A bartop arcade cabinet is one of the coolest projects you can make. If you love retro gaming, of course you’d want a bartop arcade cabinet in your home! Mike at The Geek Pub has created a fantastic Bartop Arcade cabinet that you can easily build with very minimal tools (all you need is a jigsaw and a drill, though additional tools will make the arcade build go faster). This bartop arcade build is one of the best one’s we’ve seen, hands down and is also one of the most affordable to build. This unit is small, but still manages to pack in a huge 24″ 16:9 monitor. The cabinet can be ran on any number of emulators, including Retropie on the Raspberry Pi. Retropie is an amazing piece of software that is incredible simple to setup and use, even for novices.
Build a Bartop Arcade Cabinet Video
The Bartop Arcade Computer: The Raspberry Pi 3
Every emulated bartop arcade build needs a computer under the hood that can run a retro arcade emulator software. In our case we’re going to use a Raspberry Pi 3.
There are a lot of reasons to use a Raspberry Pi (even a 2 or zero) over a full blowb PC. Let’s take a minute to cover a few of them before we move on. It’s important to understand these reasons. It’s also important to understand that you can most definitely pack a full PC into this cabinet if the Raspberry Pi doesn’t suit your needs for this bartop arcade build. There are lots of small form factor PCs that will fit with room to spare.
Reasons to choose the Raspberry Pi 3:
- Price: There is simply no comparison here. You can pick up a Raspberry Pi these days for $35 new, or less than $20 on the used market. No PC can compete with those price points.
- RetroPie: It’s a complete arcade emulation image you can install on your Raspberry Pi. There’s no mucking around with installers or other mess to deal with. Download the image, install it on the card and start playing games. No mess. No fuss.
- Newer Games: That’s right. Many newer games have been ported to the Raspberry Pi. You can play Doom, Duke Nukem, Quake, and lots of other more modern games.
- 8 Bit Consoles and Computers: There are emulators for the Commodore 64, Amiga, Nintendo, Atari, etc all included.
- Easy to use: RetroPie is by far the simplest emulator package you’ll find. Nothing else yet touches it.
- GPIO: The RPi has general purpose IO pins. These pins can be used to trigger relays for cabinet shakers, flashers, score boards, and all kinds of other wicked arcade add-on devices.
The Bartop Arcade Controls: Sanwa + Easyget
Of course, to play your games you’re going to need to include some buttons and joysticks. There are a lot of options. The choice for this build was the Sanwa buttons with the Easyget encoder board.
As you might be aware when Mike built his original arcade cabinet he used the X-Arcade controls. The X-Arcade controls are very rugged and work well, but they lack something he really wanted in this build. The retro look, color, and LED lighting!
Sanwa is known all over the world for producing some of the most iconic styled arcade controls. They also offer a lot of choices for buttons and lighting. On this build, Mike chose to use the LED buttons in red and blue and the effect is that awesome retro arcade look that makes you just drool as you gaze upon it!
The Easyget USB encoder is also very well known with hardcore arcade builders. If there was a downside to these encoders its that you’ll need a separate encoder for every player where some of the other encoders will handle numerous players (1-8). This simplifies the wiring, but means your going to need multiple controllers if you have more than one player. This bartop arcade build includes a template for both single player and two player options.
I have to admit, I much prefer the Sanwa controls over the X-Arcade controls. They just fit the retro styling a lot better!
Bartop Arcade Build Step-by Step
Step 1: Mirror the Side Panels
While there are of course two side panels to this bartop arcade build, you only need to lay it out once. Sandwich together two sections of MDF (or your preferred material) and layout the side panels. You’ll cut both sides at the same time since they are identical in every way.
Step 2: The Curved Section of the bartop arcade build
The curved section of the side panels is one of the ones we get the most questions about. It can be confusing and a little daunting. Many people email asking what the radius is, etc. but its so simple once you know the tricks of how to lay them out using a compass (or even a long string with a pencil tied to one end and a finish nail tied to the other end). You can find helpful tips on this by watching all of our Bartop Arcade videos.
Step 3: Cut Out the Side Panels
As already mentioned you are going to make two duplicate side panels. The easiest way to do this is to cut your sheet of MDF or 3/4″ plywood in half and clamp the two halves together. You’ll then use a jigsaw to cut two side panels at the same time. This will save you a lot of time and effort, and you’ll be certain your two side panels are identical.
Step 4: Using scabs to connect the panels
To make this arcade simple to build, Mike chose to use scabs to connect the panels together. You could also use pocket hole screws or other connection methods if you have more advance tools. Anyone should be able to make and use scabs with nothing but a jigsaw. Of course, Mike shows the use of a brad-nailer in the video to make things go faster, but glue is all you need.
These scabs do offer one unique advantage over other joinery methods. They make aligning and assembling the finished product a breeze, especially if you are using screws instead of glue and brad nails.
The scabs should be square and exactly the same size as your build material. In most cases this should be 3/4″ MDF or plywood, making the scabs 3/4″ X 3/4″. The length of them should be slightly shorter than the panel parts you are connecting.
Step 5: Assembly
If you did everything in step 4 right, assembly will be super fast and easy. Just align everything, add some glue and brad nails. If you’re not using a brad-nailer, just screw everything together using wood screws and cover the screw tops with wood putty. If you’re going to install vinyl arcade side decals you’ll never see them anyway.
Step 6: T-Mold Slotting
Mike has mentioned numerous times in his builds that’s he’s a t-molding guy! And it’s true, t-molding delivers a decidedly retro look to emulated bartop arcade builds! To install t-molding you will need a slot cutter. The size and depth of that slot will be dependent on the type and brand of t-molding you decide to use. Check the manufacturer’s directions for the recommended slot cutter to use.
