Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Interview: Cliff Rinear, creator of Cliffy Protectors

When I was thinking about who in pinball I would like to interview, Cliff Rinear was at the top of that list.  There aren't too many people, regardless of industry, who have a product named after them, but Cliff is one of those cases.  His line of metal protector parts, "Cliffy's," are designed to fit over specific places on pinball machines that are prone to wear.  For example, "scoops", where the ball drops in to trigger an event, frequently experience wear to the playfield wood around the edges.  Cliffy's prevent that.  This is one of those tweaks to a machine that would fall under the category of "mods".  It's also something that on-location machines would benefit from far more than home use only machines, even though it's the collectors who typically take the most protective measures to keep their machines in tip-top condition.

Interview with Cliff Rinear, creator of Cliffy's Pinball Protectors

Cliffy's Lab
Keeping My Cool: How did you get into pinball in the first place?

Cliff Rinear: First let me say thanks to you, Lorien, for this opportunity. I'm humbled and certainly never expected this - thanks!

I've been a tinkerer since I was able to use a screwdriver for its intended purpose :) Growing up on a homestead outside of Fairbanks, Alaska we had to make do with what we had. 8 month winters left lots of time to take things apart I probably shouldn't have. By 10 I was able to put things back together and by age 12 some things actually worked again. I was a voracious reader and pencil artist and my creativity was constantly searching for an outlet. Modeling railroads, planes and cars wasn't enough. I had to take 'em apart and make 'em better! By my teens I was tearing into motorcycles - I swear I had the engine out of an old Honda CL77 five times one summer in an attempt to get it to stay running on both cylinders. This much to my dad's chagrin as I was supposed to be doing farm stuff while summer daylight was burning (sorry pop!)

I wouldn't discover pinball until the arcade revolution of the late 70's. By then I'd left the homestead and came to California where I finished high school early and used my mom's place as a launching point to start my own life. By 1984 I was married and had two of my eventual five kids. On one particularly warm summer night we piled the kids in the car and headed to the local pizza place near us in Livermore. It was too hot to cook and too hot to wait for delivery so we went and waited for our pizza in their air conditioned restaurant. I remember standing at the counter when I heard this synthesized voice calling behind me. It was a Williams Space Shuttle! I was instantly transfixed and dropped quite a few quarters in it that night. I would play it again every time we went there but never dreamed of owning a game of my own. Didn't even cross my mind back then.

Fast forward to 1995 and I'm remarried and living in a new town, San Ramon. Up to this point I was still the avid tinkerer and adventurist having soaked myself in gold prospecting, model railroads, car restoration and even started a computer building business that ran well for several years. All this while still holding down my career job and keeping my family together. My kids always thought they had the coolest dad because of all the toys. One that always stayed with me was a 1982 Midway Tron upright vid. This was given to me dead in '88 and took 2 years to get working. It's still with me today. The PC biz was dying and I was again looking for the next big hobby project. Perusing the company bulletin board system one day I came across an ad for a pinball machine for sale and it was only 5 minutes up the road. Being a total newbie to this didn't faze me in the least. It didn't work right and the owners had whitewashed the cab in preparation for eventual stenciling. I could care less. I was all about the fixin'! So for $150 I picked up one beat up old 1966 Williams Hot Line, a single player EM pinball. I was like 12 years old on Christmas morning all over again. I couldn't sleep! I could not wait to tear into its guts. Let's just say "challenging" was an understatement :) I did get it figured out and working great but as we all know pinball is like Lays potato chips. You know you can't eat just one!

Addams Family Chair scoop Cliffy
Cliffy protector under the chair of The Addams Family

KMC: How did you get the idea to start creating protectors?

Cliff: Over the next couple years I hunted down different era pinball machines. A Sonic Mars Trek, Gottlieb Cleopatra system 1 solid state, WMS Swords of Fury and Bally's Strange Science. Finally, one I'd had my eye out for ever since Amtex promised it in their pinball simulation software... Funhouse. It was my holy grail at the time and I found one with the help of a friend in Arizona. All I had to go by was snapshots (those are real pictures taken with a camera and developed on film :) "Yeah yeah yeah, looks good to me" so my buddy trucked it up and it was Christmas all over again!

Now, as anyone who is familiar with Funhouse and many other plastic ramped games knows when the ramps are blown out they aren't much fun to play. Pulling the glass to dig a ball out from where it was never meant be gets annoying real quick. This was a challenge right in my wheelhouse. I'd been told all my life I could fix anything but a rainy day and here was another chance to prove it to myself. I gathered up some stainless steel sheet that was left over from a door kick panel replacement, made some cardstock templates and cut them out with tin snips. I was happy with the results but quite honestly a little embarrassed if anyone saw them on my game. Back then new ramps were somewhat available but there was no internet parts presence. You had to call the big guys like Betson or CA Robinson. Being in the S.F. bay area we were fortunate to have a fantastic pinball parts place in Jim and Judy Tolbert's For Amusement Only in Berzerkely. Yes Jim had a new Funhouse main ramp but it was $125 and no Steps ramp. In hindsight I should have popped for the new ramp but, ok, I was kinda cheap and cheapness is the mother of invention! :)

KMC: What is the process like to create protectors?

