ATARI CENTIPEDE RESTORATION – PART 4: IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS…

Welcome back everyone. With winter on the back foot, temperatures on the up and lockdown still, well, locking us down, what better a time, to get back into fixing up this cabinet.

If you haven’t been following this resto, and you want to catch up on the work so far, then click here Atari Centipede Restoration – An Introduction.

Up to this point we have been mainly focused on some serious structural work on the cabinet, and with that work finished, I can start looking at some other points that need addressing. Things that aren’t maybe as important to the cabinet working, playing or preventing it from collapsing into a heap of kindling, but jobs that for, me are still just as important. The devil, as always, can usually be found within the details.

But this raises a sometimes contentious point, among restorers, collectors and gamers. How far do you take your restoration?

Let’s take this cabinet as our working example. Structurally, the cabinet itself was fairly goosed. It swayed from side to side like a badly made MFI wardrobe, with just the slightest passing breeze. There were huge chunks missing and entire panels broken in half. Work needed to be done just to save the cab from collapse.

But then there is the side art, which as with many 40 year old pieces of furniture in public use, has it’s share of marks, dents, and scrapes. However it is mainly intact, and so to replace it, in my eyes, is just wrong. So we will not. The artwork on this cabinet is as iconic as the game itself, and to remove the entire artwork just to lose a few scrapes, just seems wrong to me.

Save what we can, replace what we must. But always in keeping with the original as much as possible.

And so, with that ethos in mind, let’s tackle some of the remaining jobs and maybe next post we can (maybe) shoot some mushrooms…..

First up, let’s have a look at this side art. Did I mention how iconic it was? Now I don’t remember seeing or playing this game in it’s arcade form, back in the day, most likely due to my location and most cabinets, locally, being ‘chip shop jamma’ cabs, where the pcbs were regularly switched out, which just wouldn’t work with any game requiring specialised controls, such as this. Yet, I remember the Atari 2600 version and the artwork that adorned the cart and box. Everyone has their favourites, but personal opinion aside, I think the side art of this cabinet is one of the all time classic pieces from the height of the arcades popularity.

As I said, this cabinet art had the expected knocks and scrapes, but on the whole, was more than acceptable and most certainly worth saving.

First up, and I cannot over emphasise how much a difference this can, and usually makes. Give the sides a nice hot bath. Well, not literally but get some hot soapy water on there and get sponging off those 40 years of dirt. It’s amazing how this can remove, not just the dirt, but marks you thought were scrapes, but actually weren’t. Once finished with a normal sponge I tend to use a magic eraser on some of the more stubborn parts, BUT beware of pressing too hard, especially over the artwork, as it will magically erase that too..

This complete, there were a few patches, that were far worse than others, and particularly drew the eye to, and I wanted to try and reduce this impact. Again you have to be careful here, without the decades of expertise, held by those on the Repair Shop, simply slapping on some acrylic paint, is most likely going to A) completely wreck the original artwork, and B) draw your eye to it even more.

Instead I favour using an array of Sharpie pens in differing shades and dot them on, gradually building up the colour to try and best match the original artwork.

Here a few before and after comparisons – remember they don’t have to be perfect, they just have to look less imperfect than before.

USE THE SLIDER TO MOVE BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS.
USE THE SLIDER TO MOVE BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS.
USE THE SLIDER TO MOVE BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS.

Ok, one job done, many more to go. I had already noticed earlier that the bottom front edge of the cab was a little swollen (water damage?) and the side at the front left corner was breaking away.

Easy fix. Lather it in wood glue, clamp it up and leave to dry overnight. Fill all the gaps with a decent wood filler, sand it back and cut the t-mold groove back in. Done.

Another thing that wasn’t working when I got the cab, was the marquee light. A common failure, the fluorescent tubes, starter and ballast, simply were not made to still be going 40 plus years later. But then as I pulled the wooden shelf forward to remove it, it came apart in my hands, literally. So, more woodwork required. After removing all the bent staples; glue, screws and clamps applied.

As for the light itself, there are a couple of options (although as I type, there might be a third). One – replace the non-working fittings with like for like. Two – Replace with an aftermarket, LED tube. These are easy, non-invasive replacements that simply wire directly into the existing wiring. And if you get a warm white version, within a diffusing tube, to hide the individual LEDs, once behind the marquee, I doubt you would notice. EXCEPT, for on power up, you don’t get that nostalgic flicker, that you associate with fluorescent lighting. And that brings me to a possible third option, where I know about a small circuit being developed that imitates this flicker and works with the modern LED lights.

