So we got it, our grail pin, a Star Trek: The Next Generation.  A machine made two decades ago, and notorious for being tempermental.  But it’s Next Gen.  With voice-overs from the actual cast, and designed by pin god Steve Ritchie.  I mean, it includes the “Space: the final frontier…” monologue.

We’ve been after this one for a while, and had a couple opportunities fall through.  We typically go for “collector” quality pins vs. “player’s pins” which is a pinhead way of saying we are very condition-focused.  But in the case of this particular Next Gen, we bought it knowing it played well, but would need some work.

When we got it home, at first it seemed ok, but then we ran into an issue where it would continually launch a ball.  Adam’s a seasoned enough pinball technician now (after a mere year) that he was nonplussed and knew what was probably causing it.  If you have the right temperment, pinball repair lets you play the role of full-on Sherlock Holmes.  In this case, he could tell the machine was loading up a specific spot, the way that Bram Stoker’s Dracula loads the mist multiball, but that the machine wasn’t sensing that the ball had arrived at that spot.  So he suspected it was the opto at that spot.

In a pinball machine, optos flank a pathway, and sort of just look at each other.  When the ball crosses their field of vision, their view of each other is broken, and that registers.  So programmers can use that for scoring, or modes, and so forth, to keep track of the ball.  It’s pretty cool, and it seems that around that time they were doing a lot of stuff with optos (Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out the same year as Next Generation).

Regardless of that issue, we knew we were going to have to do two things right off the bat:

  1. Clean the machine.  It was dirty.  VERY dirty.  Not on the playfield, in visible ways, mind you, but underneath.
  2. Replace most of the incandescent bulbs with LEDs.  We almost always do this.  LEDs burn cooler, which is good for the machine, and draw less electricity, which is good for our bills.  They also come in a rainbow of colors and styles.  LED conversion is fun!

So the first session was all about cleaning, because we had to put in the order for the LEDs with CoinTaker.  Now one of the most prominent features on the underbelly of STTNG (the pinhead abbreviation for Star Trek) is the subway.  And ours was filthy.  It had probably never been cleaned, because it is a major undertaking to remove the subway, and not something a machine operator is likely to get excited about doing.  I wasn’t excited about doing it.  However, my strength in pinball maintenance is being slow and methodical. This was similar to when I’d removed our WHO dunnit slot reel motor.  So I volunteered to handle this part.  Adam wanted to rebuild all three flippers, so he had his work cut out for him.

The subway, prior to cleaning.

The subway, prior to cleaning.

It took about an hour to dismantle the subway, and then the cleaning began.  If you have never cleaned a pinball machine before, the dirt that accumulates is sort of akin to what you find in a chimney, or maybe a coal mine… sooty black stuff.  And this cleaning revealed that the problem opto I mentioned earlier (which happens to be attached to the subway) was filthy.  So gunked up, the dirt alone was probably what was causing it not to recognize the presence of a ball.


Dismantled subway... still dirty!

Dismantled subway… still dirty!


Cleaning the subway took two sessions, but it was great to see how much nicer it looked afterward.  In the meantime, the LEDs had arrived, as well as our order of Cliffy Protectors for a couple wear-prone spots.  Machines on location rarely have these metal protectors, which is ironic because they see a lot more wear and tear than a home-use machine.  We installed that and the LEDs, and the new flippers, and then it was time to put the subway back on.




All this might sound mundane and tedious, but as I looked at the successfully reassembled parts, and the huge pile of dirty cleaning cloths and q-tips, and my filthy grease-monkey hands, I felt accomplishment.  I get why people like working on cars now. We’ve had our grail pinball machine for about 2 weeks now, and haven’t really gotten to play it, but this part really is half the fun.  Next comes the moment of truth where we fire it up, and see if that opto now recognizes the ball… or if we have to put the Sherlock hats back on.

Round 3: FIGHT!

Yeah, we had to put our Sherlock hats back on.  After tightening up the flippers, putting everything back in place, and firing her up, the continuous launch issue was still an issue.  So we went into the diagnostics menus and started testing optos.  There was one set that were only sometimes responsive, so we cleaned those with a q-tip, and tried again.  Nope, still continuously launching balls.

The next thing we tested were the solenoids.  These are used for various purposes in a pinball machine.  They pop the ball up out of subways, kick it back at you when you land it in a hole, and are also responsible for the loud “crack” noise when you get a numbers match at the end of a game.  In this case, they also control a few diverters on that subway, and so are responsible for deciding which path the ball travels down.  Turns out Next Gen has to load not one but three balls, and the subway is responsible for diverting the launched balls to the correct location.  Well, we tested the three diverter solenoids, and sure enough, one of them didn’t fire.  Upon closer inspection, behold, one of the wires connecting it had broken off.  Eureka!  A quick little bit of soldering later, and we were ready to try again.  And this time, the three balls loaded, and then silence; no more continuous firing.

Leaving us no choice but to start playing. 🙂


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4 Responses so far.

  1. Eric says:

    You make this sound WAY more exciting than it must be! 🙂 Congrats on finding a STTNG in good shape, though!

  2. tracey hazan says:

    Why is my star trek pinball machine asking to insert coins when I have never needed to before?


    • Lorien says:

      Free play is a setting within the adjustments menu. You’re going to need to open it up and use the select and nav buttons located behind the coin box to find the free play setting, and set it to “yes”.

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