Cliff: The process details have evolved over the years but the principles never change. Find the weak spots and protect them! Mainly I'm concerned with coverage and mounting points. I've graduated from cardstock (mostly) and tin snips to high res scanning, digital measurements, CAD and laser. I may never have reached this point without the help of my very close friends, Steve Charland and Martin Reynolds. I doubt I'll ever be able to express my gratitude enough for their friendship and the unending encouragement from all the folks who use my innovations.

What was it like when people started calling them "Cliffys"?

Cliff: Well for sure that was very humbling. A comment made in jest on a newsgroup, perhaps. But it told me these inventions truly have a place in the hobby and with that comes expectations and a responsibility to the people who put their faith - and money - in my products.

I never got around to naming my protectors and truthfully, the community sort of did that for me. I would have probably come up with some grand name like Guards of Thunder (yes I was a comic collector too) or maybe Pintectors... you know, something really, terribly lame It's an honor to have been verbed :)

KMC: How do you decide which machines to make protector offerings for, and what spots need it?

Cliff: It all started with my own games, of course, and still when I get a game it's the first thing I look to do. As soon as word got out about what I was making for myself folks wanted to see them and shortly thereafter wanted sets for their own games. Today 99.95% of what I make is because of requests. There are limits to this though. First I need something to work from. Next it has to be actually doable. Some requests just can't be realized with today’s technology or the limit of my tools. Mostly though, I really need the game itself or a playfield or ramps - depending on the protection needed. In cases where that's just not possible, I will resort to the old paper template method but accuracy is always suspect in those cases. I've had great relationships with some very talented people though who are skilled with a ruler, caliper and templates. I try to always give them credit for their help on my web page. Shout out to Chris Heffner for being the most prolific templateer and just a really great guy.

What spots need protection is determined by obvious wear, in the case of older games or by following the ball path in the case of new, unworn games.

For the record sellability is NOT a determining factor in deciding which protectors to make. I think my inventory makes that somewhat obvious but thought I may as well squeeze that in there anyway :)

More examples of Cliffy Protectors

KMC: How's business?

Cliff: It's been growing, which I'm thankful for. There are times I find myself playing catch-up and I appreciate the patience of my distributors, absolutely. I don't expect to quit my, ahem, well over 30 year career job to make protectors but I do hope I can continue growing. I'll need something to create when I retire from the day job and hopefully Cliffy's will continue to fill that need for me.

KMC: Do you think pinball is on an upswing?

Cliff: I do believe pinball, as a whole, *IS* on an upswing but in a far different arena than what they were originally created for. Stern, Illinois Pin Ball and Jersey Jack Pinball are the only commercial manufacturers of pinball machines in the USA, right now. Stern was the last maker building specifically for the original market - distribution and amusement operators. Stern eventually realized that market was waning and turned to the collector and home market (not without some kicking and screaming, however!) IPB and JJP, on the other hand, unabashedly want to cater to the collector and home market. This has created a healthy new spark of creativity and I see designer friends like Steve Ritchie, Dennis Nordman, John Trudeau, John Borg, among many others, excitedly attacking the challenge, each wanting to bring the next hot game to the players. This new enthusiasm is invigorating the boutique creators too, like Nordman/Freres with their Whizbang! Big Juicy Melons custom game and look at the crop of other custom games coming up from Popadiuk and Heck, and new manufacturers popping up in Europe and the UK. Look at the 3rd party aftermarket too! WOW! We've never seen so many creative embellishments for pinball. Some loved, some not so much but what matters is people are enthusiastic and excited about pinball and it's not just us "old guys" anymore! Pinball is HOT!

KMC: What are some of your personal favorite machines to play?

Cliff: I knew this was coming :) Ok, I only buy what I like to play. If a game has great execution of theme and gameplay, all the better! Favorite really depends on my mood so my garage, gameroom and dining room are filled so I have my moods covered. Lately I've been playing the heck out of DE Star Wars and Twilight Zone. Some days I just want a straightforward game to have fun and forget about work so I'll fire up Cyclone. Other days I long for the nostalgic clickety clack and chimes of my Jumping Jack. When I'm in the mood for a fist fight Judge Dredd gets the coin. Of course there's always that one I don't own that I just gotta play... but now I'm out of room :)


Cliff, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, and thank you for your ongoing efforts to keep all our pinball machines safe.  We can all sleep a little easier at night knowing you are on the job. :)

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