inside of my arcade controller
Leveling Up

Tips for Building an Arcade Controller with Little Woodworking Experience

My arcade controller started with grand aspirations. Starting in 2008, I finally finished in 2018. Some people have project cars, I had a project arcade. While my controller was functioning in 2008, it was far from finished. 10 years of re-cutting, modifying, adding, and rewiring has given me a finished product I’m happy with.

Now I’m not very handy when it comes to construction, especially when I first started.

 You won’t find schematics or templates in this blog. There are plenty websites out there with the same 1 to 4 player templates. This is for those people looking to build something but lack confidence in their own skill or want reassurance that going away from the norm is ok and can be done. That’s why I want to provide some of the mistakes I’ve made as well as some tips I recommend so you can learn from me. Also while including some money saving tips.

Know The Scope of Your Project

My initial goal was to build a 4 player arcade cabinet with a trackball. Typical 4 player cabinets would have player’s 3 and 4 with four buttons at the most. Not me though! I wanted each player to have enough buttons so that if I wanted to run other emulators, they’d have enough buttons to play as well. Another common design theme was how crowded 2 and even 4 player arcade controllers were. At the time I was pushing close to 280 and some of my friends were just as big. So let’s just say that we’d be a bit too close for comfort.

Drawing up plans on printer paper and the controller layout itself, I soon realized this thing would be about 5 feet long. Add in the cost of the wood to build the actual cabinet, plexiglass, marquee, and a flat screen big enough. This cabinet would not only be expensive but huge! I scraped the arcade cabinet portion and decided to focus on the controller itself. This would keep costs down, space down, and reduce the weight to something more manageable especially when I move.

My Material List & Estimated Costs

Based on vision I started drawing out my design on paper. I started out with each person’s controller space and the amount of space I’d like between people playing. From there I took that drawing and calculated out how much wood I’d need for the top, sides, and bottom. After 10 years I used 3 sheets of 1/2 inch plywood ($40 each). I also utilized Home Depot’s cutting station for the larger cuts (25 cents a cut). I didn’t have a circular saw at the time so any additional cutting I’d have to do by hand.

Other hardware and tools I picked up over the years included, a hand drill, hand saw, circular saw, screws, paint ($20), long hinges ($10), electric sander ($30), a set of piano bench hinges ($10), and most importantly a spade bit set. The reason I say the spade bit is the most important is so you can easily drill circular holes into your wood for the buttons. I set will run you about $10 at most hardware stores. Optional items I also used are heavy duty wheels ($20), cup holders ($10 each), popsicle sticks, wood glue, and zip ties. I’ll explain the optional bit later on in this guide.

As for the controller portion of the machine I picked up four, 8-way joysticks ($10 each), 51 Happ buttons ($2 each which consisted of 10 regular buttons for each player, different colors of course, player 1-4 buttons, 4 buttons for coins, 3 buttons for menu controls), 1 USB track ball ($80), a four player I-Pac controller ($60), 1 USB hub ($3), and wire and connectors of many different colors($40).

You’ll notice that my material list doesn’t include the computer or television. I planned to hook it directly into my PC which was connected to my TV. Eventually I knew I would upgrade both and when that happened I would use my those as exclusive arcade parts. So without factoring those into the cost, I must have spent close to $500+ dollars over the course of 10 years. Depending on how you look at that price, that could be good or bad.

Tips for Keeping Costs Down

Taking a look at $500+ can be shock. In my case there weren’t many ways to keep the cost down. Building an arcade controller that big was a novelty. People who made their own arcade controllers were fighting game enthusiasts that used high end parts. Knowing that I already reduced the scope from a cabinet to a controller, I didn’t want to reduce my scope any further. Reducing my controller to 2 players and I might as well picked up an X-Arcade controller which was too small. Cheaper parts could have worked but I wanted this to last a lifetime.

Looking back at my project and some of the wasteful spending, these are the tips I would give to keep costs low without sacrificing their vision.

  • Borrow tools from others when you can or purchase cheap ones from discount stores and garage sales. Some good advice that was given to me years ago was to pick up cheap tools until you break them or your skill outgrows them. This has been helpful not only in building this arcade controller but during my adventures of home ownership.
  • Depending how good you are with a soldering iron, you can switch out the I-Pac for some wire and an old keyboard. I wouldn’t recommend this for a beginner but keyboards are cheap and can reduce the cost by $50
  • You don’t have to buy everything at once. As you continue reading you’ll see how a spaced out costs over the course of 10 years by sticking with the necessities and adding more later.
  • Do you really want a arcade cabinet? If so, can you pick up a scrap arcade cabinet for cheap at an auction and gut it? Do the math on cost of wood and time spend to restore the cabinet before purchasing one.
  • Compromise on your vision. Can you design something that fits your home/style/budget that’s a bit unconventional? People just want to play games and a front end solution helps give that arcade feel more than a cabinet.

Measure Twice, Cut Two Maybe Three Times

You can measure as many times as you’d like but putting a controller together with design flaws or surprise structural issues won’t save you. So while my first iteration was built there were a lot of issues I realized later on. Try not to repeat these same mistakes I did.

  •  Don’t angle your controller board as much as you think. You eyeballing what you think is the right angle won’t work and can be very uncomfortable to play on.
  • Get long, sturdy hinges and a set of piano hinges. I picked up the wrong set of hinges and you could tell when opening it up.
  • Make space in the back for extra buttons. Pause, Exit, Menu, etc. You may think your button combination is cleaver for exiting a game but it will be pressed accidentally. It will also be hard to remember and annoying to repeat during gatherings.
  • When designing the height, don’t forget to add in the top and bottom wood to the overall dimensions. My first version was way too tall.
  • Use different color wires for each controller. It’ll save you time when a wire comes loose and believe me it will. Not only that but take some time to measure them out.