But for now, I have simply replaced the tube and starter. Will the ballast be bust? Time will tell…..

Next job on the bench, we are getting through them today, has taken a little longer to get to this stage.

I think we all know that Centipede uses a trackball device to control your avatar in the game, and for anyone wanting to dig into the history of this controller, there is a brilliant article HERE, by a good friend, Tony Temple. When I was in the process of buying this cabinet, the seller told me that the trackball housing had cracked in two, and had a makeshift fix holding it together.

Here you can see the crack running across the housing where it holds the optical pcb, and an attempt to glue it back together, coupled with a metal bracket wedged under the bolt, to hold it in place. It works, as a stop gap, and you would never see it, but… we should really try and fix this.

Options available seemed to consist of; try and use a better glue to re-attach the broken part; buy a replacement housing; 3D print a replacement housing..

Having tried the glue option first, I quickly came to terms with this just not going to hold it securely enough to house the optical board. The design needs this part to be rigid and where it was cracked, meant that glue alone would not work.

To buy a new replacement, meant buying the entire trackball enclosure, including the ball, the housing and all the rollers, etc, none of which I needed, so let’s put this idea on the shelf for now.

I don’t have a 3D printer, but I have some friends who do, but this is quite a complicated part, and drawing it up in a CAD program would not be simple, but one of my mates was starting to experiment with 3D scanning, so we might have a plan.

But then, the community once again came to my rescue. I have spoken many times previously about the arcade community, but it worth another mention. As hobbies go, and I have had a few, those friends I have made in this arena, are just brilliant. And with that build up, came a phone call from Jim, telling me of a post on an arcade forum, where a member over in the States, had put up a used Centipede trackball unit, that they no longer needed, for FREE!

And even though I did not know this user, or had even spoken to or messaged him before, after a couple of messages back and forth, he removed the trackball, to keep the weight down, and shipped it out to myself. If you read this, thank you.

Once I got this, it was just a case of simply swapping over all the various components from the broken housing into the newly acquired one. Perfect.

What to do next….. Well, this cab has been all about the woodwork, so why not find some more to do…

Again, prior to my ownership, one of the games previous owners decided, for reasons known only to them, to remove the vertically mounted 19″ monitor from the mounting frame, and refit a hugely oversized crt, HORIZONTALLY…

Oh dear.. This had resulted in the wooden mounting brackets and frame being completely butchered to within a millimetre of their life and it’s quite remarkable that the heavy screen hadn’t simply fallen out, it’s colossal weight too much for the remaining wood to hold. Maybe it did, because by the time, the cabinet made it’s way to me, the monitor was replaced with a Wells Gardner 7000, correctly sized and fitted VERTICALLY.

But this had just been mounted into the oversized hole, which a) looked pants, b) could again fall to bits at any time, and c) wasn’t going to cut it with my OCD. So I took out the monitor and took some photos. Prepare for the worst, folks…

Now, even the uninitiated could probably sense that something was wrong here. And it’s another reason as to why this cab was so wonky and wobbly. This part, spanning from side to side, plays a major part, structurally to maintain the rigidity of the cabinet. Plus it is the only thing holding up the significant weight of the monitor. To the woodshed we must again go.

Because the remaining bits, were literally, in bits, I didn’t have any kind of template to use once they were removed, so to ensure I had something to aim for, I took lots of measurements, some of them even made a modicum of sense, the next day, when I came back to it….

First job was to tackle the batons (or lack of) affixed to either side of the cabinet itself. As you can see these have been hacked to almost nothing, presumably to fit the mammoth crt that was once shoehorned in. And the surface left behind was very rough and uneven. Not wanting to to remove any more material to level this up, instead I cut a piece of plywood to fit and used an expanding wood glue to ensure it filled the uneven gaps between the surfaces. As the glue takes a while to cure and continues to expand as it does, I attached a metal strip I had lying around to ensure it didn’t push the wood out further than I wanted.

Once cured, I cut and secured a further piece of wood on top of that, screwing it through and into the side of the cabinet itself, further anchoring it, but being careful (measure twice), to ensure it didn’t poke through and out of the side art itself.

