1951 Gottlieb Mermaid Playfield Pinball Project.

I bought my 1951 Gottlieb Mermaid pinball years ago, but the condition of the original playfield was awful. Nearly 50% of the graphics was worn off, and the top layer of plywood was delaminating. I did find a second Mermaid, but its playfield was in worse condition!

(By the way, if you have a Gottlieb Mermaid for sale, please let me know at cfh@provide.net because after all, I have one last playfield...)

So after looking at the game for 5+ years in my garage, I finally decided to do something about the playfield. (I was not going to try and restore the game without having a decent playfield to work with.) Tim Arnold mentioned to me he had a NOS (new old stock) Mermaid playfield from 1951. So on a trip to Las Vegas, I brought my HP4600 scanner and a laptop computer. I went to Tim's house and scanned the playfield into six sections at 300 dpi, and stitched it back together. This graphic was sent to a playfield company, and 10 new playfields were made (after I paid them a significant amount of money!) They converted the graphics I scanned into a layer for each color, and then made silkscreens from this. They set up a CNC to cut the playfield holes, ordered lamp inserts, and the resulting playfield was then screened and finally clearcoated. I kept two of those new playfields (one for my game, and an extra), and sold the other eight playfields (in an attempt to recover my costs).

The resulting Gottlieb Mermaid playfields were fully dimpled and drilled on both the front and back (over 200 dimples on the back, highlighted in blue for these pictures only). The playfield company did not do the drilling or dimples (I did all the playfield dimples/holes by hand myself). Nine ply birch plywood, silkscreened in the traditional style (just like that old beat-up one). New automotive style clearcoat was used, but not applied too thick.

Mermaid Playfield Swap Hints & Parts.

Here's some stuff you'll need to get started on your playfield swap. One difference between this new playfield and the original is the wood thickness. The original playfield is .490" thick, and the new one is .590" thick. Not a huge deal, but some minor adjustments need to be made, which I will outline below. But regardless, make sure you have these parts on hand.
  • (5) four hole yellow dead bumper skirts
  • (2) four hole blue dead bumper skirts
  • (2) six hole yellow pop bumper skirts
  • (1) six hole red pop bumper skirt
  • (3) rod & ring pop bumper assemblies. Use the Gottlieb post-1978 #A-16634+ pop bumper rod & ring as it is slightly longer. The williams rod & ring is a pinch shorter and is not advised here because of the playfield thickness difference.
  • (3) metal pop bumper yokes
  • (3) fiber pop bumper yokes
  • (3) pop bumper plungers
  • (2) red kickout hole covers
  • (8) red rollover buttons
  • (1) white rollover button
  • (10) #47 pop bumper light sockets
  • (2) nylon flipper playfield bushings
  • (2) flipper bats (2")
  • (2) flipper coils A-5141 and coil sleeves
  • (2) flipper shaft assemblies
  • (2) flipper plunger/link assemblies
  • (8) white rollover button inserts (remove from old playfield)
  • (1) green rollover button insert (remove from old playfield)
  • (1) Green paper score tray liner (exclusive from PBR), not pictured above.
  • (4) "new style" slingshot kicker assemblies (optional), not pictured above.
All the above parts are available from Pinball Resource except the rollover button inserts (these must be removed from your existing playfield). Also be sure to get the nylon flipper playfield bushings (do NOT use the old metal bushing from your existing playfield). Parts above will completely rebuild the three pop bumpers and the two flippers. Note the existing (old) pop bumper plungers on Mermaid need to be replaced with the newer style parts (as seen above).

The old rollover button inserts should be leveled and glued into the new playfield using yellow carpenters glue or Super Glue. These can be easily removed from your old playfield using a 5/8" socket and a small hammer from underneath - just tap them out. The new playfield holes for these inserts were made slightly smaller so that shrunken inserts should fit snuggly into the new playfield.

Tint Problem:
So here's a picture of my new Mermaid playfield with the old Mermaid lower and upper ball arch. Yow! If I had only known, I would have had the silkscreeners stain the playfield wood an antiqued yellow/orange/brown BEFORE silkscreening the colors!

