ATARI CENTIPEDE RESTORATION – PART 3: MORE WOODWORKING

Welcome back everyone, thought I would try and get this segment written and out before the Christmas break and the ensuing chaos commences. As you can see, I did not manage this after all. Oh well.

As always if you are new here, thank you for stopping by and if you wish to catch up on the previous segments leading up to where we are now, just click here Atari Centipede Restoration – An Introduction.

Those who are keeping up, will know already, that this cab was, well shall we say, a little beaten up, weather worn, working, but definitely in need of quite a bit of woodwork. We have previously covered a section where we repaired and replaced some of the more standard panels, but today we will be looking at some more intricate work, that initially had me scratching my head.

Let us see how things turned out. Hopefully you have a comfy chair, hot brew and obligatory plate of biscuits to hand, and we shall begin…..

The main focus today is around the side panels, and specifically where they jut out, half way up the cabinet to accommodate the control panel itself. I think, from speaking to other owners, by design, these parts are a weak point, vulnerable to being grabbed when moving the cab about, etc, and just by sticking out so much, means that they will be the first part pf the cab to be knocked or bumped into etc.

In fact, if you look at Atari cabs that share this design, you will often see scuffs and bumps in these areas, however my cab, had been subjected to a little more than simple dents and dings.

Have a look and see if you can spot the problem…

The left hand side, (LHS) is easiliy the worst of the two, with the whole section missing, broken off, with just the ragged edge showing where it once had been. The right hand side, (RHS) not quite as bad, with a very thin outer edge still intact, held mainly in place by the vinyl overlay which covers the entire side panel.

One saving grace was I actually did have the missing LHS vinyl piece, again attached to a thin sliver of wood. It was time to come up with a plan, and it took a little bit of head scratching and a few options explored to find a solution that hit all the points I needed.

Whatever the fix, I knew it had to be; a) strong enough to endure all the areas outlined above, that this part of the cab is subjected to; b) aesthetically, look like it had always been there and as original as possible; c) not affect or foul the control panel, which has to fit over and around this section.

So, it should be obvious (hopefully) that we are not just going to bodge a new bit on, using big metal brackets or other visible fixings. Nor are we going to simply stick the new wood on with a bit of glue and hope it does the job. Time to get out the chisels and make things worse before they can start to look better…..

Here you can see me holding up the ‘saved’ section, which although not perfect, it too has some areas missing, it provides a good rough guide as to what should be there. Also the t-molding was still intact which also offered an outline of what was missing.

The chosen plan, was decided, partly by the material the cabinet itself was made out of. Back in the day, companies really had two choices of wood, plywood, stronger but more expensive, or chipboard, cheaper but essentially just lots of wooden fragments, glued together under pressure, which after many years, with the glue all but dried up completely, is little more than compressed sawdust, which does not offer a very substantive medium for fixing things to, edge to edge.

So, even using biscuit jointing (and for the Shaun Holley woodworkers out there, this does not actually utilise custard creams), I do not believe this method, would offer a strong enough joint, unless you made the biscuits significantly deeper than usual.

Which was kind of where I decided to go. The side panel already has another panel attached to the inside, to both add strength and to provide fixing for other parts of the internal structure and the control panel. My intention was to first remove a section of this panel, where it butts up against the side panel itself. You can see the area to be removed marked out in pencil, below.

Using a nice sharp chisel, the same width as the area to be removed, I began to pare away at the wood. Any fears I had about the condition of the 40 year old chipboard, were quickly realised, it was like powder, which made for very easy chisel work, but would never have held up to any edge jointing. I removed about 1 and 1/2 inches deep of material, which I intended to fill with a new section of wood, allowing for a really large amount of surface area to soak with glue, later on.

I also wanted to tackle the rough edge left behind where the old section had broken away. If the wood had been sound, and if I had the missing part, I may have left this to increase the gluing surface points, but with neither of those point met, I sawed these off, leaving a clean edge against which to secure the new piece to.

The cabinet sides are made from 3/4″ board, but as I still had a slither of the outer section, which was about 5mm thick at it’s thickest point, I couldn’t simply use stock 3/4″ as by the time I had re-applied the saved section, it would sit proud of the outer side. And I wanted to use this piece as it was the original vinyl from the cabinet. So I looked at the section as two separate pieces of 3/8″ thick plywood, sitting either side of the t-mold groove, and began to craft the inner half of these pieces to size and shape.

This would, when finished, butt up against the sawn edge of the original side. To sandwich this in place I planned on making an extended tenon piece, which would fit in the chiselled out mortise. The other thing to consider was that any additional pieces would need to still allow clearance to the control panel. Lots to keep in mind here.

As cardboard is easier to cut and shape, and cheaper than wood, it is a good idea to start with something like that, as I fully expected it to take a few goes to get it right. And it did. But here is my finished template and held in place on the cab itself.

