What tools should I be buying?

I somewhat recently acquired my first pinball machine, (Bally Lost World, I’ll have to take pictures later!) and it has a lot of work I have to do to get this back into shape.

So, my question is: what tools are necessary to repair and maintain a machine? I’ve got a multimeter but that’s about it. I grew up without a mechanically inclined adult in my life, so I’m a little behind on what sorts of tools I should own.

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This probably won’t be a complete list, but it’s a start:

  • Various screwdrivers (phillips is more common, but flat heads aren’t unheard of; ideally, with magnetized tips)
  • SAE socket set or nut drivers (1/4" and 3/8" are the most common, but also 11/32" and 5/16"; ideally, with magnetized tips)
  • SAE Hex/Allen key set
  • 5/8" wrench for leg bolts (ratcheting, ideally)
  • 9/16" wrench for head bolts (ratcheting, ideally)
  • Leaf switch adjuster
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder sucker for desoldering
  • Wire stripper

I end up using pliers a good bit. Needle nose locking pliers are my favorite for holding bolts where the nut driver angle is awkward.

I can picture what my life would be like trying to repair machines without these.

I better put this at the top of the list.

Get one of the long neck Klein 1/4 inch nut drivers with the magnetic tip. Also get a regular cheap non magnetic 1/4 one.

Thats really the only size you need magnetic in imo, and its quite nice.

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The long 1/4 magnetic Klein is a great suggestion. I use that tool probably more than any other on a routine basis. I would also recommend stoping by your local harbor freight and picking up a magnetic bowl for small parts as you work on the game, this can be a lifesaver.

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I agree about the magnetic bowl but do not put flipper parts in it! Magnetized flipper parts can cause problems.

I see that Sears currently has a 6-piece ratcheting wrench set on sale for $20.

I paid around $8 for a comparable 5/8" wrench to the one in this set a while back from Amazon, and the 9/16" would be useful for most head bolts. Older machines tend to require head bolts, and for newer stuff like WPC games, they’re at least recommend for machines on location. So I think $20 if pretty reasonable if you’re starting from a place of no wrenches.

If you don’t need sizes other than for legs and head bolts, I’m sure this is a fine option:


I often use a 3/8 and 5/16 ratcheting wrench for working on various types of flippers. So a set can be good value.

It’s a bit of a specialty tool, but I find the 1/4" long hollow WIHA nut driver to be a great companion to the previously mentioned Klein magnetic tip. The latter is probably my most used tool of all but there are a few cases where it simply doesn’t work. The threaded part sticking up out of a star post screw is often too wide to fit into the hollow shaft for example. The WIHA can handle any of these, plus it will fit completely over a mini post (like this) making for very easy removal without risking damage from a wrench.


Update: Now on sale for $17.

Apparently, that’s the price point where I’m comfortable jumping in. I’m going to pick up a set tomorrow.

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This won’t be a helpful reply (maybe), but you’re not alone. Except that my father was an electrical engineer (and probably would have loved tinkering and repairing pinball machines). As a result, we have in our garage most of the tools listed here. And a box full of resistors of different resistances.

Good to know that most of these are pretty basic tools though. I was expecting something more specialized.

To anyone: Is there a good way to safely and reliably move pinball machines? For instance, in order to move one to a more open space so it can be worked on.

[quote=“SunsetShimmer, post:11, topic:1606”]
To anyone: Is there a good way to safely and reliably move pinball machines? For instance, in order to move one to a more open space so it can be worked on.[/quote]

If it is a relatively flat surface, you could buy (or make by yourself) a pair of simple things like this:

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My group tends to fold the backbox forward onto the playfield, then secure it in place by wrapping a cord around it- the ones that wind tight cannot be recommended highly enough. Then just lift it onto a dolly to move it relatively easily.

Stairs are a different issue. It can still be done this way, but always requires two people, and large enough wheels to make the staircase easy to climb up or down.

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Depending on the age of the game, you’ll need different tools.

Many solid state games have similar requirements, however.

In my toolbox for game repair:

  1. A good set of phillips and flat head screwdrivers with (lightly) magnetized tips.
  2. A good multimeter with continuity beep function or a test lamp
  3. A waldorm crimper (most other ones stink and can’t do the job properly)
  4. I use a hydraulic lift table, but many of my games are heavier than modern machines (bingos!) That said, I would still vastly prefer a lift table to those skate things - you can get a lift table for approx $100-$130 from Harbor Freight for 500lb capacity.
  5. I have vice grips for when I need a clamp. That said, a good set of clamps will do you well.
  6. A rubber mallet for installing lane guides or other wireforms.
  7. An array of pins and connectors - .100 and .156 for Bally solid states.
  8. I have two different size ratchets with common sockets attached so I can easily tell - this is for leg bolts, this is for head bolts
  9. Good soldering iron/gun (read: dependable) and a less portable temp-controlled station for board/fine repair with flux core solder (and separate flux for board repair).
  10. Solder sucker/braid
  11. Angle nippers to cut components down.
  12. And I switched from a plain ol’ manual wire stripper to a spring-loaded one when I started building my machine, and it has changed my life. Well worth the $14-$20 for a nice one.
  13. Nut drivers are nice to have.
  14. Lubricant for EM steppers
  15. 90% Alcohol for cleaning
  16. Good cleaner and wax.