Now I have a problem. How do I make the natural areas of the new playfield match a 50+ year old upper and lower ball arch? Well first i tried sanding down the ball arch and refinish it with fresh clear acrylic lacquer (Kyrlon Crystal Clear), making the wood look much brighter and more 'new'. I used an electric DA sander with 100 grit paper, and it really cleaned up the ball arches nice. (It's a really good idea as the ball arches were quite drab looking.)

Playfield and sanded/recleared ball arch with some parts installed for 'context'.

Now keep in mind that the lower arch will be covered with a green paper score tray liner. But the upper arch and side rails still are too yellowed compared to the natural playfield wood (even after sanding and refinishing the ball arches).

Tinting the Playfield.
So I took an extra Mermaid playfield and sanded it with 600 grit sandpaper (dry) to take the gloss off. Then I mixed up some Ainline dyes (lots of yellow, some brown, and even a smaller amount of red). Then i used a rag and wiped it on the playfield. If an area was too heavy, I used another rag with Denatured Alcohol and wiped off the excess dye. I tried to remove as much of the stain from the silkscreened areas, keeping them brighter. Here's the outcome of that (note I did the entire playfield, so the white areas are muted a bit too).

The last step is to put a new coat of auto urethane clear over the playfield to lock in the dye. Here's the playfield after a fresh coat of clear. I like how it turned out! I really like the fact that the white rollover inserts down the center are more muted and less bright white.

Playfield Swap Hints.
Remove all the parts from the TOP side of your Mermaid playfield first. Then flip it over, and take a good ball-point pen, and TRACE everything on the bottom of the old playfield. This will GREATLY help you place things on the new playfield! Yes the new playfield is dimpled for the screw locations, but it's not so obvious where everything goes.

After everything is off the bottom of the playfield, use a flat faced crow bar and get the top side ball arches off. Then sand the arches with a DA sander to remove all their old finish and ball marks and crud. Recoat them with two coats of Krylon Crystal Clear spray finish. This will give the top side of your playfield a much cleaner look, and make the ball arches better match the new playfield.

Position the ball arches on the top of the new playfield, and use some rubberized clamps to hold them in place. Then from the bottom of the playfield use the original nails and nail the ball arches to the new playfield. Do this carefully, especially on the middle shooter lane "stick" (don't let the nail miss the stick!) The new playfield is dimpled for the nail locations, but again, double check and make sure the nails hit the ball arch wood. Otherwise your new playfield could be ruined with a nail stick up through the top side!

Also keep a drill around with a 5/64" bit installed WITH A STOP (so you don't drill through the top side of the playfield!) Though a power screwdriver will drive the screws into the new playfield nicely, sometimes it's better to have a hole drilled. For example, the ball safety gate, slingshot mechs and pop bumper mechs. The alignment of these parts is critical! After I had it positioned perfectly, use a ball point pen to mark the two screw holes. Then drill these hole. This makes positioning these critical parts easiler.

Installing the Old Parts (bottom playfield population).
The first step is obviously to strip the old playfield. Take all the top side parts off, and set them aside. Remove the two 6-32 locknuts from the pop bumper rods (two per pop bumper body), and cut the pop bumper and dead bumper lamp socket contacts (from the bottom side of the playfield). This way you can remove the two screws holding the pop and dead bumper bodies from the top side of the playfield.

Then comes the bottom side. After everything is off the top side, I just lay the playfield face down on a table. On the old playfield i take a pen and trace all the assemblies. This way when I repopulate the new playfield, I have a sense of where things were mounted.

Run a 7/32" drill bit through the pop bumper rod holes (six in total) in the new playfield. I may have sent all the playfields out with those holes drilled too small, which will make the pop bumpers bind. Drill from the topside of the playfield.

The two prop-rod indentations on the bottom side of the playfield were not drilled (sorry, forgot to do that). Use a 1" Fostner bit for these. Positions are 13" and 20", measured from the TOP edge of the playfield (and 1" from the side).

