Colorado pinball fans go full-tilt for locally made machines

Listen Now
4min 00sec
Photo: Artist William Manke with a Boxwood pinball machine
Colorado artist William Manke in his wood shop with one of his Boxwood Pinball machines.

William Manke calls himself a “pinhead.” It means he plays a lot of pinball -- at least one hour a day, he says.

The Colorado artist uses this experience to inform the approach to his own creations.

“There are so many great designers that worked on the old and new pinball machines," Manke says. "It’d be crazy not to try and understand it and apply it to myself.”

The sculptor and his collaborator Travis Hetman are turning the classic game of pinball into an art form.

The duo's handcrafted wooden pinball machines, known as "Boxwood Pinball," more closely resemble big board games or small pool tables than they do traditional pinball machines.

“It’s not just a toy,” Manke, who started working with wood at age 12, says. “It is fine art, it is functional art.”

Photo: Boxwood Pinball Tournament at Caution: Brewing in Lakewood
Players compete in the first Boxwood Pinball Tournament at Caution: Brewing Company in Lakewood.

The artists recently launched a Boxwood Pinball tournament series that will tour to 12 metro area craft breweries. The first event took place last week at Caution: Brewing Company in Lakewood.

“I think it goes hand in hand with the creativity and the artistry that’s part of craft brewing,” Caution owner Danny Wang says. “It’s one of those things I think we can really relate to.”

Bar and arcade owners around Colorado say pinball’s popularity is on the rebound. Venues like Pinball Jones in Fort Collins, Lyons Classic Pinball and the 1UP in Denver house a variety of machines and also host tournaments and leagues.

“The pinball industry is undoubtedly bigger in many ways than it has ever been before,” New York City-based pinball historian Seth Porges says. “This is certainly a revival going on.”

In 1999, only one electronic pinball manufacturer -- Stern Pinball just outside Chicago -- remained. But growing demand has recently led to the appearance of more companies. This includes boutique makers, like Manke, inspired by the do-it-yourself movement, Porges says.

Handcrafted, wooden pinball machines may only make up a small slice of the industry. But Porges says they still entice pinball players.

“It’s more physics, it’s more chaotic, it’s more real,” Porges says.

Manke often competes in pinball tournaments around Denver. And Hetman -- who paints the custom designs onto the Boxwood Pinball machines -- says they hope to tap into the social aspect of the activity.

“We’re really after getting people together again,” Hetman says. “The games are a blast, but it’s almost secondary to using that as a vehicle to experience something.”

Boxwood Pinball Bootleg Tournament schedule:

Thursday, Nov. 20, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Our Mutual Friend Brewery (2810 Larimer Street, Denver)

Saturday, Nov. 29, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Denver Beer Co. Canworks (4455 Jason Street, Denver)

Thursday, Dec. 4, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Chain Reaction Brewing Company (902 South Lipan Street, Denver)

Thursday, Dec. 11, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

TRVE Brewing Company (227 Broadway, #101, Denver)

Wednesday, Dec. 17, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Diebolt Brewing Company (3855 Mariposa Street, Denver)

Sunday, Dec. 28, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Black Shirt Brewing Company (3719 Walnut Street, Denver)

Saturday, Jan. 3, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Golden City Brewery (920 12th Street, Golden)

Friday, Jan. 9, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

38 State Brewing Company (8071 South Broadway, Unit A, Littleton)

Thursday, Jan. 15, Time TBA

Wit's End Brewing Company, 2505 West 2nd Avenue, #13, Denver)

Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Crystal Springs Brewing Company (657 South Taylor Avenue, Louisville)

Thursday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Platt Park Brewing (1875 South Pearl Street, Denver)