Oh, and lots of bulbs and rubber rings of various types. I only use incandescents, so I carry 47s, the odd box of 44s (some people prefer them) 51s and 1464 (bingo card or one ball 17V circuits. I also carry 555 and 455 bulbs, but I do generally customize the bulbs to the job. I won’t carry 1464s to a solid state Williams repair, for example.

Rings I only carry a 11/16" in black, the rest all white in various sizes.

Yeah, the nice thing is that most of the above can be used for other stuff, too.

If you have to do woodwork (cabinet repair), that opens up a whole new set of tools.

Hope that helps!


I can make some recommendations for soldering tools - I’ve taught a couple hundred people soldering through workshops with a local maker space, so have some opinions on the equipment that’s available :slight_smile:

Soldering Irons and Stations

  • Go with a temperature controlled iron.

  • Temperature controlled irons let you get a more powerful iron, and not worry about it burning itself out, or overheating and causing issues with nearby components. Power supplies have gotten a lot smaller, so it’s very possible to get a portable sized iron (no base station) that’s got plenty of power and temperature control.

  • More powerful irons heat up hot enough to melt solder quicker, so with no risk of overheating, they’re much more convenient.

  • Temperature controlled stations have gotten cheap enough that it’s just not worth going with un-regulated ones.

  • The Hakko FX-601 is an awesome portable iron - temperature controlled, 67 Watts. It doesn’t come with a stand or a sponge. I think for a portable pinball toolkit it’s the best thing out there.

For more traditional solder stations, the pretty common Weller WES-51 is only 50W - less powerful than the FX-601 (67W), so you may not feel the need for a more traditional station any more. The advantages are nicer ergonomics of the pen and a lighter cord, but the base is inconvenient for pinball work.

  • If you are going to buy one, I like the Weller WES51/WES51D or the Hakko 888D in the (~100) price range, individual preference between the two.

  • If you want cheap, there’s a number of companies selling clones of the old Hakko 936 under a variety of different names (Auyue and Yihua being two notable ones).

Hobbyking, who are the biggest online hobby RC supplier around have it for the cheapest -~$16. It’s a reasonably competent 60W base station, and the price is hard to beat. They aren’t the most reliable, or the nicest to use, but they sure are cheap. About the same size as the Weller WES51.

  • If you want to spend more than $200, Hakko, Weller, Metcal, Pace, JBC are all reputable brands that make excellent systems, but the benefits are more for people doing small precision work, not so much for pinball repair.
  • Replacement tips are quite affordable for most common stations.
  • Replace the tip if solder stops adhering to the tip nicely when you solder.
  • Don’t scrape away at the tip with something sharp - it’s an old-school technique for old-fashioned iron design, and doesn’t do well with more modern tips where the outer skin of the tip is a different material plated on. At the point the plating is pitted enough to not be performing well, scraping isn’t going to help it.

Portable De-Soldering Tools

  • Many people like solder sucker tools - small spring powered reverse syringes where you heat up solder with an iron, then stick the tip of the solder sucker in it, and press a button to suck it up.

  • I’m not a huge fan of solder suckers, as I find the results inconsistent, and they often leave bits of solder that are difficult to remove, as if the tip of the sucker can’t fully sink into solder, it won’t pick much up.

I prefer desoldering braid (AKA wick) - like this stuff. you put the braid against the solder you wish to remove, then hold an iron up to the braid. As the solder melts, it’s wicked into the braid. Much cleaner.

  • Adding flux to something tricky (big wire, board work, etc.) helps get good results - for desoldering braid, putting some extra on braid (especially old braid) helps the wicking.

Removing components

  • If you’ll be doing a lot of removing through hole components like driver MOSFETS, a desoldering station can be convenient -
  • these are like a combination solder sucker and soldering iron - the iron has a hollow tip, and a motorized vacuum is used to suck the solder out as it liquifies. Hakko makes a popular one, the FR-300, and there are other more expensive manufacturers out there too.
  • There’s a guy on pinside who apparently offers pinball people a discount on these, but I haven’t followed up on that.