Now remove every screw holding every assembly on the old playfield. First is the ball trough and ball release mech, as this can be set aside. Then I unscrew everything else. Remove all staples which holds bare return wires. After all the screws are out, just slide the whole bottom assemble off the playfield and onto the new playfield.

Now you can screw all the stuff down to the new playfield. The playfield is dimpled to guide part placement. But note, all the dimples may not be in perfect positions. You may have to do some minor relocating and adjustments. Just use common sense.

Before attaching the pop bumper assemblies, rebuild them. Remove the old plunger/yoke assembly from the pop bumper coil, and throw them away. The yoke is peened to the plunger and becomes loose with time. Replace this with the more modern plunger and descrete metal & bakelite yoke. Also make sure you use a brand new pop bumper rod/ring assembly and a new pop & dead bumper light socket.

Now I assembly the pop bumper and dead bumpers from the top side of the playfield (with the new rod/ring assembly and new bumper skirts and new lamp sockets). After they are bolted in place, solder the bumper body light sockets at the bottom side of the playfield.

When installing the pop bumper spoon switch assemblies on the bottom of the playfield, only attach one of the two screws. Again the dimples are Ok, but they are *not* perfect. Get the spoon switch assembly lined up with the dead/pop bumpers, then drill/screw the second screw for the spoon switch assembly. Note the spoon switches will need some adjustment. Because the new playfield is slightly thicker than the original, the spoon switches will have a much different adjustment. Hard to explain, but you'll notice this after the spoon switches are installed.

Original pop bumper plunger/yoke. Throw this out.

New pop bumper plunger & metal yoke & bakelite yoke attached to the new rod/ring assembly.

Next thing I do is replace the original slingshot assemblies with a more modern type. The originals used a hardended roll pin to attach the plunger to the "L" arm. The roll pin moves inside a slot in the "L" arm, and since the roll pin is rock hard, the pin eats an indentation into the "L" arm's slot. This makes the slingshot either not work or work poorly. For this reason I replace the whole assembly with the more modern plunger/bakelite link slingshot assembly (as used in Gottlieb games from about 1957 to 1979). This is optional, but it sure does make your slingshots work like new! Note you will have to move the slingshot scoring switch slightly if you do this modification.

Placement of the slingshot (new style or original) is very critical. The dimples are just guides. The idea is to get the slingshot "L" mech positioned so when fully energized, it's mounted as far towards the center of the playfield as possible. This will give maximum "kick". Unfortunately doing this is a chore. I screwed each mech in place with ONE screw about 3 times before I was happy with the position. You have to do this with the "L" mech and the coil bracket too, because how far the "L"mech kicks can't be realized without the coil bracket in place too (because the coil bracket determines the total stroke of the "L" mech's plunger).

Left: original slingshot assembly.
Right: newer style replacement slingshot assembly.
(Compare how the plunger attaches to the "L" mech.)

Here you can see the indentation in the original "L" mech's slot from the plunger roll pin.
Yes the slot could be filed smooth, but then the slot is too wide (putting slop into the mechanism).
This is why I just replace the "L" mech with the newer style that uses a fiber plunger link.

New style slingshot assembly installed. Note the normally open slingshot scoring switch.

Placement and adjustment of the ball safety gate is paramount. Because the new playfield is slightly thicker than the original, you will have to adjust the safety gate assembly to compensate for this. Since there is plenty of adjusment room in the assembly, this is no big problem.

Safety gate mechanism from under the playfield. The four screws adjust the gate's height.

Here the safety gate is adjusted so it is just barely sitting below the playfield surface.

Now I solder all the lamp sockets on the bottom of the playfield. Due to time and humidity, often the sockets are intermittent and blink. Sand the side of the socket and solder it to the base (see picture below). This really helps the sockets a lot.

Three soldered lamp sockets.

Next I install the flipper parts. Use a brand new plunger/link assembly. Also use a brand new flipper pawl and new nylon flipper bushing. The original metal flipper bushing should be thrown away. Install the new nylon playfield flipper bushing, and screw it in place with three screws. When installing the new flipper pawl and flipper bat, keep this in mind. Since the playfield is slightly thicker than original, the new nylon playfield bushing does not stick up as far above the top side of the playfield. To counteract this, I had to sand some material off the bottom edge of the new flipper bats. This way the bats won't drag across the top playfield surface (scratching it). Alternatively a spacer washer could be used on the flipper shaft to achieve the same effect.

