Introduction: How to Make an Arcade Machine for Cheap

this took me under a week to make, and the current cost is under $200!

this is an entry in the game life contest, vote at the bottom of the page.


x1- sheet of 1/2 inch flat material (MDF, Plywood, or MDO) for the skirt and back wall

x2- sheet of 3/4 inch flat material (MDF, Plywood, or MDO) for the sides

x4- 8 foot 2x4s

x1- TV ( I reused an old one I had laying around)

x2- cheap portable speakers (I had two of these collecting dust)

x1- desktop pc (could also use a raspberry pi)

x1- laminated pine board

x2- 8 piece arcade button set

also vinyl siding and a marquee

Step 1: Chose Your Design

I decided to make my own style, but you can use any official design.

mine ended up being a very modern, rounded design.

you should always design something for who will be using it, I'm taller than most people, so I made my cabinet 6 feet tall (about 183 cm). you can make yours as tall as you want, or even go for a bar-top style!

if you want to use my design, the cad file is available for download HERE

Step 2: Decide on Materials

what to make your cabinet out of is a pretty big discussion online. you basically have two options: Plywood or MDF (medium density fiberboard).

plywood tends to be the stronger option, but if you aren't using Tee molding, then it will leave an rough and unsightly finish to the edges. plywood is also a bit more expensive.

MDF is slightly weaker and tends to weaken even more if exposed to excess moisture. but it will give you a better finish when painting over plywood. MDF is also cheaper than plywood.

a third option is using MDO (or medium density overlay). it's basically plywood with an MDF veneer. this gives you the strength of plywood with the finish of MDF (other than the edges). MDO tends to be around the same price as plywood.

I chose to use MDF due to the price, but if you live in a very humid area, or if the cabinet will be exposed to a lot of water (such as a flooded basement) you can go with plywood or MDO.

for the interior construction, you should use construction grade 2x4's (cheap and strong).

Step 3: Lay Out Your Design

When I made mine, I had home depot cut down the 4x8 sheets to the size I needed. that way, I had less work to do in my tiny shop.

next is to actually draw your design out on the sheet of material. I had my laptop next to me to view the cad file for measurements. for the curves, i took it slow and free handed the whole thing. if you aren't comfortable doing that, you can also use a compass.

Step 4: Start Cutting

once you have your design laid out on one side, put it on top of the other side and clamp them together. this is so you can cut both sides at the same time and have them be identical to each other.

remember to always use eye protection, ear protection, and a respirator. The atmosphere created by machining or sanding MDF boards contains a mixture of softwood dust and hardwood dust. Both softwood and hardwood dust is known to be respiratory sensitizers and may cause asthma and other respiratory problems. Hardwood dust can also cause a rare form of nasal cancer.

next, you should use a jigsaw to cut out the shape. if you chose to use a design with more straight edges, you should use a circular saw for straiter more consistent lines.

I went as slow as I could, and I suggest you do the same. also, if your using a jigsaw, the more in-line (vertically) with your blade your hand is, the more control you have. this gives you straiter lines and a more enjoyable experience.

Now that your side panels are cut, you can start on the most exciting part: SANDING!

more seriously, this is what brings in the lines right where you want them. I used a 4-in-1 hand rasp for most of this, but you can use any rasp or sanding "thing" you want. I don't suggest you use a power sander (1/4 sheet sander, random orbit sander, belt sander, etc.). these can gouge material very quickly, leaving you with undesirable results. Just put on some music and take it slow.

Step 5: Build the Thing!

next, you need to start constructing the cabinet with the 2x4's. this is pretty simple. when I built this, I didn't have a brad nailer, so I used 2-inch star drive screws for everything (got kind of expensive).

you can use a brad nailer or screws, just remember to glue all of it, this gives it a lot more strength.

remember to install your cross braces in a way that won't interfere with future pieces (like the tv).

speaking of which; the tv! you can choose to use either an LCD panel or a CRT. obviously, the CRT will be heavier and harder to work with. but if you want a more authentic experience I suggest a CRT. the LCD monitor will have higher compatibility, be lighter, and be of higher quality. if you really want to be authentic, then you can use a real arcade monitor, but you will need some extra hardware to output video to it.