I’d however suggest a different option - a hot air pencil.

  • These are basically the hair dryer from hell, and the cheap Chinese brands are good value, and perfectly functional -
  • they work by blowing a fine amount of air, heated enough to melt solder.
  • You use it by dancing it across the leads of the part you’re trying to remove until the solder melts, then pull the part out of the board with tweezers.
  • An advantage is that multiple leads can be heated simultaneously, which makes it easier to remove parts with more than one or two leads (chips, drivers, etc.). Once the part is removed, use desoldering braid to clean up the solder.
  • Disadvantage is risk of heating up parts you don’t intend.

Hot air pencils are also really handy for surface mount components (anyone had to do any board work on Stern’s Spike system stuff yet?).


  • Don’t use lead free solder -

  • It’s much more annoying to work with, and as long as you wash your hands after working, leaded stuff is fine.

  • Don’t use solder or flux intended for plumbing - it’s far more acidic, and can damage boards and chips.

  • You want stuff labeled as “Rosin Core” -

  • it’s a small amount of flux embedded in the solder wire, that burns off while soldering to prevent oxidation, giving you a better solder joint.

“Pocket Packs” are a narrow test-tube sized plastic container of solder with a hole on the top to let solder out. It’s a convenient way to carry it in a portable toolkit, but more costly. Many vendors sell in this form factor.

  • Two major reputable solder suppliers in North America are MG Chemicals (Canadian, sells in US and Canada) and Kessler (American).

  • Some people swear by eutectic solder (AKA 63/37), a marginally more expensive leaded solder alloy than the standard 60/40. It’s marginally nicer to work with, but not the big leap of any leaded over non leaded solder.


I blew up 2 (or maybe even 3) of these Chinese made Hakko clones back when I was building guitar effects on a regular basis. They always worked just as well as a Hakko would for a while, but once I started using them for hours at a time, they’d get to a point where they could barely get hot enough and then would pretty quickly die. Most people that are buying them will be fine but it’s worth pointing out.

Minor quibble with this remark… I’m an admitted Metcal fanboy but the quick heating and tip temperature stability is second to none and provides a nice benefit even when working underneath a playfield. When soldering to any larger piece of metal, even a nice Weller or Hakko that doesn’t have a massive tip will struggle to fully heat the solder—lamp sockets come to mind as a place I’ve seen friends struggle. At this point I’ve owned just about every solder station brand except a Pace and the Metcal allows me to work faster and with more precision than all of them. Yes, they can be expensive but I’ve gotten a couple on eBay for as little as $150 with stand, wand and multiple tips. And one of my friends who techs pins for a living has thanked me many times for recommending one to him.

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Agreed that the clones aren’t fit for sustained use, but they are crazy cheap for beginners.

cough I should, uhh, probably admit that my personal station is also a Metcal… They’re awesome.

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Those are great tools for the bench, but just about anything that gets hot will work for soldering coils/switches/diodes under the playfield. In fact, I do advocate getting a nice temp controlled station for board repair and something cheaper for everything else.

I use braid and often feel like the only one, so very glad to hear of someone else into pinball that uses it. I use a solder sucker when I have a particularly saturated joint to clean (some folks just glob it on) and don’t want to waste a bunch of braid, or if doing really fine board work and am worried about overheating small traces.

Oh, I forgot a great couple of tools: a 9v battery (to test bulbs) a leaf adjuster (the best available are at pbr), a few business cards (to clean switches), an ignition file (to reshape em or flipper switch contacts), and a wooden dowel (to actuate switches without risking your fingers).

All of the above will work for em and ss games.


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[quote=“Niewidzialny, post:12, topic:1606, full:true”]
To anyone: Is there a good way to safely and reliably move pinball machines? For instance, in order to move one to a more open space so it can be worked on.[/quote]

Interesting. Will they be feasible for sloped surfaces? I have had problems with moving furniture across surfaces leaned to one side, as they tend to slide one way, and I am clumsy so I have actually dropped furniture off skate-type dollies like that on sloped terrain. I live at the base of a mountain, so we have highly uneven ground outside. (Though if I have someone helping, it’s a lot easier.)

Do you mean the two-wheeled metal dollies? They can handle something that heavy?

Are those beginner recommendations? I have never soldered in my life. (And despite my father being an electrical engineer, he seemed to be afraid of soldering. He always tried to find an alternative, or failing that, let someone else do it.)

Depending on how steep it is.

If you leave it on a sloped surface, it can move by itself if you do not set the wheels in the opposite direction of the slope.

If you move it on a sloped surface, it might be hard to move by yourself or even impossible depending on how steep it is.

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