Playfields and Clearcoat

I am trying to understand the failure modes that we see in modern clearcoated playfields, and figure out what we can do about it to restore and preserve our machines. Thanks to Bryan Kelly and KarlZona for some of the pictures and insights, and  to Cliffy for showing me how to whack a raised insert.

The Problems

Here are the five problems that I have identified so far:

Lifting inserts - common in many machines, but clearcoats have a special attribute because of the curing shrinkage. Example: Funhouse clock
Dished Inserts - Larger inserts seem to dish below  the playfield surface. Example: Attack from Mars
Separated Clearcoat - milky areas over inserts. Example: Cirqus Voltaire and Tales of the Arabian Nights
Cracked Clearcoat - around inserts. AfM and ST:TNG are prime examples.
Inclusions - tiny defects in the clearcoat cause by bubbles and particles.

Working Hypothesis

My working hypothesis is based on statements from KarlZona and Mirco,and supported by some googling,  that clearcoat continues to shrink after application and initial cure.

As the clearcoat is attached to the playfield surface, it cannot contract in area. Therefore, it has to become a little thinner. It must also apply a tensile force to the playfield surface.

Although the plywood is too thick and stiff to move, the same is not true of the inserts. They are made from relatively thin (polystyrene?)  material. The tensile stress in the clearcoat causes them to dish downwards. This is especially true of larger inserts.

If an insert is not fully locked down, this force can cause the insert to lift (see Funhouse example below).

If the insert was not properly prepared, or the surface was contaminated, the clearcoat may separate from the insert, leaving a milky appearance. Common on Cirqus Voltaire and ToTAN.

If the clearcoat did not flow into the gap between the wood and the insert, it may crack across the gap.

Is AfM a Special Case?

AfM playfields, old and new, seem to be susceptible to cracking around the inserts. The cracking happens around large and small inserts, so it is a general problem. My working hypothesis is that the AfM CAD file made the holes a few thousandths too large, leaving a gap that the clearcoat did not penetrate. This gap results in cracking over time.

1) All inserts need to be locked in place. Water thin CA on any suspect areas.
2) Raised inserts can be dropped back in place with a block and hammer. Don't be scared.
3) Inclusions can be block sanded, spot cleared and buffed. Not usually worthwhile.


Funhouse playfield after the clock center insert had been leveled (with a hammer and block). The insert had risen by about .02" at the top edge.

Working diagnosis: clear shrinkage plus loose insert.

The underside of the insert, now locked in place with CA adhesive.
A small inclusion in a funhouse playfield. A small inclusion in an AfM playfield. Note the fine bubbles in the clearcoat, not visible under normal conditions.
Stern (Churchill) insert showing full contact adhesive. New reproduction AfM playfield showing spontaneous clearcoat cracking, attributed to clearcoat shrinkage and failure to fill gap. AfM's fast balls will seek and destroy any vulnerable inserts.
Here's a test from KarlZona showing how a sanding sealer makes the inserts look diffuse (the two circles on the right, the one with teh blue marker has the sanding sealer). Without a sanding sealer, the inserts are crystal clear. This also happens if the pre-ink coat is not a sanding sealer, but some other form of clear. Given the material used in sanding sealer (metal soap!), I prefer a clear that we know will grab hard on the clear inserts and provide a great foundation for the next layer. So I would prefer a restoration with clear inserts, sacrificing the opacity of the original for a better structure to the finish.