just hide computer speakers behind a screen, but I wanted something that looked a little nicer and might be a bit sturdier, plus it really wasn’t much more expensive. That requirement drove me to add an angled panel to the back with a brace that could be at least four inches wide to clear the speakers. For another example, I decided to use a cheap Raspberry Pi computer to run everything, so I actually needed to worry less about power and airflow than I might have otherwise… though I did need to work about how to switch power on and off to the Pi.

The brains of the operation...The brains of the operation… The one area I went really different in all of this planning was what to do with the base. Old arcade cabinets were really bulky in order to make room for all of the large components and monitor, but with a pedestal running off of a computer the size of a deck of cards, there wasn’t much call for that. That’s when I had the brilliant idea of incorporating a mini fridge! It would add weight to the base to keep it sturdy and make the cabinet a bit more multi-purpose. I found an inexpensive Danby fridge that did not have a freezer (I was interested in housing beverages only and not messing with defrosting) on Amazon and carefully factored in its measurements.

All of this gear still needs to work comfortably for the people using it, so I looked at common heights for bars in order to get an ideal height (around 42 inches). I found some great arcade control templates that I could print off in full size and I started putting them on large pieces of cardboard to make sure that everybody could be comfortable and I wasn’t cramming players too tightly together or being needlessly generous with spacing. Sometimes a life-size mockup (even just a partial) can go a long way towards a solid usable design.

The base button layout. I eliminated 2-4 buttons, depending on position.The base button layout. I eliminated 2-4 buttons, depending on position.

With all of these ideas and concerns under consideration, I also tried to make the design using common lumber sizes to minimize unnecessary cutting. One important note for woodworking beginners: lumber sizes are lies. A 1x4 inch piece of lumber, for instance, is actually .75x3.5 inches. Don’t get me started on plywood. In any case, I designed two main components: the pedestal itself and the console. One point I quickly realized was that the final design was going to be nearly impossible to move through doors without disassembly, so I also designed in a way to easily break the two components apart for transport. I ended up with the final cut list:

Pedestal

  1. 2x4 – 2x 17”, 1x 23”

  2. 1x4 – 4x 23”

  3. 1x2 – 4x 8.5”, 2x 23”, 2x 7”, 2x 27”

  4. Plywood – 1x 20”x23”, 36”x23”, and 11”x23”, 2x 21”x40”

Console

  1. 1x4 – 1x 45.5”, 2x 10.5”, 2x12.5”, 1x 29”

  2. Plywood – 1x 20”x48” and 19.5”x47”

Here are my carefully plotted plans.Here are my carefully plotted plans.

Of course, the wood is only one part. There’s a ton of work ahead from here. Check back here soon to see the process of selecting electrical components, buttons, and more. Then, we’ll see how to go about slapping all of this together. Learn from my successes… and mistakes!

I’m going to turn this pile of lumber into a thing!I’m going to turn this pile of lumber into a thing!

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