Billiard/Snooker Table Beds

Prior to 1826 Billiard tables (when I mention a billiard table you can substitute the word Snooker!!) had wooden beds. These beds were by no means level and it is recorded that Thurston sent out their fitters to 'flog' the bed i.e. they went and tried to plane off the high spots. An example of a full size wooden bed is in the Collection and there is also an 8ft portable table with a wooden bed.

wooden billiard table bed

Full size wood bed , showing both playing surface and underside of the sections

 8ft portable Billiard Table

Thurston 8ft. portable Billiard table with wood bed

There is evidence that experiments were being carried out in to materials to replace the wood beds as a table that Thurston has in stock circa 1820 has a concrete type bed which has a wood surround so that the cushions can be bolted on. The table is either a Gillow or and early Thurston based on the leg style .

 Thurston or Gillow table

Table No. 11556 which has a composition/concrete bed with wood surround. (This table is currently [2012] in Thurston's stock of antique tables ready to be refurbished)

However slate proved to be the most suitable as the both the top and base surfaces could be worked smooth, it was relatively easy to fit the cushion nuts into the depth of the slate and also to drill holes through it to secure the slate lining. The original slate beds tended to be of similar thickness as the wood beds they replaced which meant they were about 1 inch (25mm). This meant that the slates required greater support as this thickness meant they could easily go hollow.


The problem with these thin slates was brought to the attention of players once rubber was used in the cushions especially when they were compared to tables that had the thicker slate beds. The reason was that the thin slate did not give sufficient support to the cushion. In other words the cushions were not solid on to the slate and so when the balls struck the cushion some of the impact was absorbed by the cushion moving. The answer was either to fit new slates, an expensive job, or to fit the newly patented 'steel block' cushions ( 1886) or the Thurston 'Adament 'cushion. These cushion being heavy gave a solid foundation for the cushion rubber and so the response from the such cushions improved the playing characteristics of the table without the necessity of replacing the slates.

 Steel Block billiard cushions 1886

Thurston 'Adament' Cushion with a slate in fill to body

 Adamant 2 Copy

Interestingly it seems that the Bangor slate from the Penryhn quarries was held in high esteem as two mentions in catalogues extol its virtues.

Thurston catalogue

From the Thurston booklet "The Noble Game of Billiards" published in 1908 - the following is an extract - "Within the spacious yard one sees the ponderous slabs (sic slate) in mighty stacks awaiting their turn to entre the busy shed where their uneven surfaces shall be smooth, and their rough places plain. Many soft and friabble slate are found in this country which are freely used in the construction of cheap billard tables. The slates which command the highest price in the market by reason of their density, hardness, and uniformity, are those from Lord Penryhn's quarries at Bangor, and Thurston's is the only Billiard firm supplied direct".

 Billiard Slate floating 1908

The early Welsh slate as described seems to need a fair bit of work to be carried out on it once it was delivered to the Billiard works and 'floating' the slates was a common requirement. This involved pushing and pulling a heavy steel open latices device back and forth across the surface. As shown in the picture below.

In fact even up to the late 1980's Thurston still 'floated' some new slates - the reason being that if the slates were shipped before they had fully seasoned the slate sometimes moved slightly and so the 'floating' ensured that there was no lipping at the joints. The floating in the 1980's involved using a special non silica compound as the abrasive and a lot of hard work pushing the float back a forth whilst ensuring that it was done evenly.

 Snooker slate floating

R. Campbell hand floating a Full Snooker Table

Over the years the slate thickness was increased until an optimum that gave rigidity and stability but without making the slabs so heavy as to be impossible to move meant that the modern slates are 1 ¾ inches thick (45mm).

It seems that between WWI and WWII the slate demand being less meant that cheaper sources of suitable slate were examined and so Italian slate became the norm for table beds right up to the late 1990's. It is also suggested that as Welsh slate was harder that Italian and was still blasted out of the quarries they couldn't control the size of the pieces whereas the Italian slate could be cut out of the quarries and thus the sizes could be more readily controlled, meaning less waste. I also understand that in general the Welsh slate used for Billiard tables was a type of slate unsuitable for roofing slate as it would not cleave and so was to some extent considered to not be worth mining when demand fell after WW I.

As previously mentioned since the 1930's most slate used in Billiard / Snooker tables has been Italian slate and they supplied not only the UK market but also the World market for slate for all the Billiard games. So the Italian quarries invested in machines to improve the production and quality of the slates they supplied. The following pictures are taken from Italardesia catalogue circa 1982.

 Billiard slate 1 Snooker table slate

talian slate is quarried from vast underground layers. The slate veins lie between two sandstone layers making up the floor and roof. The slate veins are cut into to mmake blocks of different sizes as required for the different demands.

Pool table slate Slate3

Aspecial hydraulic chain saw cuts the blocks out of the layer. The blocks are extracted by a huge CAT and taken out of the quarry. The blocks must be kept moist and so are wrapped in plastic until they are sawn. It is important to protect the blocks from drying out, otherwise they become brittle and are useless.

Billiard table slates Snooker table slates

Slate finishing is a multi stage process. The first stage is cutting the blocks with a gang saw. Each gang saw can have 10 to 25 diamond toothed long blades. The second picture shows a close up of a block being sawn. The gang saw can handle blocks up to 9ft. long by 6ft wide. The slabes are cut approx. 1/8th inch thicker than desired finished thickness.

Snooker slates 

After a first curing period the raw slabs are cut to the exact size desired by computerised sawing machines. Both sides of each batch of slabs are cut at the same time by twin circular saws, so as to ensure perfectly parallel cut.

Slate8 Slate9 

The trimmed sections are now assembled together into a complete set of billiard slates in order to fix dowles, drill screw holes and bolts holes for a full sized snooker table. Sections of the slates are drilled automatically after being assembled as a complete set, in order to ensure accurate location of the holes as per specifications.

Billiard slate

Pockets must be cut one by one with diamond teeth bits, which have the required angle leaving the edges of the pockets smoothly rounded off.

Snooker slates

The set complete with dowles, pocket openings, bolts etc. is then carefully 'floated' to obtain the perfectly flat, smooth surface required for the game.

Snooker and Pool table slates

Slates waiting final inspection before packing

The most important step after floating is the final curing process which last for several weeks. Until the slate is perfectly dry. Before packing the slate is again checked and only a perfect product leave the factory.

When there was a spike in the demand for Snooker tables in the late 1980's early 1990's the price of slate went up quite dramatically as production was not able to keep up with the demand. So other materials were again tried, for example float glass was used for a time by Rex Williams leisure inn their UK Pool Tables. It did not prove successful and a more recent example of such a glass bed is in the collection. Other material were tied such as resin and granite, resin and slate dust but such beds faced two main problems the thickness to size of slab proved to be a problem also whilst it was possible to get one good surface it didn't seem practical from a cost point to achieve both the top and back surfaces to be smooth and level. So despite many attempts no replacement for slate was found.

In more recent years cheaper slate has been sourced from China but when used in the championship tables they have selected a 2 inch (50mm) slate. It could be that they need the extra thickness to ensure that it stays flat as the extra weight will make handling and delivery more difficult. In Europe the Carom Billiard tables have for a long number of years had a 50mm thick slate but the slabs are smaller and therefore are easier to handle than a 50mm Full size Snooker table slab.

acknowledgement - Italardesia - for pictures and descriptions of processes

© E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2022. © Peter N. Clare 2022
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