Happy with the fit, shape and size of the template and having tested the control panel clearance, I transferred all the measurements over onto some quality grade plywood. The better the grade of ply, the less tear-out and splintering you will have to contend with and fill later on. I know most of this will be hidden, but that’s not the point.

Happy with this piece I then glued and clamped the two pieces together and offered it up to the cab to check for fitting. It doesn’t have to be micro-millimetre perfect at this point as we will be filling and sanding later, but the better the fit, the less of this that will be needed.

Test fitting good, time to add some glue and set this in place for good.

Ok, some glue tips. For this work we will be using two main types of wood glue. A standard wood glue which is PVA based, but still a very strong bond, drying clear. And in the next step a PUA glue, polyurethane, which has an expanding quality to help fill uneven gaps and ensure a good adhesion. Both of these glues, cure to a very high strength and are a pita to remove once cured, so make sure you put plenty on, but have a wet wipe to hand to wipe away any excess immediately, and in the case of the PUA glue, keep coming back to it, whilst the glue continues to expand, and wipe away any extra before it finishes setting.

Schooled on glue types and with this piece having nice flat surfaces, and the receiving area also, it’s the standard PVA glue to use here.

Once that had fully set, I wanted to bring the saved slither piece into play. With the surface on this section, very rough and uneven, I used the PUA to ensure it expanded into all the crevices, increasing the grip.

You can see even with the expanding glue, there are still areas to be filled around the edge and the join itself needs some fine filling. But the overall fit was very good and strong, with no other fixings needed. This part is probably stronger now than anywhere else on the aging cab!

In order to tackle the remaining voids, it’ time for some filler. As usual, I use a two part filler, which speeds up the drying time no end. For this area, with me needing to push the filler into the narrow edge of the panel, I clamped a board to the outside to allow me to be able to really push the filler into the gaps, without it simply oozing out the side.

You can see from the photo above that I also took the opportunity to fill in the gaps around the tenon of the new piece, purely to make it look better once painted and finished.

With the board removed you can see where the filler has, erm, filled out, the panel, to the shape it should be, and once was.

I then quickly applied some paint, as I find it shows up any flaws much more easily, applied some more filler in a couple of small areas and carefully sanded it to a smooth finish. I’m not that fussed about the edge itself being perfect as the t-molding will hide all of this anyway.

Next up was to try and hide everything that I had just completed. I use acrylic paints, starting with a basic white, and a number of other ‘off-white’ colours, mixing them all together to make various similar shades.

The difficulty with this part is that the original cab would have rolled off the line, lovely and white, uniform in colour across the entire panel. But for the last 40 years, the cab has sat in mucky arcades, dirty storage, sunny windows, who knows where, and has also had thousands and thousands of hands pressed against this very part of the cab, with all of this ‘weathering’ affecting the colour of the panel and adding a certain patina.

The challenge, therefore, is to try and match this. I’m no expert, by any means, but I’ve watched enough episodes of the BBC’s Repair Shop to have an idea. My method is to apply a base coat, then, using the different mixed up shades, add very small patches of colour in random patterns/areas, to slowly build up the layers, in a way that looks natural.

The photo below shows the result, but it also, as mentioned earlier, shows up the tiny flaws still needing some work. I will be looking at the side panels, in a separate post, so we can tackle that there and then, but for now.

And so with this side sorted, it was time to take two steps to my right and start all over again…

However, remember that this side was not as bad, the outer vinyl section was actually still (just) intact, hanging on, by little more than the vinyl itself, but present, nonetheless. The methods are pretty identical to the left side, so rather than go through all that again, I’ll let the photos do the talking for me

Note, I used a piece of perspex when pushing in the filler, instead of wood, this was mainly because I had it lying around, but also it means you can see, on the photo, how the filler was applied.

So with both sides fixed, from a woodworking perspective, I drew on some centre lines, for where the t-molding will later go. These would act as a nice guide to use when cutting.

I then cut the slot in, using a hand saw, mainly to keep control easier, but also because I love my hand saws. I use Japanese hand saws, which are fashioned to cut on the pull, rather than the push stroke, which allows for much more precise control.

Once I had made the initial cut along the whole section, I used a low grit sandpaper, folder over itself, to widen the groove out, to the required width, using a scrap of old t-molding to ensure a nice snug fit.

And that, seems to be a good place to wrap this post up and start looking at another area that still needs attention. From looking at the cab I still need to look at the side art/panels themselves; the monitor and electronics, the trackball assembly, the coin door mech, oh and there’s still more woodwork to do….

Until next time. Please let me know what you think; any thoughts you have on how far to go with restoration projects; and the game itself, Centipede, surely one of Atari’s more appealing, accessible games, right?

As always, if you like what you find here, please subscribe, read through my earlier posts, hit like, and share on the social media of your choice, via the buttons below. I genuinely would love to hear what you think, good or bad, and will always reply to any comment, kind enough to be left.

Thank you for taking the time to read through, see you all soon for the next instalment.

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