I used an old Sony CRT and installing and calibrating it was by far the hardest part of this build.

WARNING: Working with CRT displays is incredibly dangerous! don't mess around with them! CRT's have high voltage lines and exposed capacitors, YOU CAN DIE!

Step 6: Electronics

this can be as complex or simple as you like. I went for a more complex way but you could just install Lakka or retro pie onto a raspberry pi and be done.

(i'm not going to go too in-depth about this because there are a lot more tutorials out there that can help you with this)

I used an old Dell desktop as the emulation system with Ubuntu Budgie installed. (Ubuntu Budgie is a lightweight Linux distro, the lighter the OS, the better your emulator will run) I compiled all the software from the source myself due to outdated downloads for my system.

the software you will need:

MAME and Attract mode.

Mame is the emulator we will be using to run the games. unfortunately: Mame real ugly! which is where attract mode comes in. attract mode is what is known as a Graphical Frontend. it basically covers up the emulation software and runs a more pleasing GUI on top of it. attract mode is a fully open source project and has a giant community and it's constantly growing. if you head over to their forums, you can view and download any number of themes you like. (i suggest Oomeck's themes, I currently use his "Silky Theme" but plan on switching to "Ambience HD" once he releases it)


I'm not an electrition, I'm self-taught, you can get seriously hurt if you aren't careful.

to give power to the whole cabinet, I cut the female end off of an extension cord, next I wired that end to a standard house plug, then cut the wire about 6 inches (about 15 cm), then wired a wall switch to that. which will cut power to the whole system at once (in a normal circumstance, cutting power to a pc can cause data corruption. but, because we will never be writing files to the system, there is a very little risk in hard-power-cycling the device. to learn more, I suggest watching THIS video by LTT). not all TVs will turn on automatically when they get power. mine will if I have it on before its unplugged. yours might only turn on if you have the power button constantly pressed (tape it down).

Step 7: Speakers

(just so you know, I am completely self-taught when it comes to wiring)

to make the speaker system, I took apart 2 old Bluetooth speakers and wired both drivers in series to one of the control chips with a potentiometer in the middle for volume controls.

Step 8: Aesthetics

this includes things like the bezel around the monitor, painting/ wrapping the cabinet, and the marquee.

for the bezel, I cut out a rectangle the size of the screen, then sanded the edges to an angle.

Next is the vinyl wrapping or painting. painting it will be easier, but you won't be able to have any high detail visuals. vinyl wraps are unfortunately very expensive, but they look amazing.

to make your vinyl, you can use any design you can find online or make your own. I found something I liked online and made my own based on it in adobe illustrator, you can download mine HERE.

for printing the vinyl, I found that the cheapest option was RockStar Arcade. they could print and send me my vinyl for about $145 (£110).

unfortunately, that exceeded my current budget, so I have yet to purchase the vinyl.

The marquee is an illuminated plexiglass graphic for above the monitor, these can be pretty cheap.

again you can use one online or make your own. blah blah blah... mine is HERE. (i haven't ordered it yet)

Step 9: Control Board

for your control board, you can use any material you want. I used laminated pine boards.

there are tons of styles you can choose from, depending on the games you think you will play. if you mostly play shmups, then you may only need 2-3 buttons. but, if you play a lot of fighter games like me, you'll want more.

I chose to use a seven button layout with 2 buttons on the side of the cabinet for video-pinball-games. you should always try multiple styles when deciding on a style.

once you have decided on a layout, draw it out on your control board and drill out the holes with a 30mm hole saw, make sure to drill straight. (TIP: before the teeth of the hole saw touch the wood, put your drill into reverse, and let the teeth go down about 3/8 inch, then put it back into forward and finish the hole. this will help prevent tear out on the top surface).

after I drilled the buttonholes, I used a walnut stain and put on about 8-9 coats of Minwax fast-dry polyurethane, sanding with 400-grit sandpaper after the last coat.

Step 10: END/ Games

And that's as far as I am in the project at this time. when I get the marquee and vinyl, I'll update this post.


if you don't know where to get the ROMs, look it up. I can't tell you how to get any games.

WARNING: possession of pirated/ ripped ROMs WITHOUT possession of the original is illegal.

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