This is the arcade cabinet build that started it all! It’s the one by Mike from The Geek Pub! When Mike Murray was in High School in the 1980s he and his friends would always go to the local arcade at Forum 303 Mall in Arlington Texas and play arcade games at a place called The Forum Fair Arcade. It was literally the biggest arcade in the area and where all the teenagers went to hang out on the weekends. This arcade was so large that it had a full-size carnival style “merry go round” in the center of the room.
Mike being a complete geek, even in high school gravitated to computers and was one of the first kids in town to have his own computer at home. He started with a Commodore VIC-20 at age 7, and the followed that up with a Commodore 64 a few years later. Of course, with computers like the Commodore comes video games. This meant Mike was naturally captivated by arcades and all of the lights and sounds that go with them.
Some of Mike’s favorite arcade games from that time period were Galaga, Pac-Man, and Xevious. He also of course enjoyed some of the more popular games like Spy Hunter and Dig Dug.
This inspired Mike in his later years to build an arcade for a new home they had purchased with a game room. He’d never really had a place to put one until then. So he set out to his wood shop to design and create the ultimate full-size arcade cabinet build!
Arcade Cabinet Build Video Part 1
Arcade Cabinet Build Video Part 2
Arcade Cabinet Build Video Part 3
Arcade Cabinet Build
We’re going to break this article down into to major subsections, the design of the arcade and the arcade cabinet build itself. Detailed arcade cabinet plans are available for this build as well in both online versions (guild) and PDF printable.
Designing the Arcade
When Mike went about the process of designing this arcade he wanted it to look as retro as possible while containing modern hardware like an LCD screen instead of a large and heavy CRT which was usually found in arcade machines from the era. He also wanted it to have some more modern features, such as a slide out keyboard tray that could be used to play PC games or configure the system.
This quickly brought some things to light. Arcade cabinets from the 1970s to 1980s were in some cases more than three feet in depth from front of the cabinet to the wall. The reason for this was of course to accommodate the large CRT screens. So this cabinet has been modified to make it smaller without taking away from the retro look. This makes it far more convenient for the average home and saves space, and weight.
This full-size arcade cabinet build was originally designed around the use of a PC running Windows 8.1 and MAME. Mike went this route so that he could place PC games on this arcade cabinet build as well as retro arcade games. Later, after a couple of months of use the cabinet was changed to a Raspberry Pi running Retropie to simplify things and bring a much cleaner interface to the system for his guests.
Another aspect of this arcade that was important to Mike was to make sure it felt legitimate. And in order to do that it needed to have old school themes and operate like a real arcade would. This meant a lighted marquee across the top and a real functioning coin door on the front!
Building the Arcade Cabinet
Furniture construction has evolved a lot over the last few decades. Original arcades were build using the furniture making principles of the time. You can see this translation in the use of plywood and two-by-four construction techniques that were used in the era. After construction the cabinets would be painted to add the artwork for the specific game the cabinet was being built for.
In today’s modern construction methods it is more common to use medium density fiberboard (commonly referred to by its acronym MDF) for these types of construction efforts. MDF is easier to work with, much easier to paint than plywood (which has a wood grain texture that must be dealt with), and costs less. Plywood is also very prone to chipping at its edges, which then has to be filled with putty. Honestly, the only real downside to MDF over plywood is that it weighs a little more. If weight is a concern stick with plywood construction. In a project this big that’s not likely to matter much.
The Arcade Cabinet Construction Process
So let’s walk through the basic process of building the full-size Geek Pub Arcade Cabinet.
Step 1: Trace out the panels and cut the sections
Since you will need to side panels, its recommended to cut both of them together. Do this by sandwiching two sheets of 3/4″ MDF together and cutting both panels at the same time. We always recommend taking extra time and caution here. Making a mistake will ruin two perfectly good MDF sheets if you make a mistake.
Step 2: Slot for T-Molding (Optional)
If you’re going to install t-molding in your cabinet, we highly recommend that you slot it before you move on to assembly. There are simply places that you will not be able to reach with the router after final assembly. T-molding is completely optional however. Be sure to check the t-molding manufacturer’s website to make sure you get the correctly sized slot cutting bit for your router. They’re not necessarily all the same. T-molding serves two purposes in arcades. It has the awesome retro look, but it also protects the cabinet from the abuse of daily use.
Step 3: Assemble the Cabinet
Assembling the cabinet is easier if you use what we refer to as scab boards (sometimes called cleats). Install these scabs at the edges of the arcade cabinet. This makes it easy to align all of the sections. If you have a brad nailer you can make this process go faster. If not just some wood glue and a little patience is all you need. Another option a lot of arcade cabinet builders like is pocket-hole screw construction.
The scabs should be exactly the size of the material you are using in your arcade cabinet build. If 3/4″ MDF, make them 3/4″ X 3/4″ and just a couple inches shorter than the panel you are attaching them to. See the video if this isn’t clear.
During the assembly process is also a good time to install casters on the bottom of the cabinet. This will make it much easier to move around in the future.
