How to Make Your Own "Hillbilly" Spinner
by Ian McCarthy - April 2006
Simple Is as Simple Does
I can’t remember so much hoopla surrounding spinners in the last few years—not since everyone (including me) realized how much they wanted one of Kelsey’s Oscar spinners only after he closed up his permanent online shop and got a real job.
Maybe not since the days of Tempest and Breakout has there been such excitement surrounding a single-axis rotational device. Certainly never before has there been such a plethora of professional quality spinners available for home arcade re-creation.
Like many, I’ve been paying close attention to the recent new product announcements and new pricing of these spinners for the masses. Despite the reasonable cost of many of these products (between $50 and $70), I’m such a cheap bastard (not to mention a BYO fanatic) that I decided to attempt to design my own.
I live in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, so it only seems natural to name my homemade spinners after the folks who reside in this fine countryside. Hillbilly in this sense can also mean hack-job or slappin’ it together, or just plain cheap as dirt, three visits to the hardware store to Jimmy it all together so it doesn’t fall apart again.
For me, hillbilly also means simplicity. Forget mouse hacks and ripping apart hard drives, I want something that’s as uncomplicated as my relationships to my cousins and I don’t really care if it outlasts my grandchildren or spins longer than my radio tuner.
My first attempt at creating a hillbilly spinner had me visiting my local hardware store looking for a piece of hardware similar to the C-shape of the Tornado spinner available from SlikStik.
I asked the hardware salesperson, sort of half-explained what I was constructing. He smiled, said my needs were a little too specific. Finally, browsing on my own and visiting the same three stores several times, I found a steel bracket that had the right dimensions and had some some irritating wings that, luckily, were thin enough to bend flat.
The bearings presented a bigger problem, in that they were so little. I checked out all the hardware stores and none had any bearings with inner diameters anywhere close to a quarter of an inch.
Finally, I visited a hardware store and was redirected to the automotive department. After explaining the dilemma to some jovial Click and Clack wannabees, we found three (remember that number) three-quarter inch bearings with inner diameters just larger than one-quarter inch in a plastic Tupperware container from the top shelf filled with miscellaneous greasy bearings.
Twisted Like Your Mother/Aunt
Thus loaded with the hardware that was never meant to be married, I purchased the bracket and bearings, along with a caster, a carriage bolt, duct tape and some nuts and large washers.
At home, I bent down the wings of the bracket and glued one bearing to the bottom inside. Then, I drilled a hole in the control panel (CP) and attached the bracket with screws to the underside of the CP.
I had a flash, inspiration; sure I had never read the idea, to embed the upper bearing into the top of the CP. It took more work than I imagined, but I worked at it with a utility knife and managed a tight, flush fit.
Castor wheel used as the knob
The idea to use a caster wheel for a knob was not mine. I believe it was the author of the Cheep Spinner instructions who gave me the inspiration not to shell out the bucks for an imitation Arkanoid or Tempest knob, although they look cool.
I really liked the smooth and rounded feel of the caster wheel that I chose. Also, it has a significant weight and the added plus that the caster wheel can be attached to a carriage bolt (the shaft of the spinner) very securely between the rounded head of the bolt and a nut screwed firmly into the underside of the wheel.
Dropping the Knob
I strategically wrapped a few layers of duct tape around the bolt so that it would fit snugly inside each of the two bearings and dropped the whole thing down through the top of the CP. I spun it for a while, marveling at my own ingenuity. Spin times were pathetic of course and it wobbled, but I still had to add the encoder wheel, flywheel and of course an analog interface.
The encoder wheel was directly from the Cheep Spinner instructions. He had a printable page of encoder wheels with varying numbers of spokes and suggested that the truly cheap and easy way to make an encoder wheel was just to print it out on a transparency. Supposedly, the optical interruptors on the mouse would be able to differentiate between the toner and the clear plastic. As it turned out, that worked amazingly well.
I spun it for a while, marveling at my own ingenuity
The flywheel was a truly hillbilly effort: gluing five large washers together. I sandwiched the transparency encoder wheel between my flywheel and another single large washer. I secured the whole assembly with bolts. To mount and center the flywheel, I eyeballed it and tested, eyeballed it and tested until finally it seemed minimally wobbly and I felt sure that my hillbilly heritage was secure from any smart-ass measuring devices.
I had a PS2 mouse’s guts, which I attached close to the spinning encoder wheel by securing it to a corner brace (after covering the metal brace with tape to protect sensitive electronics) with a rubber band.
It took a lot longer than I originally expected to attach the mouse conveniently close to the spinning encoder wheel without making contact. It turned out to be the biggest PITA of the whole project, even though the flywheel/encoder assembly was easily adjusted vertically simply by turning the bolts holding it in place.
