Finishing With Paint

Finish of choice

There's many ways to decorate and finish your cabinet. A popular choice would be to avoid paint altogether and laminate it with a black contact or some other cabinet covering. These are readily available from the MAME cabinet suppliers.

Alternatively a low / semi gloss paint can be rolled on to give a nice even finish. For PinaColada however I really wanted some extra bling to bring our reflections on certain areas. For the back of the cabinet I did roll on semi-gloss black enamel for a nice and even finish. It's easy to apply and looks great. For best results use a foam gloss roller and apply thin coats after a good smooth sanding and prime coat.

Semi gloss black, easy to apply with a roller. The details such as shiney chrome grills enhance the semi-gloss finish. They compliment each other well.Apart from Black the rest of the cabinet received some standard house paint. A nice Ivory white tied it all together and gives it a clean look.

White insides make it easy to see when enclosed.

For the speaker grill and inner areas near the playfield however they received the extra special attention they deserved, a piano mirror finish.

Shiney Speaker Grill.

High Gloss Paint / Piano Finish

There's something to be said about achieving a simple high gloss, mirror type finish with some basic enamel paint and a lot of elbow grease. Yet, the simple fact remains this technique is as frustrating as it is beautiful. There's a sense of mystery on how to achieve a good gloss finish and on a budget. While searching for a simple how to approach online I've really noticed there's not many out there willing to share their secret. Even those who do share how it's done don't really convey just how easy it is to mess things up.

While I was building my cabinet, I begun experimenting with a piano type finish, in black on my speaker grill. The honest thing is though, I scrapped my efforts 3 times trying to get the right look. Mind you this was during a heat wave with temperatures way over 40 degrees Celcius which certainly made things that bit more tricky, but in the end I found that over complicating the approach was certainly my downfall.

I don't want to discourage people from trying this, in fact I believe anyone can do it with one key ingredient. Patience! Did I mention patience? You need patience. Patience in a build like this is an oxymoron because more than likely your spouse at this point is restless for you to finish, you're restless to finish and painting just isn't much fun! That aside however, if you're not willing to be patient while trying to get a professional look then high gloss mirror painting is just not for you.

Now there are many techniques out there for achieving this look, and being a novice I can't even recommend that my approach is even correct. Yet by the end of it and many hours of research browsing the web I was able to achieve great (but not mind blowing) result.

The Basic Requirements

The basic principle of a high gloss finish without using professional spray gear goes like ths...

You need to buy:

  • A tin or couple of spray cans of matt or semi-gloss (black) enamel (oil-based) paint. (High gloss is not needed as you will coat it with a clear layer on top - though you can use it.) While I'm told it's possible to do with water based paints I went with oil, it's messier but it's what I know.
  • couple of spray cans of enamel high gloss clear. (This is the top coat that we will buff and polish to a mirror finish).
  • Wet-Dry sand paper, a couple of sheets for 180, 220, 400, 600, 1200, 2000 grit should be enough.
  • High quality foam rollers.
  • MDF or other appropriate primer paint.
  • Spare old clean t-shirts for polishing rag.
  • Swirl removing car polish. (very fine cutting power).

Now there is no use in me recommending brands, every region is different so just find the equivalent to meet these needs.

Allow a minimum of 2-3 week period, apply paint in the mornings before work, school etc. Sand in the evenings and recoat.

Every single step is important, get lazy on one, or impatient and you will regret it. I can guarantee that.

  1. Prepare your surface, sand perfectly flat and smooth.

    • (For MDF surfaces that have a smooth factory finish that isn't damaged or scratched you can probably skip this step. Chances are though, it is scratched or scuffed somewhat.)
    • Fill with putty or other gloss finish sanding material any damage, cracks, or edges as shown in my previous post on prep for paint. Some opt to cover the entire surface with filler and ensure a super smooth finish, by layering and sanding it until it has an almost plastic type surface. I relied on filler for only the edges and joins and this produced a good enough result.
    • Use a powered hand or random orbit sander if you have one to help get a consistent flatness.
    • Start with a sandpaper grit, 180 and work your way up to 400 or more.
    • The smoother your finish here the better!
    • Every minor bump, divot, spec, will show in the finish.
    • Every distortion that is not perfectly flat will show in the gloss reflection (even the slightest variance).
    • Re-read the last two points, and get back to sanding!
    • If you've routed bevelled edges on your pieces, just smooth the best you can, it's difficult to get these really clean, but as the reflection will really only show distortions on flat areas this is less of a concern.
  2. Prime paint, 2 coats of MDF primer.

