DIY : Tools and Techniques to Clean, Restore, and Repair Your Old Games and Systems
The Tools and Equipment
We have a variety of tools — big and small, cheap and pricey, simple and complex… some are essential, some are just helpful. My first piece of advice here is that this is unlikely to be a “one and done” situation. Once you go down this rabbit hole, you’re going to be using these tools for dozens of games and systems; it’s best to consider these things long-term investments.
Very useful tool. Disposable, cheap, and small. Their size makes them great for getting into tight spaces and little gaps where dirt and dust like to gather, as well as for precise and gentle application of a cleaning substance. Useful wet and dry!
The next step up, yet less versatile than its smaller sibling. Best used for the gentle application of a cleaning substance. Primarily going to be used with isopropyl.
Another tool with limited applications; this is a heavy duty product for a heavy duty task. Best for scrubbing off rust and corrosion by hand.
Depending on what you’re cleaning or fixing up, you’re probably going to need to open things up… and that’s going to need a variety of different sizes and styles of screwdriver bit. Including, in many cases, uncommon “security” bits, like the tri-wing, torx and gamebit.
I personally recommend the iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit.
Do not underestimate the humble tweezers! When you’re digging around inside a piece of electronic hardware, you will often need to handle very small pieces — tweezers can make it much easier than handling with your fingers.
A really great and fast way to clean the dust out of something, with very little risk of damaging anything in the process. You can buy it in cans, but if you think you’re going to be doing this a lot, it could be very worth investing in an air compressor and gun.
Bear in mind that contents under too much pressure are a serious explosive danger — make sure your air compressor has automatic shutoff safety features!!
A staple of any cleanup set. What we need is the strong stuff — 100% pure alcohol. Denatured Alcohol/Methylated Spirits may be stronger and leave residues behind, so I recommend sticking to the known-safe Isopropyl. It’s perfect for gentle wet cleaning, as it dries up very quickly and leaves no residue behind. It’s also absolutely brilliant for cleaning up stickers and sticker leftovers, as it dissolves the adhesive perfectly.
This cleaning paste may only be available in Australia, but it works miracles. There seems to be a liquid spray cleaner sold under the same brand in North America, but this is not the same cleaner.
Gumption’s primary characteristic is a soft abrasive grit that can scrub out just about any stubborn marks.
Another soft grit cleaning alternative. Making a sort of paste from bicarb and a little water can do a similar job to gumption.
Bicarb has the added bonus of being an acid neutraliser, which can be handy for rinsing after using acidic cleaning agents, as it prevents further acid exposure.
Yes, the stuff you use for cooking. For our purposes, it’s an acid cleaner. Soaking corroded parts in vinegar attacks the rust, eating it away and loosening its grip on the metal left beneath. Chemistry!
Its acidic potency can be boosted with the addition of salt to speed up the process, but I advise caution — it can be better to approach things gently and patiently.
Those green scrubbing pads you’ll find with the sponges. Soft abrasive scrubbers that sort of function like very gentle sandpaper when used dry. We can use this to remove very light layers of material and minimise the appearance of scratches.
Also known as a Dremel. A power tool like a drill that spins a head attachment at super high speeds. For our purposes, we need wire brush heads — a wire brush spinning 3,000rpm will get that rust off much faster and easier than scrubbing with steel wool will. Use sensible judgement when deciding if power tools are safe for the job you’re doing.
Electronic components can be sensitive to (read: Fried by) exposure to static electricity. For this reason, ESD (that’s Electro-Static Discharge) safe brushes can be used to brush stubborn dust and debris out of the crevices of a circuit board without risk of zapping anything.
Dental hygiene is a great thing, of course, but in this case, we’re using it as a handy scrubbing tool. Since it’s designed for cleaning little bits out of your teeth, it’s perfect for cleaning little bits out of tight spaces!
It’s always good to hold onto old toothbrushes for use as cleaning tools!
Raiding the bathroom again, we get another cleaning material with some gentle grit. It can be carefully used to fix scratches in optical media.
Automotive Body Filler — also known as Bog, Bondo, and surely others —a favourite material of prop makers and panel beaters. This is a quick-curing two-part resin; mix the paste and it’ll be rock hard in a few minutes.
In its intended application, it’s used to fill cavities in damaged car bodies, so for our purposes, this will fill holes in broken plastic shells.
