An entirely new tilt

40_featureWoodworkers around the country have felt the pinch of the current and long-lasting economic downturn. Michael Maxwell, a native of Bedford, Va., has been a high-end furniture maker for a long time now, but he’s had to make some changes to stay ahead of the slower sales pace. Fortunately, he’s had a good fallback position, based on one of his many hobbies.

“I did most of my furniture sales through shows. When that started drying up, I needed to find another method of selling or a product that sold more easily,” says Maxwell.

Pinball machines emerged as the answer. Maxwell’s been collecting them for years, buying almost anything that came on the market. He still makes furniture, selling through galleries now, but he has a nice little side business refurbishing arcade classics.

As he moved into restoring pinball machines, he decided to add some touches that relied on his woodworking skills, often using the same woods that helped emphasize parts of his custom-made furniture line.

Maxwell says that in addition to restoring pinball machines, he works up many individual pieces that incorporate parts of the machines, forming such items as a martini bar, coffee tables and a wide range of occasional pieces. He then uses cherry, maple and walnut to refit pinball-game playing fields into functional and decorative furniture pieces that he believes are most often placed and used in game- or recreation rooms and “man caves.”

Playing the silver ball

Pinball machines, usually coin-operated, were the arcade games of earlier eras. The machines have a glass-covered horizontal playing field, a vertical scoreboard and some method to control the passage of steel balls as they come down the lightly slanted field towards the dump at the bottom when the ball is out of action. For years, they were also found in diners and bars.

Pinball makers still exist, but they are far fewer today, most having either moved to digital games or folded. Still, earlier renditions often sold 10,000 copies, so even with general wear and tear on the machines, more than a few still exist. Companies like Gottlieb would sometimes turn out four or five designs in a single year. Gottlieb turned out at least a dozen different machine styles in 1976 and 1977, so Maxwell appears to have sufficient material for a good number of years.

41_feature_1Noting his storage of large numbers of playfield inserts from old pinball machines, Maxwell says, “These are not from restorable machines. I never take a good machine and convert it into a coffee table. Originally, I found places tossing these playfields into Dumpsters, after which they were hauled to landfills.” Originally, he was able to buy many of these fields for $10 or so each. Today, he estimates the fields can cost as much as a sheet of good plywood, which is still a reasonably priced base for something like a Superman-themed bar priced at $6,600.

Sales through galleries find the custom furniture pieces moving from $2,000 to $7,000. Most sales are from the West Coast, though a lot go to Baltimore. That’s an odd spread, but it’s what is working for Maxwell.

When it’s time to start on a custom-designed piece, Maxwell and his helper, Ed Toomey, strip out the field electronics, clean and detail the graphics on the surface and then clear-coat it. The idea is to make it look as much like a working machine as possible. For that reason, all the wear and tear is not removed from many of the pieces.

41_feature_2Toomey has been a pinball hobbyist since the mid-1950s with a collection of more than two dozen machines at his home. He’s an industrial engineer with a background in electronics and he’s of great help to Maxwell when it comes time to get into the electrical work needed to restore the machines. Toomey also maintains a computer database of graphic images useful in re-creating the illustrations damaged or faded by age. He says he first got interested in a game built before the flipper era. His fascination, though, was with the workings: “I don’t play pinball, but I work on the machines,” he says.

Such a supple wrist

Flippers were developed around 1947, adding a type of control never before seen in pinball games. Gottlieb’s first flipper game was called “Humpty Dumpty.” In 1970, artwork by Gordon Morrison was added, along with the introduction of 3” flippers to replace the original 2” flipper. For those not knowledgeable in pinball lore, the flippers are bats that are operated by push buttons on the case sides. Gottlieb made mechanical and electromechanical pinball machines from 1931 through 1977. As Maxwell noted, after 1977 digital noise crept in and robot voices talked to the players.

The tilt option, with which most players are intimately familiar, has been around almost since the beginning. It serves two purposes: making the games more difficult and keeping overly active players from destroying the machinery.

Pop culture themes often limit pinball machines to a two- or three-year lifespan, while the insides are not much more sturdily built. “It’s a miracle there are any hanging on now,” says Toomey.

42_featureMaxwell began as a collector years ago, buying pinball machines that pleased his eye and heart. He became something of an addict, a hobbyist who took nearly any pinball machine he could get, regardless of condition. He built up his stash, collecting a few extra game fields that way. Today, he aims only at a more restricted market.

His primary interest customarily covers machines from Gottlieb and those manufactured in the mid- to late-1970s, before Solid State electronics made many changes. Today’s displays are more spectacular, with a lot more active graphics, and many more sound effects, often including voices. He feels about pinball machines as many people feel about cars and computers: he doesn’t like them talking to him, but he does like the interaction that’s possible with standard bells and other ringing devices that sound as balls hit bumpers and scores are tallied.

He’s a pinball wizard

43_featureAs Maxwell plays a game called “Jungle Princess,” it’s noted how the graphics are nicely restored, the lights all work and the flippers move easily. It’s up for sale, of course, going for not much more than half of what one of his furniture creations costs. It’s probable that today’s youngsters wouldn’t care for the lack of action characters hopping all over and screaming, but in its day, the “Jungle Princess” was a flashy item. It retains character for those who loved this machinery in its original incarnation.

A recent restoration is of a 1962 World Series machine, produced by Williams, which was tricky because every player on the field can move. Pinball restoration is relegated to a small portion of the shop since not much room is needed to test and rewire the tops when salvageable. When restoration isn’t possible, the playing field backs are stripped of much extraneous material before being used in a coffee table, occasional table, bar top or similar piece.

Creativity was a need. Fortunately for Maxwell, he had created a line of furniture that sold well for years and won a stack of awards that would make any furniture builder proud. The only dagger in the furniture line’s back was the recession.

Contact: M.T. Maxwell Furniture Co., 715 Liberty St., Bedford, VA 24523. Tel: 800-686-1844. www.maxwellfurniture.com

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.