Over the years, I've picked up a few games that had control panels that had to be replaced--there was no saving them. If I could not find a spare in reasonable condition, or it was a game for my personal collection, I would resort to getting a NOS or reproduction control panel overlay.
NOS stands for "new old stock", which means an old part that has never been used, so it is like a new one would be if they were still available. A reproduction is something that IS new, most likely not made by the original manufacturer at the time the originals were made.
There are also "replacement" overlays, which are overlays that may or may not have artwork similar to the original, and are designed to replace the original overlay. Willis was a large supplier of these, but the artwork in most cases is not worthy of the original cabinet.
You can still find NOS control panel overlays for many games. For some games though, they are long gone. In this case, you may still be able to find some reproductions of the overlay. Arcadeshop.com and PhoenixArcade.com all make a selection of reproduction overlays for some of the more popular titles, mostly Williams and Atari.
When ordering an overlay from a business or individual, be sure to specify that you do not want the overlay bent or folded. I've seen some business ship them folded in half, and it is noticable after the overlay is applied.
So, once you get a new overlay, you've most likely put some investment into this thing, so you want to make sure you get it put on correctly. Here's a few tips I use for applying control panel overlays.
1) Remove the old overlay. There's no real good tips for this, as each overlay material is a little different. In most cases, ripping and tearing is the best you can do. You can remove of these intact, but you've got to be SUPER careful, using a razor to slice the glue, and not slice the overlay. You may want to try and use some sort of glue solvent when doing this, but I usually just rip and tear, and use the glue solvent later for the next step.
2) Clean the surface of the control panel. Your first step will probably be to remove any excess glue, using some sort of scraper or razor and some solvent. My favorite solvent is Oops!, not because it's powerful (it's average), but because it's just a great all purpose solvent.
After you've cleaned off the glue, sand the control panel nice and smooth. Fill any dings in wood control panels to make sure the overlay will lay down smooth.
2b) (Optional) You may want to paint the control panel at this point if you're applying an overlay where the control panel overlay only partially covers the panel (like a replacement Asteroids overlay, or some mini overlays). You'll find some of the reproduction overlays are somewhat translucent, so unless you want to see cigarette burns through your control panel overlay, I'd suggest painting the control panel white for that StarGate control panel, for example.
3b) For wood control panels, apply a light layer of contact cement to the control panel. I used to use Weldwood, but now I use a 3M spray adhesive. Not too thick, or the overlay will pull it up off the control panel.
4) Apply the overlay. There are many techniques to doing this. Practice applying the overlay after step 2. Figure out some line up points, like the button or joystick holes. After preparing and applying the glue, wait until the glue is tacky.
Take the overlay, and pull away the backing from the area of the overlay which you are going to start with. This is usually the top edge of the overlay, nearest the buttons. Just pull away a few inches of backing. This way, the rest of the overlay is protected from accidentally falling on the control panel. Once the overlay glue makes contact with the control panel glue, you will have a hell of a time removing it! So be careful. You only get one shot at this once you've touched down.
Once you've touched down at your starting point, start removing more backing and slowly applying more overlay. I use a towel to wipe the overlay down as I apply it to make sure there are no bubbles and a good solid contact is being made. Bends in the control panel are the worst part, so apply lots of pressure in these areas. You may even want to let the control panel sit for a while before you attack the bend.
5) Reassemble control panel. You may need an exacto knife to do some trimming around button holes and the sides if you didn't line it up exactly right.
And there you have it; a restored and beautiful control panel!
New overlay and a control panel
exacto knife (optional)
Restoring control panels where someone had put additional button or joystick holes can be a real pain. For metal, patch the holes by roughing up the area behind the hole with rough sand paper, and roughing up a piece of patch metal. Then, epoxy the patch piece over the hole from behind (roughing up the pieces allows the epoxy to take better hold). Apply bondo over the hole, let dry, and sand smooth. For wood, you may want to cut out a larger area than the original hole and put in a replacement piece.
Comments from people
Andy R suggests while putting the overlay on, use a blow dryer to heat it slightly, making it more flexible for the control panel bends.