Step 4: Drill the Control Panel
Provided in the plans is a spray and stick template for both single and two-player arcade controls. This template can be attached to the control panel with spray adhesive (we recommend 3M Super 77) or with masking tape. Use a punch or awl to punch the center starter holes for the joystick and buttons. This will make sure the drill does not slip during the drilling process. You can use any drill bit of the proper size, but we highly recommend using a Forstner bit. It will make much cleaner cut. Be sure to use a backer board on the bottom to make sure the bit doesn’t blow out the back of the board on exit.
If you run into issues where the smaller buttons won’t fit all the way through the MDF, we have a video on backboring the holes for smaller buttons.
Step 5: Paint the Arcade Cabinet
Painting the arcade cabinet is a two step process. With MDF it is an absolute requirement to prime it. MDF in a nutshell is pressed together glue and sawdust. It’s literally a sponge for paint. If you want to get a good clean surface you”ll have to prime the cabinet (same applies to plywood). Paint+primer paints are not a substitute and do not really prime the surface. You should give the cabinet a light sanding after the coat of primer.
Mike used a Fuji Spray Semi-Pro 2 to both prime and paint his full size arcade cabinet. For the primer he used Glidden GRIPPER, and then a light sanding using 220 grit. Then shot a shot a high gloss coat of Glidden High-Gloss Black latex paint. This thing looks like glass! You’ll always get a better finish with HVLP on projects like this. But Mike has also demonstrated in other builds that Home Depot rattle cans can produce fantastic results as well.
Step 6: Wire the Cabinet
The next step is to wire up the cabinet for electrical. You’re going to need power for all of the following:
- Raspberry Pi
- Speakers/Optional Amp
- Lighted Marquee
- Optional Fan
Additionally, on these full-size arcade cabinets we generally recommend you install a master on off switch somewhere. Mike installed his on the top using a traditional paddle light switch.
You can certainly just toss a regular household power strip in the bottom of your cabinet and call it a day. It works, but it is not very elegant. In many places that will also fail electrical code if your wondering. The best option is to install a permanently wired set of outlets.
Another note. Do not use the USB ports on the Raspberry Pi to power your fan or speakers. The Pi simply does not have enough power and you will overload it. This might cause permanent damage.
Step 7: Install the Buttons and Encoders
Installing the joysticks, buttons, and encoders is quite simple. They’re all just plug and play. It honestly doesn’t make any difference though what button plugs into what port on the controller. At the end of the day, Retropie is going to ask you to press every button during setup and will automatically correct the mapping for any miswired buttons. I highly recommend the Sanwa buttons. Additionally, now is time to wire in and install the coin mechanism.
Step 8: Install the Buttons and Encoders
The speaker bar is installed below the lighted Marquee. To make it look awesome, Mike covered it with the remains of black t-shirt. It looks just like a professional factory made it. You can attach this fabric permanently with 3M Super 77 spray adhesive. The speakers are just a cheap pair of USB powered speakers that have a built in amplifier and they sound fantastic! The best way to install these is with hot glue. That way they can always be removed later if you need to replace them. We have a video on drilling for arcade speakers if you need extra help with this step.
Step 8: Install the Monitor
The next step is to install the monitor. Mike chose a 27″ Acer Touch screen. Though the touch part is purely optional. This screen is edge to edge glass and makes for a seamless fit. It simply looks perfect!
What’s fantastic about using an edge-to-edge glass display like this is that there is no need to remove a nasty plastic bezel from the monitor or wrap it with some sort of frame. It just works right out of the box!
The monitor in most homebrew arcades are simply a press fit. They slide into place and don’t have anything holding them in. Our full-size arcade plans to include an optional VESA mounting bracket should this be a concern for you. This will hold the monitor permanently in place.
Step 9: Installing the Lighted Marquee
You can use any standard LED light from a big box store. These are generally labeled UCLs or under-cabinet-lights. Just find one that has the right lumens to suit your needs. Even better if it has an integrated dimmer. Before installing the light in the back of the cabinet, line the entire inside of the lighted marquee area with aluminum foil, or foil tape. If using foil, just attach it with 3M Super 77 spray adhesive left over from installing the speakers or drilling templates.
Plug the marquee light into one of the electrical sockets we installed in the previous steps. Sandwich your marquee between two sheets of acrylic glass and gently set them into place in the front of the cabinet.
Step 10: Install the Artwork
You can get all sorts of custom artwork printer. Mike has used a company called Game on Grafix and says they are wonderful! Make sure to order your graphics at least 1″ too large, so you’ll have room to trim it for a perfect fit.
The best way to apply they graphics is to work slowly, a few inches at a time. Use a credit card or similar plastic card to slowly swipe over the surface and eliminate any bubbles as you go. Make certain the surface is 100% clean of dust or dirt before you start!
Use a very sharp razor knife to clean up the ends and trim everything flush.
Step 10: Install the T-Molding
The final step is to install the t-molding. This is best done with a very sharp razor knife and small rubber mallet. Gently tap the t-molding into place until it is smooth and flat. Anywhere there is an angle, cut the t-molding track to fit as demonstrated in the videos.
Use the razor knife to gently trim the t-molding at each end and your finished!
Step 11: Enjoy playing your favorite games!
You’re arcade cabinet is finished! If you’d like to learn more about installing the games and setting up the Raspberry Pi, see our article and videos on those topics!
Check Out Some Customer Builds
Our customers are awesome! They build some really cool arcades! Check these out, all based on this plan set.