My recommended tool for applying Body Filler. Not required, but it’s ideal for the job.
Plumbing Epoxy Putty
A fast-curing two-part resin, like Body Filler, but instead of a paste, it’s a malleable putty, making it easier to squeeze into awkward spaces and mould into more complicated shapes.
A variable temperature heat gun is like a hairdryer with better control, and less blowing action. As you would expect, this is for applying direct heat to an area. It can be used to reflow solder, and to melt adhesives.
I think it goes without saying that you need to be careful with these as they can melt metal at the high end of their operational ranges.
Silicone Heat Mat
When you’re using high temperature tools like the soldering iron and heat gun, it’s good to have a heat-resistant silicone mat to work on.
There’s an ironic fact that Duct Tape is great for everything except sealing ducts — Masking Tape, however, is an invaluable tool for masking off areas you need to shield from whatever it is you’re doing.
It’s a slightly waxy paper tape with a very gentle adhesive, designed to leave no residue behind and pull nothing with it as it’s removed.
Commonly used brand name referring to Heat-Resistant Polyimide Tape.
Heat insulating tape that prevents the transfer of heat. We can think of it as masking tape for heat — when blasting with a heat gun, it can shield areas you wish to avoid exposing.
PVC Tape — not electrically conductive, so it’s good for insulating against short circuits, and keeping things constrained without shorting them out.
Copper or Aluminium Tape
Metal tape which can be used for a simple shielding solution if needed.
A nice soft cloth you’ll need for wiping and scrubbing things you don’t want to be too rough with.
A handy multipurpose tool. We primarily want it for its Continuity Test function, and to measure voltages.
A unit consisting of a temperature control system, a soldering iron, and usually a stand to hold the iron and a tip cleaning sponge.
A simple pump that can be used to suck liquid solder off a component for removal.
Also known as Desoldering Braid. This is a length of braided copper that can be used to suck up excess solder and clean up a surface.
You want to stick to rosin (flux) core solder wire. It comes in a variety of thicknesses; 0.3mm is good for very fine work, but you will get the best mileage out of 0.8mm. I find that to be an ideal size.
You will typically see mention of 60/40 Tin/Lead solder. It’s easy to use and readily available in most places. Some areas have banned the use of lead-based solder, and lead-free solder is also sold; though commonly considered harder to use.
Sometimes called soldering grease, this comes in a variety of forms. Pen applicators may be convenient, but I also recommend just having a tin of the paste stuff for dipping the tip of your iron in.
Flux can help transfer heat when soldering, and is very good for preventing bridging if you’re working on small chip pins.
Snipping tool with a flat face, allowing you to cut flush against a surface.
A scalpel-like tool for making precision cuts. Also happens to be very good for lifting up those little rubber feet console manufacturers like to hide their screws under, without any real damage!
It’s best to have a range of grit values from coarse 60 or 80 grit to finer 300 grit or higher. The higher the grit value, the smaller the particles, and the smoother the finish.
Gives you more shaping control than sandpaper, but naturally, you won’t have the range of grit. Good for rounding an edge or other fiddly shaping jobs.
Emery boards and nail files can also be good!
Hot Glue Gun
Hot Melt Glue Sticks are loaded in, melted, and squeezed out. Tremendous way to secure something in place you don’t want moving, but can be a bit messy.
Also known as Contact Cement. I recommend the 3M “Super 77″ — it’ll basically stick anything to anything, within reason.
Sewing Machine Oil
Mechanical components generally need lubricant, and over time they can lose what was applied in manufacturing, or you can strip it out while cleaning. If something spins or slides, it can help to give it a little oil to smooth its operation.
This cleaning stuff can really dry out your skin, so be sure to moisturise afterwards! Skincare is important!
Please note that while I’m trying to be as thorough as I can with this list, it’s always possible that a certain job will call for another tool. This is a results-oriented process; we use whatever works!
Electrical safety is not a joke! Do not attempt to clean anything while it’s plugged in — mains power can be deadly, and worse, you could fry your system! If you need to run the power while open to check voltages, be extremely careful of shorting. You should also use a grounding strap for preventing ESD damage to sensitive components.