Then it was time to return to my measurements, scratch my head a bit, phone a friend and fellow Centipede owner for some photos, and try and make a new wooden bezel to attach to the monitor frame and allow it to be mounted onto these batons.

First go, and to be honest it wasn’t that bad. just a few millimetres too large in the cut out area. It probably would’ve been fine, but if a job’s worth doing…..

On this photo you can see me using a flush cutter on the router table with a jig, to cut the final piece to size.

Once cut out I was able to offer it up to the monitor frame and mark the position for the fixing points. I was able to then drill these out, including a slight recess for the fastener to sit into, to ensure it stayed flush with the frame.

Then it is back out with the blackboard paint and paint up the frame along with some other pieces that I never had, but cut from reference photos and intended on putting back.

Next thing was to fix and fit the fasteners. I am using t-nuts which sometimes get a bad press, but I like them and IF fitted correctly, work incredibly well. They also save the need for a nut to be used on the other side which can be useful when removing the monitor from the front of the cab as you can do this all without having to go around the back of the cab to remove the nuts.

A quick lesson. First use a test piece of wood to ensure your drilled hole is a snug fit for the barrel of the fastener. Then use a spade or forstener bit to drill a shallow recess wide and deep enough to house the head of the t-nut. Then push the t-nut into place, but DO NOT use a hammer to brey the teeth of the nut into place, instead use a bolt, with a large washer, inserted into the tail end of the barrel and tighten this by hand, which will pull the fastener into the wood, fixing the teeth fully into the recess. Done right, these are really secure and will not budge.

Job done, and the frame fits perfectly into the cabinet. Don’t believe me, here you go…

Whilst we are working on the monitor area, the original cardboard monitor bezel, was in good condition but the glue/tape used to fix the two pieces together had dried up and come apart. A quick raid of MrsM’s craft drawers for her red liner tape, and problem solved.

Still with me, good, we are nearing the end for today. With my head in the cab a lot during these steps, I noticed that the speaker grill was a bit rusted and dull looking. Out with the black satin paint and normally service returned.

One last update, I mentioned earlier about the ‘how much is too much’ side of restorations and my personal want, to try and keep as much original as possible, whilst not detracting from the look or play of the cabinet and/or game. Well, the front of the cabinet, is usually the face that gets looked at the most, despite the sides containing the striking artwork, the games are usually found in rows of cabinets, shielding all, except for the front. The front is also the side immediately next to the player, and their feet…. Whether though deliberate kicks, the resting of feet, or whatever else, the front of my cab looked worse for wear and drew the eye immediately downwards. This would not do.

I remember speaking to the aforementioned Mr Temple about the time he replaced the entire front laminate on his cabinet and the choice language used, convinced me that this would not be a fun endeavour to replicate. PLUS, the rest of the laminate sheet was in very good condition, and original.

Time for a compromise. I decided to slice of the bottom 4 inches, and attach a new piece. I chose to use black acrylic for this instead of laminate for a couple of reasons. One – I didn’t have any laminate and would have needed to order a huge sheet of the stuff. Two, no matter how careful I was, you would always always see the join.

With acrylic I ordered a piece cut to fit, with a thickness of more than the laminate, so it would look like a deliberate kick plate, rather than trying to hide the fix, and not quite managing to do so.

I removed the old laminate and leveled off the chipboard (compressed sawdust) underneath, where it had swollen slightly towards the edges.

Sealed that surface with a healthy amount of wood glue, which will act like a hardener to the powder dry wood.

Applied the acrylic using a contact adhesive, and left it overnight with some weights on top. When using a contact adhesive, this stuff sets, quick, so ‘top tip’, make sure you have everything you might need at hand before you pour, including a spreader, wet cloth, piece you are sticking on, something to protect the piece, weights, and phone to take this photo.

Once on, I put some car polish on the remaining laminate and polished it up. (It looks like there is a gap along the top of the new section in this photo, but it is just the spotlight, just out of photo, shining through the top edge of the acrylic)

And that, is your lot for today. Whew. We boxed off a lot of little jobs here, but they each mean we are one step closer to putting this all back together and seeing if it all still works. Still a few jobs to tackle; new t-molding, some minor monitor issues, but nothing to onerous, he says with crossed fingers.

Hopefully the next update will not be too far away. 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 installment.

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