This slot is optional. If you don’t plan to install t-molding, skip this step. However, if you do plan to install t-molding it is very important that you do not skip this step! Your router will not be able to reach all of the sections that need to be slotted after assembly!
Step 7: Install the Front and Back Sections
The next step is to install all of the front and back panel sections, along with the underside of the lighted marquee box (make sure you’ve routed the t-molding slot!).
Step 8: Drill the Control Panel
The plans for the bartop arcade build include a spray and stick template that you can print out on any standard printer. The best way to go about attaching it is to use 3M Super 77 spray adhesive. This will allow you to easily remove it later. If you don’t have that available you can use a glue stick, or even masking tape to hold it down. No need to measure or layout anything. Just drill them out. Using a drill press will most definitely make the holes cleaner, but a handheld drill will work just as well.
Pro-tip 1: Place a piece of scrap on the underside of the board to keep the drill bit from blowing out the back of the board when it exits.
Pro-tip 2: If you need help backboring your smaller buttons, check out this arcade backboring video.
Step 9: Maintenance Door Installation
The back door of the cabinet will be used for maintenance purposes.
Step 10: Drill for the Speakers
The plans additionally include a speaker drilling template. This will make your speaker holes look like they were made in a factory using a CNC machine. Again, we recommend using 3M Super 77 spray adhesive for temporarily attaching the template. We have a video that will make this part of the project a breeze. Check out our drilling arcade speaker holes video.
Pro-tip 1: Use a backer board on the inside of the cabinet to prevent blow-out when the drill bit exits the material.
Pro-tip 2: Place a piece of tape on your drill-bit so that you’ll know when you’ve drilled deep enough.
Pro-tip 3: Use a punch to start your holes so the drill bit doesn’t wander.
Pro-tip 4: Sand the speaker holes using a soft sanding pad to clean up the holes for a factory finished look.
Step 11: Priming your Bartop Arcade Build is Essential
If you’ve never painted MDF or plywood before you might be tempted to skip the primer. This is a really bad idea. MDF specifically needs primer to get even a mediocre result. MDF at its core is simply sawdust mixed in a vat with a bonding agent (glue), and the sliced into 4×8 foot sheets. Priming it is a must. Once you’ve primed the board, and it has dried according the manufacturer’s recommendations, lightly sand it to a smooth surface. If bare wood starts to show, you went too far and will need to re-prime that area.
Step 12: Paint the RetroPie Cabinet
You can take the paint to the extreme. You can put a glossy finish on using an HVLP sprayer, or even airbrush on all kinds of graphics and details. In this build, Mike chose to simply use flat black rattle cans from Home Depot to show that it doesn’t take a professional paint job to get rock-star results on your bartop arcade build. In this case Rustoleum Flat Black was the color of choice. If you plan to later install side vinyl graphics, this paint job is of course much less important.
Step 13: Install Electrical Outlets for your Devices
You’ll want plenty of power outlets in your bartop arcade cabinet to plug in your devices. A minimum would be four outlets. You could also install a master on/off switch should you choose (as in some of our other cabinets). Most devices will be powered from USB, so four should be perfect in this case.
Step 14: T-Molding Installation is Easy
We often hear just how difficult it can be to install t-molding for first timers. It’s really not that hard. We even offer a t-molding tips and tricks video that should really simplify things if you’ve never done it before. We suggest using a a rubber mallet to gently tap it into place. Don’t force it into the slot though, as you’ll damage the MDF if it gets kinked.
Step 15: Installing the Lighted Marquee
To help with the reflectivity of the lighted marquee box, we highly recommend that you line the inside of the box with reflect tape or aluminum foil. This will make the glow from the box look a lot more uniform and clean. Any LED under cabinet light from Home Depot should work fine. If you can find one with a built in dimmer that is icing on the cake, as you can control just how bright your lighted marquee is.
Step 16: Install the Joysticks and Buttons
Assembling the control panel with the joysticks and buttons is the next step. Its super easy, just following the wiring guide. If you have trouble with the smaller buttons, watch this video on arcade buttons being too short. The wiring instructions should come with the buttons you purchased. If you need more help, watch this arcade wiring video. If you want to reverse the operation of the LEDs on the buttons, watch this arcade LED wiring video. If you’re also adding a coin mech to your arcade, watch this coin mech video.
Step 17: Install the Control Panel and Monitor
The monitor just slides into place and is a friction fit. If this bothers you, the plans do include an optional VESA mount to permanently attach it.
Step 18: Install the Raspberry Pi
Using double sided tape or adhesive backed Velcro, install the Raspberry Pi into any open area of the bartop arcade cabinet. The plan templates also include an optional cooling fan in the rear door, and we have a video on installing a fan in an arcade cabinet if you feel like you need one. If you choose to install a fan, now would be the time to do it.
Step 19: Install the Lighted Marquee
Cut two pieces of Plexiglas or acrylic sheeting to exactly the size of the marquee opening. You can have your marquee printed at any office supply store for just a few dollars. Use the sheets as a template to trim your marquee to the right size. Place it between the two sheets ans slide it into place in the cabinet. Cut two small pieces of wood about 1/4″ square and glue them to the ends of the inside of the marquee. This will hole in in place, but allow you to remove it later should you want to change it to something different.
The Completed RetroPie Bartop Arcade Cabinet
The completed The Geek Pub Bartop Arcade Cabinet is truly a work of art! Of course you can customize this design in any way you like or choose completely different colors for the buttons and paint. Let your imagination go wild!