Building Your Own Arcade Cabinet: My Experience

Starting in the fall of 2015 and ending sometime around the fall of 2016, I took it upon myself to build my own arcade cabinet.  I was living in North Carolina, and the idea came about when I made the acquaintance of a guy with years experience in cabinet making.  Building an arcade is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the woodworking know-how.   

This is not meant to be a definitive guide to building an arcade cabinet.  This is just meant to be my experience in doing so. There are websites like arcadecontrols.com that can teach you every single thing you need to know to build a cabinet yourself.  I hope you will find something in this post useful, should you ever decide to build one.

The final result is something I’m quite proud of:

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My cabinet making friend in NC was about as excited as I was for the project.  He told me we needed one of two things to start: a schematic, or we could go to a local arcade and use measuring tape to get the dimensions of a cabinet there.  I went the schematic route, and found a replica of the Neo Geo MVS on Ben Heck’s website.  Knowing that an actual Neo Geo MVS cabinet is about six feet one inches tall, we used something called scale to get the height and width of individual pieces from the schematic, and used a basic protractor to get the angles from it.

We took three main creative liberties from what was on the schematic: we designed it instead to use a widescreen HDTV instead of a CRT (let’s not be crazy), we included slots for the speakers below the TV (as seen in the picture), and included no coin slots, but instead two banks of buttons for start, select, and auxiliary. My cabinet-making friend was good at sketching out this stuff on paper. I ordered a HDTV that would fit our schematic.

That’s pretty much all we needed to get started.  We went to the hardware store and got a fair amount of ¾ inch plywood.  ¾ inch is recommended, as it’s durable and works well for the buttons and joysticks.  Over the course of a few weeks, we cut every piece of wood we needed with exact angles.  We also drilled holes for the buttons and joysticks (with a standard one inch drill bit), cut slits for the speakers, and cut out wood to build a brace to hold the TV, and a shelf to hold the speakers.  Finally, we ordered some parts online (rockler.com and homedepot.com), like a lock and key for the door at the bottom, a piano hinge for the door at the bottom (which we cut down to size) and a fluorescent light for the marquee.

I also ordered arcade parts for the buttons and joysticks.  We went with a company called X-Gaming, which caters to hobbyist arcade makers.  There are eight buttons and one joystick for each of the two players, as well as three buttons beneath the control panel for each player.  We decided to use a PC that I had already built for the main hardware of the cabinet.  The one thing we did not order is a piece of hardware that acts as an interface for wiring the buttons and joysticks and connecting it to the PC.  We’ll get to that later.

Unfortunately, around the time we got all this work done, I had to leave North Carolina and head back to my hometown in Pennsylvania.  My cabinet-making friend agreed to ship the parts and everything we worked on back to me in PA.  The real reason it took a year to complete the cabinet is that after I received the parts, they kind of just sat in my basement for a long time.  There was work to be done like assembling the TV brace and the speaker shelf, and I didn’t have the know-how to do it properly.

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Then one morning in 2016, I woke up and said “I’m going to finish this darn arcade.”  I found a carpenter online who agreed to finish assembling the cabinet.  Most of it was already cut out, so it wasn’t a lot of work, he said.  He put it together in about two days, and charged me a reasonable price for his time.  He was going to charge me as much money to paint it as he charged to assemble it, but I said no, I know how to paint things.  I used small foam paint rollers (available at Home Depot or a local hardware store), and a white high-gloss enamel.  It took a morning to prime the cabinet, an afternoon to paint it, and a day to let it dry.

We’re getting toward the end here.  I did some work with my old man in this next part, so that’s who “we” refers to.

We needed a couple of things now.  One is artwork, and the other is acrylic (more commonly called plexiglass).  The artwork was pretty easy as it turns out.  I wanted a Street Fighter IV cabinet, so I found super high resolution images of Ryu and Ken on a Google Image search, as well as an equally high resolution image of the Ultra Street Fighter IV logo.  I put the three images on a USB drive and walked to a very local FedEx Office.  The young woman behind the counter was very helpful.  I said what size I wanted the images to be, and said that the Street Fighter IV logo was going to have light shining through it.  She showed me a special kind of paper designed for light to shine through, and showed me in Photoshop that the sizes were correct.  It was going to take a few hours to print, so I left the store and received a call that afternoon saying everything was ready.  Finding those super high res images paid off, because they looked fantastic blown up to scale.  I paid and said thank you.

Going back to the cabinet, I used a T-square to get a perfect right angle on both sides of the cabinet, marked it with a marker, and affixed the two side art pieces with spray adhesive (picked up at Home Depot).  The marquee image was also affixed with spray adhesive.

Now for the acrylic!  We needed two pieces: one for the marquee, and one for the control panel (we realized it’s uncomfortable to play games on painted wood).  If you’re cutting a simple square or rectangle, you can get your acrylic cut at Home Depot, which is exactly what we did for the marquee.  The control panel acrylic was a bit more complicated however.  Yes, the shape is again a rectangle, but there are holes in the control panel for buttons and joysticks, which needed to be cut perfectly to the size and location of the hole.  Cutting acrylic is seriously tricky business.  We started going down this rabbit hole of looking up ways to cut acrylic at home.  We tried a couple things on spare acrylic, and neither way worked great.  Upon further Googling, we found out that cutting acrylic is so complicated that you should hire professionals to do it with lasers.

I live outside Philadelphia, and we found a place in the city called Lasermation.  I had a good phone call with the owner (it’s a small shop), and he asked me to measure the locations of the holes and write them down.  I started doing this, but realized that it needed to be exact to about the 32nd of an inch, which was hard to measure exactly.  I called the guy back and asked if there was another way.  He said if I brought the control panel in, he could scan it and the holes would be cut according to the scan.  That’s exactly what we did.  The result was phenomenal.  The holes in the acrylic were in the exact right places, and the buttons and joysticks slid right through.  As an (important) aside, we had screw holes cut in both pieces of acrylic around the edges, as drilling directly into acrylic causes it to crack.

After screwing in the top and bottom acrylic, there was was pretty much one thing left to do: wire the buttons and joysticks to the PC inside the cabinet.  There are interfaces that allow you to do this, which are basically circuit boards with slots for the wires that connect to the input devices, and and a USB or PS/2 cable to connect to the PC.  I went with one that’s pretty reputable in the arcade building community, the I-PAC.  

I’ve tried my hand at wiring things with solder, and have not had the best results.  So I hired an electrician to do the wiring.  It took him about a day of work to do the wiring and install the I-PAC, and he did a really professional job.  The wired I-PAC plugged directly into the PC via USB, and comes with a piece of software for mapping the buttons to keyboard keys.  Pretty simple.

On the computer, I used a fancy piece of Windows software for launching games in emulators called LaunchBox.  LaunchBox launches automatically when you start the PC, so you can basically start selecting the game you want to play and play it as soon as the machine boots.  Just make sure you’re using your legally backed up ROMs, kids.

And that basically sums it up.  I have a fully working 2-player arcade, which plays not only arcade classics, but also classics from consoles like NES, SNES, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Genesis.

I tried to stay away from individual prices for things (including labor), mainly because I don’t remember all of them.  But all told, excluding the computer, the cabinet cost $1200 to build.  Not pocket change by any stretch, but worth the cost if you’re an enthusiast.

The last thing I want to say is I view the cabinet still as a work in progress.  Because I’m using a flat screen TV, we could easily cut the depth of the cabinet in half, and make it take up less space.  I could also hire a professional artist to do some game related art for the left and right sides, though that could get expensive.  I could get some thin acrylic for the left and right side for a nice glossy look.  Basically, there’s always more that can be done.

I hope this is helpful to someone. I couldn’t have done it without the help of others, but this is definitely my arcade, with my stamp on it.  I look forward to continued gaming on it.

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