Twist Yer Partner Round and Round
But I got it and then I had a spinner that I could spin and send the mouse cursor sailing vertically across my computer monitor. It was immensely satisfying, wobble and all, but I couldn’t wait to try out Tempest and Super Off-Road, my all-time favorites in the spinning category.
It was immensely satisfying, wobble and all...
It was amazing.
Not having an incredibly good memory of the 80’s, my impressions of the gameplay of older games like Tempest are mainly through the filter of emulation. Still, I do remember playing the game in the arcade and have at least one vague memory of the buzz-stop action of the Tempest spinner at high speeds.
The Hillbilly Spinner performed better than even I had hoped, despite less than ten second spin times and having to increase the sensitivity in many games until it felt right and didn’t backspin.
Arkanoid was playable, incredibly difficult just like I remembered, but the real gems were my favorites: games like Super Sprint and Super Off-Road played incredibly well with my Hillbilly Spinner. I only wished that I had three spinners because these games rock in multiplayer.
Once I had one working spinner, what I really wanted was two working spinners, although it’s usually workable to play second player with a joystick. I didn’t even consider three spinners, because dealing with multiple mice in Windows seemed beyond the scope of the hillbilly attempt to subvert complexity.
Dang, It Fell Apart
In the hillbilly world, even strokes of genius are bound to fall apart eventually. After a couple of months of gameplay, the bottom bearing came unglued, although the upper bearing stayed firmly embedded and was actually difficult to pry loose.
It also seemed to me that the bracket holding the shaft in place was not really up to the job. It was too flexible to minimize wobble in the way that I had hoped. What I realized was that it probably wasn’t the best idea to try to imitate the deceptively complex, industrially machined design of the Tornado.
What I really needed to do was stop thinking and let things just happen
The Block of Wood
Once you’ve cut one, you never forget. Wood is good. Two by fours are fine. Drills can be handy.
By the time I had decided to pull apart my first spinner and make two new ones for my Bartop, I realized that I was lacking a block or two of wood. Of course it was ridiculous to use newfangled brackets in a project of this magnitude. I would simply glue a chunk of two by four to the underside of my new CP, drill a hole through both the block and the CP together and embed bearings into the top and bottom of the whole unit.
I even bought a ¾ inch spade bit in order to minimize my effort with the utility knife.
Mate or Die!
Remember the three bearings? I needed four, just missing the mate to make the two spinners equal. I visited all the hardware stores and all the auto parts stores in town. That took a while in this land of field-rotting automobiles.
I showed my existing bearings to disgruntled/dimwitted shop employee after shop employee. The best of the bunch put on his glasses and peered curiously at the small numbers on the bearing. “You don’t ask for much,” he said, laughing.
More than once, I was redirected to nearby Parkersburg, West Virginia, where they apparently have a store called Bearings, Inc. That was fine, but it was forty-five minutes I didn’t feel like driving. In high school, we only went to Parkersburg for shopping and The Olive Garden, which I considered gourmet. Yes, we once were hillbillies in our special kind of place.
Remembering the old days, I thought of skating and the bearings in my old skateboard. “Skating in the rain will f*** up your bearings,” went the old mantra. A good buddy of mine owned and ran the local shop and I decided to make that my last stop.
He pulled out an opened package of bearings that looked nicer and spun better than the bearings I had in my hand. That’s the way it is in the retail world: Of course we do/don’t have that. Either way, you’re crazy. We chatted about the old days playing Nintendo for hours and he cut me a deal: a dollar apiece for the bearings.
Embed with the Twins
There is nothing in this world like having two working spinners: Better than the Doublemint Twins and sexier than your best balltop joysticks.
The block of wood turned out to be the best idea since smokeless tobacco. I only have a handheld power drill. I’m dreaming of table drills and perfectly perpendicular Hillbilly Spinners that do not wobble. Of course, I never notice when I’m playing and the new bearings spin much much better than the old.
There is nothing in this world like having two working spinners
The End of the Alphabet
I can attest that, once you have a spinner or two (Easiest = One for X axis and One for Y axis), you will take them for granted and will not accept any digital substitutes. I can’t even imagine playing Puzz Loop with a joystick now. I believe that having the spinning turret react precisely to a spinner is essential for joyous gameplay, whereas, before my spinner era began, I had had fun playing it with digital joysticks.
I have a couple of Italian friends who can attest to this truth. They always want to play “the game with the balls” (they also like Pang, so it can be confusing).
Still, the greatest compliment I received was that a good buddy of mine who always said Track and Field was his favorite game now says that Super Sprint is his new favorite.
The Hillbilly Spinner is perfect for those gamers looking for a super-cheap alternative to the growing number of commercial spinner options.
Parts for One Hillbilly Spinner:
Parts for Two Hillbilly Spinners:
Double Everything, plus …
Inspirations for the Hillbilly Spinner:
My Favorite Spinner Games: