eddie-charltonI get asked all the time what I would look for if choosing a billiards table or a pool table. Over the years, I have heard people say things like ‘does it really matter, because a billiard table is a billiard table’. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are a number of things to look for so you end up with a good quality product on your floor. Keep in mind the purchase of a billiards table is two-fold, one being the quality and the other, the playability.

To achieve the preferred results of quality and playability there are a number of components that you should be aware of. Let’s deal with the quality first. Now, quality we’ll put into two categories: material and workmanship.

Most tables made for home use will be manufactured from timber, usually polished as they are also a piece of furniture. The first thing to ascertain is what timber has been used. Hardwoods are the best. They will give longevity, which will give value for money with a better re-sale value. The two main parts where hardwood is most important are the legs and cushions (rails). The legs for stability and cushions for playability. It won’t matter how fancy the table looks you won’t play a single shot on any carving.

As I have written previously, there are a variety of games played from the two Billiards games, Snooker to 25 plus Pool games.  You could play all the games, except Carom Billiards, on either the English style round cut pocket tables or the American style square cut pocket tables, as all the other games require the tables to have pockets.

There are two main methods of manufacture. One is the English Traditional method and the other is the Box-frame method. The traditional method is mainly used for the full size (12 x 6 foot) snooker and billiards tables and is also used in smaller tables, but is costly. All parts of the traditionally made tables come completely apart. The slate base is usually thicker, dowelled together and sits on the frame with the cushion rails screwed directly into the slate.
The box-frame system is very popular for tables from 9ft down to 6 foot, as it is cost effective. The frames are screwed and glued together and don’t come apart, the legs screw on from underneath and the slate base is thinner and is screwed to the frame to give extra solidity with the cushions screwing into the tacking strip under the slate. The American style has the cushions screwed up through the slate tightening them down to the slate base, which is quite good.

Slate is still the best base for billiards tables. There have been a number of other materials used, but not successfully. Depending on the table size, the slate can be one piece up to five pieces, (leafs). For the English full size tables the slate is 1.5 inches thick and weighs three quarters of a ton. Due to this weight, it is cut into 5 sections. The American tables have 1inch thick cut into 3 pieces.

There are two methods utilised for the finishing of the slate bed on a table. The traditional English method is to ‘shoot the top of the frame level using a hand plane and straight edge. The slates are then placed on top with the heavier, thicker, ones being dowelled, just pushed together and sit on the frame. The thinner ones are just pushed together and screwed to the frame. The top surface is then sanded by hand pulling a large heavy grated sander over the whole surface. This ensures that the joins are all flush when the table is completed.

The American method is to ‘shim’ or ‘wedge’ the slate using small wedge shape timber pieces. Once the frame is   assembled and the table levelled the slates are fitted to the frame and screwed down. If the slates require alignment the joins are levelled with the use of small wedge shaped shims tapped under the lower slate till the edges of the joins are level and feels smooth. The wedges can be glued into place. Personally, I prefer the English system of shooting the frame and sanding the slate to wedging, as the wedges can still work loose and the joins of the slate become uneven causing the balls to move off-line and the cloth wear faster if the wedge is not replaced. At present I have an American style pool table with the slates wedged, but I know what to look for and check regularly.

As there are different tables, different games, there are different billiard cloths that are fitted on the tables specifically for the different games. For Carom and the Pool games they use a napless cloth made up of 80% wool and 20% nylon. The balls can travel quite fast and for some distance without being hit hard. For Snooker and English Billiards though they use a directional napped cloth made from 100% wool. This cloth is slightly heavier and the balls will need to be hit that little bit harder. Over the years in Pro events the nap has been shaved down to assist with the speed.

Best materials are: hardwood, slate and good quality cloth. Don’t hesitate to ask your supplier what they have.
The playability of the table also comes in a couple of categories. Naturally, as covered above the quality of the table is important as it will help give the better playability, but the game is played on the top of the table, so the cushions or rails need to have an even and consistent bounce and the pockets need to accept the balls when played accurately. Some tables come fitted with individual pocket bags and some with a ball return system. For the purpose of quality or playability, it doesn’t make any difference. The cut and shape of the pocket openings though, can make a big difference.

The main purpose of purchasing a billiards table for home use is for family fun. It won’t matter how good the table looks and even if the manufacturer of the table uses the best materials, if the playing surface and in particular the cut and shape of the pockets is wrong, the table will not be enjoyable to play on. No-one likes to miss, but it is worse if the pockets on the table are shaped incorrectly and the ball is consistently ‘jawed’ out because of poor workmanship.

It won’t matter if you play on the English style round cut tables or the American style square cut if the openings are cut wrong. On the round pockets, the rubber needs to be cut to a specific shaped curve. The corners and centres vary in shape. They also need to ‘undercut’ the rubber slightly to give a slight deflection down into the pocket. You still have to be accurate. For Pro events they don’t undercut the pockets so as to add a degree of difficulty. Even with the square cut pockets, they need to have a slight angle down or the balls will jump slightly and more often than not come back out of the pocket.

The other playability aspect to look for is the bounce of the ball off the cushions. Naturally, when looking at tables to buy, you will only see the cushion rails finished, so you may not see the rubber. You would hope it is good quality gum rubber and is glued evenly along the length of the rubber to the timber block of the cushion. Also, this is where it is important that the manufacturer has used hardwood in making the cushion. When it is screwed or bolted to the table, hardwood will tighten and not crush. Softwood like pine will crush when screwed and then after a little time will loosen. As you can imagine, if the cushion is slightly loose, it won’t matter how good the rubber is, the balls cannot bounce properly.

If all the parts of the cushions are made using good quality materials and using the proper methods of billiard table manufacturing the balls should bounce evenly and consistently and when a shot is played relatively accurate you should be rewarded with the ball going into the pocket.

I know that most people want to try and fit the biggest table they can in their homes, thinking it will be better to play on. Never try and place a table that is too big for the area you have available. Also, don’t think you have to have a big table to enjoy playing the games. The bigger the table the more difficult it is to play. Firstly, leave yourself with a minimum 4.5 foot (1.35m) clearance from the table edge. This should give enough room to play in comfort. To gain the most enjoyment from a billiards table put the one that best fits the room or is one that is not too big. I think the best size is a 9 foot by 4.5 foot. It will allow a beginner or a non-regular player to pocket a couple of balls in a row and also give the more accomplished player a challenge. If though, you can only fit a 7 foot by 3.5 foot table, you will still have a whole lot of family fun together. I played snooker at Pro level, but now have a 9 foot table at home so we can all play and enjoy it.

I hope the above is helpful. It’s certainly not rocket science and I have tried to keep it simple but informative. If you have a little information and know to ask the right questions you will be able to choose the best table for your home.

             by Edward Charlton, Pro player since 1975, now retired and billiard company owner for over 30 years.