Make sure the bottom edge of the flipper pawl sticks up above the flipper body, as shown here.

The stepper unit on the bottom side of the playfield will probably need some work. It's a continuous style stepper with a mechanical bell. The bell's clapper is usually broken off and missing. I bought a new (later style) clapper from Pinball Resource, bent and cut it a bit, and welded it to the stepper activiation arm. Some additional tweaking (bending) of the new arm was required to get a good bell ring.

Also on the activation arm, I always add some 1/2" shrink wrap tubing to the arm where it contacts the arm's EOS switch. This prevents all kinds of wacky problems, as the fish paper that should be on this switch is usually damaged or missing.

Close up of the stepper with the added bell clapper and 1/2" shrink wrap tubing.

Bottom of the playfield after all parts transfered.

Another optional thing that I did was to replace the original long single-coil-for-two-kickout-holes mech with two separate and discrete newer style kickout hole mechs. I did this because my playfield was missing this assembly. But having the newer style kickout mechs does work cleaner and better anyway (there's a lot less slop).

Top of the playfield after all parts transfered.

Top Side Notes.
When mounting the top side parts, again don't completely depend on the dimples as perfect placement of parts. Use common sense. Some parts may need to be "tweaked" to get their position just right. I found this to be the case with some of the post placements.

Speaking of which, I did *not* install the single red post behind the safety gate. Though I see this post on a lot of Mermaid, I really don't think it's original. But I'll wait until I play the game to see if that post is even needed. If the game scores or game times are high, I really don't suggest installing the post (it doesn't appear to be original anyway).

Repainting the Cabinet.
On my Gottlieb Mermaid, the lower cabinet was a complete mess. The backbox was original and fine, but the lower cab was a disaster. The guy I got the game from years ago would disassemble his lower cabinets so he could store it flat! I had to glue it back together, and repaint. The backbox I left original, since it was in great condition. Also this gave me a good opportunity to better match the cabinet colors.

Normally I would repaint a cabinet with Acrylic Lacquer. But it's getting very difficult to find any shops that will custom mix Lacquer colors (even in Detroit). I knew sooner or later I would have to come around and use Latex paint. (Yeech!) The advantage to Latex is availability and color matching. Just go to Home Depot and they can mix the paint right there for you. Cheap, fast, easy. But unfortunately, Latex presents a whole new set of pinball cabinet repaint problems.

Color matching was easy. I brought the original backbox shell to Home Depot, and they used their computer matching system to match the blue base color. I bought one quart of Glidden Evermore High Gloss Latex paint. Why Glidden? The HD person said it was the "thinnest" of the Latex paint. This is important, because I was going to spray the paint. Why high gloss? Because Latex by its nature produces a more "matte" finish, even when using the high gloss version.

Next step was to prep the lower cabinet for repaint. I reglued the cabinet, and stripped all the parts out of it. This included removing the wood side rails. I then used a DA (Dual Action) electric hand sander to smooth and strip the wood. Any imperfections were filled with body filler. (I like body filler as it dries fast and sands/blends easily.)

Next I masked off areas I didn't want painted, and used Krylon white spray primer as the first paint coat. Again normally I would not use a spray primer. Instead I would use a lacquer-based clear sanding sealer to prep the wood. But it's winter here, and the advantage to "rattle cans" is I can paint in the basement (instead of the cold garage). After priming I sanded with 600 grit to smooth it out, and to see any additional imperfections that need to be fixed.

Next I sprayed the Latex paint using a Wagner airless sprayer. To do this, at least with my sprayer, I had to thin the paint. First I used some Flotroel to help with gloss and flow-out. But ultimately I had to add about 30% water to make this paint thin enough to spray. Man what a fiasco it is spraying latex! If I was to do this over, I would have used Lacquer. But my path was kind of set in stone at this point.