    • A Prime paint seals the porous nature of MDF and fillers. Without this it will just suck the paint in and cause an imperfect surface for your top coats. It also helps bond the paint to the surface.
    • Use a roller to apply this on as smoothly as you can.
    • If you use a spray can ensure you apply smooth and even thin coats.
  3. Paint your surface with thin coats of colour, very light sand between coats.

    • You need a dust free environment, any dust, bugs in the air can ruin your finish. They can be sanded out somewhat but are a major hassle.
    • We only need enough colour to be permanent and vibrant.
    • NEVER apply thick coats as tempting as it might be. Thin coats will look rubbish to start but quickly gain the look you hoped for as you apply more.
    • If spraying from a can, you can warm the can to start with in hot water for a smoother spray. Begin the spray from the edge and move rapidly over the piece in a consistent manner, overlapping areas.
    • NEVER go over the same area again, you'll get to that on the next coat.
    • The first coat should not produce an even colour, just a light dusting. Don't be tempted to get the look you want from the first coat, it will just drip and pool and cause all sorts of uneven headaches.
    • Follow the spray can directions.
    • If rolling on the paint, do very thin coats also.
    • Sand very lightly between coats with a high grit paper - 600 or more should do nicely.
    • Remove any sanding dust with a tack cloth, or clean rag.
    • As you apply more coats this way you should end up with a relatively smooth finish.
    • Follow the instruction of the paint for the recommended waiting time between coats. It's that simple. Note they assume you're applying thin coats!
  4. Clear coat.

    • After you have achieved a nice sold colour, apply the clear coat in the same manner as above.
    • Leaving the appropriate recoat times in-between all coats (including in-between clear and colour).
    • Build up layers by applying many thin coats, not one thick coat.
    • Sand very very gently with high grit (600-1200) to remove imperfections between coats (remove dust particles, small bubbles).
    • You will notice some orange peel (tiny but consistent divots in the surface) appearing, it's almost impossible to get a perfectly flat surface on your top coat. As layers get added it's enhanced so reduce it as much as you can with the very fine in-between sands.
    • With a thick enough final clear coat (4-6 coats should do it depending on the orange peel) we can sand this down to a perfectly smooth surface. This is why we want enough coats to move to the next stage.
  5. Wait 2 weeks.

    Seriously. For enamel paint, wait 2 weeks. Not less. 2 weeks. You can do it. You don't want to have to sand back your pieces and start over do you? or worse, rebuild them!

  6. Wet Sand.

    • Wet sand with 1200 paper until all the orange peel is removed on the clear coat. You should now have a non glossy satin (ugly) looking but very smooth to touch finish.
    • Be sure to read up on wet sanding technique, make sure the paper is very wet.
    • Sand in a consistent direction.
    • Be very careful not to over sand into the colour layer.
    • Repeat with the 2000 paper in other direction.
    • This should look like a smooth satin finish now.
    • Did I mention waiting at least 2 weeks before starting this? If the clear coat hasn't properly cured it will crumble and peel and ruin your finish when you come to sand and polish it. If you can wait even longer, do it.
  7. Polish

    • Cut the t-shirt up into small cloths. Discard all seams and joins!
    • Using the car polish (very small dab - less is more), wipe and rub out the finish with the lint free t-shirt. fold over the t-shirt and make sure you create a smooth and flat surface.
    • Apply pressure as evenly as possible and do not work the same area too much as that creates too much heat and friction. You will need some elbow grease though, just don't over do it at first, you'll soon gage what feels right. Don't expect an immediate change. It takes several applications.
    • This requires several goes, eventually the finish will get shiny and you will see your reflection.
    • Keep going it will get better and better and you arms will fall off.

Ok, so that's it in a nutshell. So many things can go wrong but it's worth it in the end! This worked for me after some trial and many errors.

Clear coats go on over the black.

After the first polish things are starting to look good. My Pina-Piano.

Learning from Mistakes

Learning from mistakes is a good thing if you can do it from me and not you! Here's some valuable points I learnt...

  • Polishing High Gloss Black enamel paint just doesn't work. The paint has too many pigment particles in it and even when properly cured starts to crumble when polished. This is why a clear coat is recommended. I saw online people recommending colour alone but for me it just wasn't good. Perhaps using lacquer paints or something else this can work but I'm not so sure. The clear coat worked great and was easy to do. I assume there is good reason why cars have clear coats and I think it also gives some depth to the reflection.
  • Trying to fill an imperfection left by a bug caught in a drying coat by applying more coats is a complete waste of time. Sand it all back and start again.
  • As tempting as it is, thick coats leave too much orange peel. Drips are deadly and before you know it, what you thought was a thin coat on the border of being thick is now running down your work piece ruining it. Thin coats and many of them is so much easier to apply.
  • Spray can's while tempting because of easy clean up, don't go very far. Especially if you're stupid and use thick coats.
  • Foam rollers can produce a great result, surprisingly smooth if applied quickly and without repeating over the same area.
  • Never go back over the same area you just painted. With the exception of a roller you can do this for a few seconds only and a spray can that is overlapping the previous pass.
  • Think your environment is clean? Nope probably not, so give it a really good vacuum again, shut all the open spaces and make sure there is no draft to cause dust to settle on your finish. Also paint in the mornings if you can so that night time flying insects are less likely to end up stuck on the surface.
  • Don't rub out a finish too hard, you risk burning the finish.
  • If when polishing or sanding the clear coat begins to ball up or get gummy you've started too early.
  • Did I mention use many thin coats?
  • Wear proper ventilation protection. Blowing black paint from your nose is not pleasant.
  • If you think your surface and joinery is smooth before painting, it probably isn't. Apply more filler, sand it more and repeat that a couple more times. Then when you come to paint it you'll notice it still wasn't as smooth as you thought.
  • When polishing the finish, use some high powered lights to get a true representation of the reflection. Looking at the surface on a sharp angle hides imperfections. You need to stand straight on to see how good it really is.


So was it worth it? Yes and No. The pain of the trial and error is something I never want to go through again. But that's my nature, dive in and give it a go. I've learnt a lot and would now feel confident doing it again. Does a pinball machine need a high gloss finish? Absolutely not, there's enough glass and flashing lights for the wow factor. However, the subtle reflections add a quality that's just so appealing I couldn't resist.

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Reader Comments (6)

I'm about to begin a cabinet and I stumbled across your blog. Very nice work. Your attention to detail is inspiring. What resource are you using for your graphics on the sides? I've had little luck finding a vendor in the states that does custom graphics for a project like this. Thanks!

May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Erickson

Thanks for the kind comments John. I'm doing the artwork myself actually. There are other members on the forums who have been known to offer their services for artwork. As I'm struggeling to do my own I won't be able to help myself!

May 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan Potter

This is wonderful advice, and very applicable to others doing this at home. If someone has the ability to take the cabinet to a shop and have them do this work, go for it! The money spent 200-300 bucks is very much worth the effort. Its frustrating, and hard to get right at home in a dirty environment.

November 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Yep, a dirty environment makes it VERY frustrating... couldn't agree more. You can achieve good results though if you properly prepare... lots of thin coats is crucial and not trying to get the look straight away makes it much better. Though doing it yourself is certainly rewarding if not challenging.

November 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan Potter

GREAT work and really inspiring! :) I was wondering, you only used 1 button / side, i havent decided if i should install 2 buttons on each side. Do you miss the second button?

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristofer

Hi, I wanted my button configuration to be simple and the default for most games. If you want second set of side buttons go for it. For me it was an asthetic choice because I don't want people to be confused by extra buttons. So no, I don't really miss it as not many games use them. Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoy the site.

December 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterDan Potter
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