Regarding “RetroBrite”: There’s a lot of info out there on the process. (Check out The 8-Bit Guy and Retro Man Cave on Youtube!) I do not have first hand experience with this yet, but when I come up with a great solution, I’ll be sure to document it.
Scuffs and marks on plastic shells
So you’ve given the shell a standard wipe-down; the dust and dirt are gone, but there are scuffs and marks that won’t wipe off. This usually happens when other bits of plastic and rubber scrape against it, embedding a small amount of the different coloured material in the surface.
Cleaning this stuff off is best done with a damp microfibre cloth and gumption paste. (A paste of bicarb and water should do if you can’t get gumption.) Firmly scrub the area until the marks are gone. As a gentle abrasive, it removes a very tiny surface layer of material, which gets rid of the embedded material deposited by the scuff.
When you buy a game, it will often come with stickers on it. Price stickers, rating stickers, sale stickers, rental stickers… they’re awful. But worse than a sticker is what you can be left with when you try to peel it off.
Stickers tend to leave adhesive residue behind, even if you get them off in one piece, and when it comes to things like paper or cardboard, you can tear what it’s stuck to!
You’ll need the tweezers and heat gun for this.
First you need to get some tiny level of grip on a corner of the sticker. Just enough for the tweezers to grab is all you need. Grip it with your tweezers, and apply heat to the area with the heat gun — remember, this tool is made to melt metal at its high end, so dial it down, and slowly bring it up until you start to feel the adhesive loosen; it should just lose its grip and lift away with gentle tugging pressure from your tweezers. This process is best approached with delicacy and patience. Go slow. Let the heat do the work, not the pull.
After the sticker is gone, there will pretty much always be residue.
Get some isopropyl alcohol on a cotton ball, and rub it on the residue in a circular motion. It’s not about how hard you scrub, just keep working it, and the alcohol will dissolve the adhesive left over, while the cotton wipes it up.
This is safe for paper and cardboard, but I stress — be gentle; don’t try to forcibly scrub it off, just go slow and persist until it’s all wiped off.
The worst stickers of all are those that some genius decided to stick on optical media discs. Trying to peel off those stickers can result in a destroyed label, and loss of the reflective layer — effectively putting a hole in the disc — but direct heat could also damage it, so no heat gun here.
The trick to getting these off requires a great deal of patience and a delicate touch. First, use a cotton ball wet with isopropyl to saturate the sticker as best you can; the primary goal is to get a corner or edge that will lift up without any force. Use your tweezers to grip this free section and lift it only as far as it will lift freely; now use a cotton tip soaked in isopropyl to very gently rub along the exposed underside of your lifted edge. Continue working along the edge with the cotton tip, dissolving the adhesive little by little, and allowing it to lift further. Do not be tempted to rip it off once it’s nearing the end! Just carefully work across the edge to avoid any pulling on the surface of the disc.
Chipped & broken shells
Severe damage to the shell can happen in a number of ways. Holes in the plastic can look terrible and it’s generally bad to have internals exposed.
You will probably need to open up the subject to have access to both sides of the hole. Depending on the size of the break, you may need to reinforce the back with some cardboard; press it flat against the back of the hole, and secure it with masking tape. If it’s small enough, just masking tape should suffice to brace it.
If the damage isn’t all the way through, such as a large gouge, you can obviously fill it without bracing the other side.
Mask the area around the hole or gouge with masking tape, to protect the rest of the shell and keep the filler localised where it needs to be.
With the hole sealed, and the area masked, mix a sufficient amount of body filler and hardener, and apply the mixed paste as flat and smoothly as possible in line with the rest of the shell. I find it best to apply a little more than enough paste with the palette knife, then smooth it over by scraping the excess off with the straight edge of the knife. Work fast as these resins set quickly!
Once it’s set, which again won’t take long, you will need to sand it to a perfectly flush finish. Use a reasonably high grit sandpaper so as not to remove much material from the shell while getting it smooth; the aim is to make the transition from original plastic to filler resin as seamless as possible.
When it’s done, you can remove all the masking tape. You will, of course, need to paint the filler to match the surrounding plastic — an airbrush or spraypaint will get the most natural blending, but matching the colour is not an easy task. Unfortunately, as I’m trying to describe generic methods, I can’t offer much advice on this; it’s a case-by-case assessment.