Making Life Easier When Building

On the flip side of things, these are the tips that made my life easier during my first iteration.

  • Get an I-Pac. Seriously, these things are great and made the wiring process a lot easier than soldering.
  • Learn how to properly daisy chain the ground wires and give yourself some extra wire for cable management.

Welcome the Second Iteration

Around 2011, a year after I graduated college, I was a struggling to find a decent job. Fed up with retail, and the fact corporate closed down the store I was working at, I decided to get my MBA. After all, more education will help, right? Before starting my MBA, I was living at home, depressed. Not only that I was a bit angry at myself and the situation I was in. Going to college for four years provided me with a retail job I could have gotten right out of high school.

Around this time, I wanted to change and better myself. I could say that it all changed overnight, I just flipped a switch, pulled myself up from my bootstraps (First used to describe an impossible task), and changed my life around, but that would be a complete lie. Taking long walks, listening to podcasts helped, but I needed a project. That’s when I decided to go back to working on my arcade controller. There’s a particular habit I have where I’ll start something but either never finish it or half-ass. Painfully obvious with my first iteration of my arcade controller. This time I decided it would be different.

Arcade Controller Improvements

All of those issues I had in my first iteration were fixed. I removed the sides and re-cut them so the height of the arcade controller was slimmer. I was able to fix the angle it rested on as well by reducing the slow to less than a 1/4 of an inch. You’d think I’d learn how to measure properly by now but nope! After I cut the sides I still had to sand them down because the angle was too tall. As an added bonus, the reduced height also reduced the weight of the controller.

 The 2nd design flaw was the hinges in the back. Those were replaced and I added piano hinges to the sides as well. Now my figures were safe when trying to fix a wire. In addition, I drilled in 3 holes for additional buttons and fixed my third design flaw.

This is also where the popsicle sticks and wood glue came into place. I wanted the controller to be angled on the sides for players 3 and 4. This type of cut requires skill and the proper tools. Something I was sorely lacking, so by borrowing my parent’s Dremel I angled down the wood and connected it to the other pieces of wood as best I could without proper planning. From there I added in the popsicle sticks into the crevasse and filled that in with wood glue to create a make shift angle. Once it dried I sanded it down and painted it black. I’m sure there were much better ways to do this but it’s held pretty well so far!

 Wiring, I hate wiring. That’s why there was so many issues with the first iteration. Cutting corners to finish quicker is not the way to go. Add in a lack of cable management and you could tell it was rat’s nest under the hood. Changing out all of the wires was a necessity. The way it was fixed was that I color coated to match the buttons. From there I used small zip ties and bundled the joystick and button wires for each player leading up to the I-Pac.

The 2nd iteration of my controller was finished and I was on my way to changing my life around. Though just like my arcade controller, my life needed a 3rd iteration.

Moving and the Trouble It’s Caused

Soon I graduated with an MBA and my job hunt continued (well it never ended). I moved from Indiana to Orlando for a job that would place me in the same city as my then long distance girlfriend to now wife. No U-Hauls here as I drove my Toyota Camry down south. My video game collection would be left behind at my parent’s house until I was more settled. Flash forward 5 years and my parent’s moved down to Florida and with it came the large arcade controller. Protecting only the joysticks it made it’s way down to my new house. Determined to full fill a childhood dream of having an arcade in my house I promptly placed the joystick in our back room where it sat for a little over six months.

The Final and 3rd Iteration

My wife was out of town for a week so I figured now would be the perfect time to complete my arcade controller. I’d be able to take over areas of the house without having some weird internal, only in my head, guilt about taking up so much space. This time I wanted to add the following to my arcade controller.   

  •  A chest high shelf for the controller to rest on and a place for the computer to rest.
  • Heavy duty wheels so it can be moved easily.
  • Labelled wires to further reduce confusion when fixing a loose wire.
  • Cup Holders!

After I built the shelf, installed the wheels, and placed the controller on top, you’d think I’d learn about measuring and cutting the wood to the correct height. Well, I didn’t. I had to cut another foot and half off before the controller rested perfectly on base.

Your Own Personal Barcade

Finally I installed 4 cup holders I got off of Amazon that were $10 each. These are the type of foldable cup holders they recommend you install in your car, boat, or anywhere else you want to hold a drink. There’s a perfectly good reason I installed these. People can be idiots when they’re drunk. They spill, knock over drinks, ruin good carpet. Without cup holders people would be placing their drinks directly on the wood and eventually a spill would occur. After throwing many parties I can safely say they work and were a great addition everyone should add to their arcade.

4 player arcade setup with launchbox

A Great Learning Experience

Building an arcade controller really helped me in more ways than one. I learned a lot about working with my hands. Not only building something from scratch but the basics of wiring. Piecing together tips and instructions from various sources helped me later on with home ownership. Knowing that I can watch a YouTube video, read a blog, and realize I have the confidence to tackle a project is amazing.

While I say this third iteration of my arcade controller is complete, I may come back later and add to it. That’s the great thing about projects. You’re always able to come back and work on them with new experiences

 If you have questions about your own arcade controller you’re building or just want to share yours, leave a comment. I’d be happy to help and give you my opinion.

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