Arcade icon

How I built an arcade machine from scratch


The arcade machine from a front-right perspective The arcade machine from a front perspective The arcade machine from a lateral perspective The arcade machine from the left perspective The arcade machine from the back perspective Finished arcade machine

Back in 2013 I won a starter kit for makers from the Make Magazine. It had a Raspberry Pi Model 1 and some basic components. I spent several months looking for something interesting to build, but nothing caught my attention. I remember I almost gave up when I found RetroPie. RetroPie allows you to turn your Raspberry Pi into a retro-gaming machine.

I ran a quick experiment installing some ROMs to check how it worked. I was surprised how straightforward it was to have a working retro console with almost zero configuration. Though, it took me a while to set it up properly to make the most of it. I wrote a complete guide with the entire process step by step.


After successfully running RetroPie, I realized I could fit the Raspberry Pi with its tiny footprint inside an arcade cabinet. I looked everywhere for cabinets to restore, only to find costly wooden boxes in terrible conditions. Most of them were not worthwhile for restore, heavy, difficult to move, too big for an apartment, and expensive.

The only way to get the results I wanted would be by building an arcade cabinet from scratch. In those terms, I was looking for something that was:

The plans

Right after setting my expectations for an ideal arcade machine, I looked for some information on building one and quickly found Project MAME. The project has open-source plans to build different types of arcade cabinets from scratch. The one with the shape I was looking for was able to hold a PC with a keyboard and all. That added complexity to the build for something I didn't want to. The good part was that it was able to fit a flat screen inside.

One of the many adaptations of that cabinet was this Paper Mario themed arcade (in Spanish). The author improved the original plans to use only MAME controllers and to have a taller marquee. He also made available the side art and a SketchUp 3D model:

A 3D model of the arcade cabinet

I only modified the width of the original plans by 2 cm. so the cabinet could fit an old 26" monitor that I've already had. I followed the rest of the plans as specified:

A notebook with the hand drawn plans

Before even buying materials, I built a 1/10th model in cardboard to see everything together. That way, I was sure that all made sense and was able to check if anything needed to be adjusted or redefined, especially after the width modification that I had to do. The model was 17 cm. height and it helped in defining the size and distribution of the speaker grills.


The most important decision was to choose what type of wood I'd use. I was between MDF, plywood, and particleboard. I chose MDF, but if I had known how hard it was to clean up the thin dust when sanding it, I'd have chosen another one. On the other hand, it was a very versatile material: easy to cut and drill.

The materials I used trough the entire project were:

MDF boards (15mm thickness):

Acrylic sheets:

Other materials:

First cuts

After getting all the MDF boards, I drew the shape of the cabinet in both laterals based on the plans. I've also used a pair of compasses to draw the curves.

Drawings with measurements on the lateral board

I sticked both laterals together with paper tape to make only one cut. This was actually a mistake, since the thicker the surface to cut, the more the blade will bow. I fixed it later just sanding the edges.

The lateral boards after making cuts

After making all the cuts, I learned a couple of valuable lessons:

  1. MDF produces fine dust when sanded: It doesn't matter how much gloves, masks, safety glasses I wore, I had to deal with dust in my hair and clothes for days. It was a nightmare to clean up after cutting or sanding. I even broke a vacuum cleaner trying to clean everything up.
  2. While cutting thick wood, the blade may flex or bow: In my case, it would have been better not to cut both boards together.
  3. The jigsaw blade gets hot and burns the wood unless you let the jigsaw cool down from time to time. My mistake was to make lengthy cuts in one single run: Some curved cuts that appear to be burned

I used 80- and 360-grit sandpaper to smooth the edges and surfaces. While the former is a coarse grit for smoothing surfaces and removing imperfections, the latter is a fine grit for finishing surfaces smoothly. Sanding was also good for covering all the mistakes I made during the cuts.

Both lateral boards, back to back, sanded Close up of one of the lateral boards, sanded


I decided to join all the pieces using strips. That way, I not only achieved millimetric precision in positioning the MDF boards but also managed to do so alone, without any help. I cut a bunch of 4 cm x 2 cm pine strips to the size of the boards they will be joining.

Multiple pine strips on a table

It wasn't necessary to use glue when I was already using screws, but I decided to use it anyway to hold the entire structure tight. I've also used a bigger drill bit on the surface to make the screws go deeper.

Pine strips being held to one of the lateral boards using paper tape

I attached all the strips to both lateral boards using 3.5 mm x 30 mm screws and carpenter's wood glue.

Pine strips attached to the lateral boards Pine strips attached to the top board Pine strips attached to the middle board Pine strips attached to the bottom board

First assembly

I assembled all the pieces to see the final shape and size. At first, it looked like a massive fridge inside my apartment, but it began to take shape and improved as the project progressed.

A half-way done cabinet standing against the wall Top board on top of both lateral boards

I attached the front and back panels with 3.5 mm x 40 mm screws.

Controllers board on top of both lateral boards

I've also installed the bottom cover and attached two wheels to move the cabinet around. I made a diagonal cut in both laterals to let the wheels lean on the floor when the cabinet is inclined.

A wheel installed on the bottom back of the cabinet Both wheels installed on the bottom of the cabinet


I had an old 26" Samsung monitor that was perfect for this cabinet. I believe that a 26-inch screen is too large for playing retro games when standing so close to it. An ideal size would be around 22" to 24", but I wouldn't spend money on a new monitor when I had this one at home.

The problem was that this monitor has no VESA holes in the back to attach it to a wall mount. But, I found an unofficial mount that replaces the original base. I installed the mount onto a board, adding a small "T" for extra support to prevent bending under the weight of the monitor.

A board with a little strip glued behind, forming a T

I made a placeholder in paper to be able to see more clearly where the screen needed to be mounted.

A sketch of a monitor made out of paper, installed on the wooden cabinet A monitor installed on the wooden cabinet The metal connector that holds the monitor, installed on the wooden cabinet. The monitor is missing.

Using some leftovers of the strips, I added 2 supports on the back and 2 triangles to hold the acrylic cover.

2 wooden strips to the sides of the metal connector The wooden cabinet empty. It has 4 strips that allow the monitor to be held in place


There are lots of different game controllers available for DIY projects out there. I bought a "MAME kit" which included:

I did a little research about button positions in arcade cabinets. I found this article about the most common layouts. The author of the post has also made their own distribution based on an average of several controllers.

A diagram of 8 rounded buttons and one joystick

In my case I went for a mix between a couple of Sega layouts. I tested it on a cardboard box to be sure it looked good.

6 plastic red buttons and a joystick with a red ball, mounted on a cardboard box

I drew the holes for all the components on the MDF board and drilled all the 18 holes.

A wooden board with 18 circles where the buttons are going to be A closeup of holes in the wood All 18 holes in a wooden panel

I installed the MAME kit, including joysticks, 14 push buttons, 1P/2P buttons, and the USB board.

All 18 buttons installed. The all the wires that connect them can be seen. There is a board in the middle where all the cables go to. All 18 buttons installed. Half of them are red, the other half are blue


I had a Genius 2.1-channels speaker with subwoofer that I got back in 2007 with my first job. It has a wooden cabinet and an exceptional deep bass. The cardboard model was handy to make the first check on the size and place of the speakers. Now with the arcade cabinet right in front of me, I could double-check the ideal spots for the holes and grills.

Arcade cabinet with 2 rounded holes for small speakers on the top board 2 rounded papers on the front bottom of the cabinet, where the speakers holes will be

Even though the speakers come with only one subwoofer, I decided to make 2 holes to the cabinet. I ended up using the second one to hold a 140 mm fan.

A PC fan attached to one of the big holes The arcade cabinet, with everything installed. A game can be seen on the monitor.


I bought some crystal-clear acrylic boards to cover the monitor, controllers, and marquee. After sanding some edges of the biggest acrylic board, I attached it to the triangle strips and put some screws in the back of the speakers board.

An acrylic attached to the front of the cabinet with screws An acrylic attached to the back of the cabinet with screws

For the marquee, I used 2 sheets of acrylic to hold a semi-transparent print in between. I attached both sheets with 4 stainless steel clamps.

The marquee on the top of the cabinet, with its light on

I had to drill 18 holes in an acrylic sheet to install the buttons. I'm glad I decided to get one extra sheet to do some tests because the first experience of drilling acrylic was terrible. The acrylic melted down over the heat of the drill bit.

4 holes on an acrylic sheet. The acrylic is melted.

Then I realized that using water keeps the drill bit and the acrylic cold.

Drilling holes in the acrylic using water

It took around 10 minutes to make each hole. I finished the job with a lot of patience.

An acrylic sheet with 18 holes


I covered all the screws with wood putty and sanded everything until I got a smooth surface.

The arcade cabinet with all the screws covered in putty

I applied white primer paint for MDF to the entire cabinet. I made sure the first coat was applied with a more liquid consistency than necessary. That way the wood absorves the paint more easily. The primer paint seals the pores of the wood and sets a base color to apply other painting coats.

The lateral of the cabinet, half wooden color, half white The arcade cabinet all white

I masked everything except both laterals, using blue paper tape.

The arcade cabinet on the floor, masked with blue tape and plastic bags

Then, I applied glossy white spraypaint to the sides and to the controllers board. Having a white surface helps making the colors of the printed art pop out.

The lateral of the cabinet painted in glossy white The wooden board with 18 holes painted in glossy white

I applied matte black spraypaint to the rest of the cabinet.

The top part of the cabinet painted in matte black The middle part of the caninet painted in matte black

This is how the arcade cabinet looked like before applying the vinyls:

The arcade cabinet painted in black and white

Self-adhesive vinyl

The author of the Paper Mario cabinet made the side art available. So, I printed it in vinyl and installed it on all the white boards.

Vinyl applied to the controllers board. Vinyl applied to the marquee Vinyl applied to the left side Vinyl applied to the right side


The cherry on the cake were the white buttons I added on both sides of the cabinet. That way I'm able to play pinball games. I connected those buttons directly to other existing buttons (left d-pad and "A") because that's what every retro pinball game uses.

Vinyl and pinball buttons installed on the cabinet The arcade machine, front perspective The arcade machine, right perspective The arcade machine, left perspective