Moderate surface scratches
Please be aware I am absolutely NOT talking about surface scratches on optical media discs. Using this method on those will only make the problem worse!
Surface scratches that aren’t deep enough to fill, but are deep enough to be noticeable and unsightly, can be reduced in appearance by carefully rubbing and wearing down with a scouring pad. It functions as a very gentle sandpaper, and will remove a very small amount of material which can minimise the appearance of those small scratches.
Dealing with dust and dirt
Exterior dust and dirt are easily taken care of with a cloth — but when it comes to old machines, that dust and dirt always finds a way to accumulate inside the case, and this can be disastrous. Dust buildup can clog vents and fans, restricting the cooling airflow; those thick layers of dust can also function as insulators, becoming like little filth-blankets that trap and amplify the heat!
In many cases, a malfunctioning system was just in need of a good clean!
Carefully take the system apart, taking ESD safety precautions of course, to gain access to the internal components. There are a lot of helpful disassembly guides on iFixit and around the internet which can help you find those hidden screws and work out the order to properly disassemble the unit. Then use compressed air and ESD-safe brushes to dislodge and clear it away.
(It may be good to wear a mask if you’re sensitive to dust.)
Rust and corrosion
Rust is an unfortunate fact of time, especially if you live in a humid place, and battery leakage is always an unfortunate thing to discover in your old games and hardware.
Depending on how delicate the component, you have several options.
Soaking the part in vinegar is a good first step if it’s safe to do so — vinegar is a mild acid that breaks down the corroded material and makes it easier to scrub off. Sufficient soaking can dissolve the buildup entirely, but has potential to damage delicate parts.
After soaking, I recommend neutralising the acid with bicarb to be safe, then rinse it clean, and most importantly dry it thoroughly — leftover moisture will lead to more corrosion, which we’re trying to get rid of!
After soaking (or if you need to bypass that step) you will want to scrub to remove what’s still there. If the part is very strong, the best way to get that buildup off is with a wire brush dremel attachment — you can wipe rust off metal shielding with those like a sponge wiping up a spill.
For the less hardy materials, you should use steel wool to scrub it away gently.
“Recapping” is a relatively simple, but tedious process of replacing all the capacitors in a piece of technology. Failed capacitors can be responsible for anything from small irregularities in performance to complete failure to operate, and these parts are particularly prone to degradation over time.
Whether completely recapping or just replacing a known bad cap (bloating or bursting are obvious visual signs of failure) the process is the same:
First, carefully desolder the capacitor to be replaced. Desolder pumps are great for removing the majority of the solder, while solder wick/desoldering braid is a nice way to mop up anything left over.
Then, replace it with a new one of equivalent value.
Bad or broken solder joints can be a point of failure easily remedied — melting the solder again (“reflowing”) can reconnect a part to the circuit if it has cracked and disconnected. It can help to add more, new solder to help the old stuff melt.
Resticking lifting labels
Adhesive can lose its grip over time; the best method to stick it back down, in my opinion is a high quality spray adhesive like 3M Super 77.
Ideally — if it can be done without damaging the peeling label — you should remove it entirely, apply adhesive to the whole back, and carefully stick it back in place. When total removal isn’t possible without damaging the label, mask off the area with masking tape; be sure to cover anything you don’t want to get sticky with the tape (masking tape is low-strength adhesive made to peel back off without damaging the underlying material or leave residue behind) and spray the exposed area with a coat of adhesive.
I recommend carefully removing the masking before trying to stick things down properly. Gentle pressure and a microfibre cloth are the ideal way to apply the label smoothly, evenly, and without damage.
Scratches on optical media
Damage to the label side or reflective coating is a death sentence. But scratches to the bottom can be mitigated.
A resurfacing machine will do the best job, but a DIY method can be performed with toothpaste. Applying the toothpaste to the scratch, and using gentle circular motions with a wet cotton ball, you can buff the scratch down.
Note that this is a method with limited viability, as it is a destructive repair — it removes material from the disc surface to reduce scratches’ interference with the laser, as with resurfacing. It is important to not overuse this kind of repair, as it can eventually damage the disc beyond repair.
I wonder if a layer of UV-curing optically clear resin might resurface an entire disc through additive rather than destructive processes, but this would be an advanced and difficult repair.
You can buy scratch repair pens to spot-repair scratches this way.