Choosing a Vintage Billiard Table

Vintage Billiards

John Kohan's billboard design for Brunswick billiard tables makes it's point succinctly, just as a billboard should: "Every game room starts with Brunswick". Of course, let's not forget that a suitable 21st Century "man cave" will also have a big-screen television and a well-stocked bar. For more than four hundred years, Brunswick or other brands of billiard (aka "pool") tables have graced the game rooms of castles, taverns, homes and recreation halls.

Too often, novices buy cheap tables and when they find them unsatisfactory they attempt to pass their mistakes on to other novices via quick sale. Old, worn, or damaged tables are no fun to play on and expensive to fix. Consequently, one must be cautious when buying a vintage billiard table. With that in mind, let's look at the most basic considerations when buying a vintage table.

The first two points may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many first-time buyers of vintage tables overlook these: Make sure the room you intend to put it in provides enough space to actually play pool, and that you have the wherewithal to get the table moved.

Billiard tables come in a variety of sizes; there is no such thing as a "regulation" table. There is, however, a "tournament" table. American tournament tables are nine feet long and four-and-a-half feet wide. The two-to-one length-to-width ratio is maintained for smaller tables as well: eight-foot tables are four feet wide; seven-foot tables are three-and-a-half feet wide, and so on. Some older Canadian tables are Snooker, rather than billiards, tables. Even though the tables may look alike, Snooker is played with smaller balls on smaller tables. Billiards tables have larger pockets than Snooker tables (to accommodate the larger balls).

Most homes use a four-by-eight foot table. In fitting a table to a room, consider that a standard two-piece cue stick is fifty-eight inches long and you will need enough space between the table's edges and the walls to accommodate a cue. Opinions vary on whether to use a table's actual playing surface or outside edges to measure a space. When in doubt, it's better to allow more rather than less space.

A point too often ignored until the last minute is the weight of a table. Slate-top billiard tables will weigh between six-hundred-fifty and nine hundred pounds; tables with composite tops will weigh considerably less. A tournament table with a slate top is roughly the same size and weight as a Steinway concert grand piano, which is nine feet by five feet and weighs nine-hundred-ninety pounds. Moving such a beast is not for amateurs: it requires special equipment and expertise. If you (foolishly) decide to move one yourself and have tight turns and/or stairs to maneuver, try moving an eight-by-four foot piece of plywood around your corners to see how well it takes the angles. Remember to allow for your table's depth as well (tables are moved without the legs attached).

Good tables are rigidly constructed and will not sway when bumped. Vintage table frames were built with hardwoods such as oak or maple. In better quality antique tables the support posts were split and re-glued with the wood grain running in opposite directions in order to counteract warping. Frame posts should be at least two inches thick and employ mortise-and-tenon construction. Modern tables will use posts that are closer to one-and-a-half inches thick and may use steel beam hangers (of the type used to build houses) to connect the beams. In both new and vintage tables the support beams will run both the length and width of a table (in an "H" pattern).

In order to play well, a table bed should be flat and level and have good bounce at the rails. Slate beds are usually level (flat) but all-wood beds will eventually warp and make play nearly impossible. Some beds may be a combination of wood and slate, or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and a polymer composite. Beds should be at least three-quarters of an inch thick (thickness can be checked by reaching a hand into a pocket and feeling the thickness of the bed). To check the level, place a straight-edge against the surface in several spots; make sure the entire straight-edge lies flat.

To check for bounce at the rails, firmly roll a ball against all four rails. The ball should bounce three or four times between opposing rails. Repeat this several times up and down all rails; a ball should have consistent bounce. Rail rubber deteriorates with age, and replacing it is an expensive proposition.

The condition of the cloth on a table's playing surface will directly impact the quality of play. If a cloth has worn spots, tears, or pulls it needs to be replaced. Moderately used and well-cared-for home tables should have the cloth replaced every ten years or so. For point of comparison, commercial tables have billiard table cloth replaced every year.

Don't overlook the condition of the pockets. If pocket baskets are ripped or dry rotted, or if the leather trim is split and dry, the pockets will need to be replaced. Billiard table pockets are sold in sets of six, so if one pocket needs to be replaced then they will all need to be replaced. Don't think that you can get by with poor pockets; if a ball drops through a dry-rotted pocket you will end up with a damaged ball and face additional costly repairs.

As with antique furniture, a manufacturer's brand and a table's furniture styling will affect demand and, therefore, price. Vintage tables can be quite elaborate. Many feature mahogany or cherry solids or veneers, period furniture styling and motifs, inlaid ivory, and marquetry. The price range for vintage tables in good condition runs from about $9,000 USD to around $30,000 USD. An excellent overview of tables and accessories is "Pool & Billiard Collectibles: A Billiard Accessories and Collectibles Price Guide" by Mark and Connie Stellinga.

The long history of billiards provides modern collectors with choices both deep and wide, from big, expensive antique tables to vintage lighting, cues, and accessories. Themed collections are often developed around particular manufacturers, historic periods, or accessory items.

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