I let the cabinet dry for a few days and then sanded it with 600 grit. This is where I really noticed the problem with Latex; it's durability, flow-out and gloss sucks! I had to sand it it smooth, and this destroys the gloss (that's why I used high-gloss latex, to help combat this problem). But I really had no choice.

Because of the problems I had with the Latex, I decided to use rattle-cans for the two stencil colors. It actually wasn't that hard to find a good paint match on those.

I used commercial stencil material to make the stencils. A friend of mine traced his Mermaid cabinet on large sheets of thin paper I provided him. I then took these to Office Depot and made photo copies. This way I had a tracing copy for each color. I then laid the tracing on the stencil material, and using a straight edge, cut right through the photocopy and into the stencil material with a razor blade. One stencil for each color, and one stencil set for the side, one set for the front. So I had a total of two side stencils and two front stencils, for the two colors.

I used stencil material from Bren Instruments, Franklin TN (800-826-3991). Their 8.5 mil thick Ultra-Cut II seems to be a good choice, as it is a reusable general purpose stencil material with a light tack adhesive to hold it in place while painting. This 8.5 mil, semi-rigid plastic conforms easily to curved or irregular surfaces, lightly holds itself in place and is impervious to inks, paints or stains.

Ok first stencil mistake. Don't use stencil material that comes with the tack adhesive. It's too "tacky". I wanted the edges of my stencils to get a slight over-spray look, and the Bren material was "too good" to allow this. The outcome? One side of my cabinet has perfect lines (not the desired effect in my eye). The other side has lines with slight overspray (that's what I wanted). The reason for this? I used the same side stencil for both sides. The Bren material has tack adhesive only on one side. So when I flipped the stencil over to re-use it for the other side, I got the desired "Gottlieb factory" effect.

A better choice is to use the Bren 8.5 mils stencil material with no tack adhesive. Then apply my own tack adhesive using Krylon "Easy Tack Repositionable Spray Adhesive", product number 7020. This stuff is great! It gives enough tack, but not too much tack. So the stencils stay in place, but give me just a bit of overspray on the line edges (perfect factory look). If you get too much overspray, let the sprayed color dry, and use some Novus2 to remove the overspray. Great way to do it, allows you to control the "overspray look" to the desired degree.

Next stencil mistake I made was "touching up" the colors. I would spray the paint onto glossy cardboard, and use a paint brush to touch up lines. i didn't do a lot of this, but I shouldn't have done any of it. This was a mistake! Because the brush marks showed through in the end product. I have to remember, "the enemy of good is better". I should have left the stencil sprays alone.

Now the cabinet was stenciled, I had to deal with the Latex gloss and durability issue. To solve this, I clearcoated the entire lower cabinet using Lacquer. Remember the yellow/red/brown stain I used at the top of this document for the playfield and ball arches? Well I added some of that to the lacquer, and sprayed with my Binks gun. This gives the lacquer a more yellowed look, and "takes the edge off" the new paint. It makes the lower cabinet look "right", and matched the original upper cabinet perfectly. I sprayed the lacquer "dry" too, using Acetone as the solvent (not lacquer thinner). This makes the lacquer dry faster, and with less gloss. That's the look I wanted, because again I wanted the new lower cabinet finish to match to backbox's original paint. The lacquer had no compatibility problems with the latex blue, and gives the finish a lot more durabilty. It also gives the proper "look" to the cabinet. I was very happy with the outcome of this.

While the cabinet finish dried, I refinished the wood side rails to the lower cabinet and the backbox and the wood legs. Again I used my ainline yellow/red/brown stain on the wood after I sanded it with 80/150/220 grits. On the backbox wood rails, the interior edge of the rails were painted with rattle can black lacquer for that original look. Then I sprayed three coats of Krylon Crystal Clear over all the rails and legs.

I then of course reassembled everything and got the game all working. Was I happy with the outcome? Yes and no. I should have spent more time making the stencils, as they did not come out as cleanly as I would have liked. But overall, the game looks pretty good!

The author's finished 1951 Gottlieb Mermaid pinball machine: