Billiard table cushions


Compared to the ancient origin of the game, which we have already heard about, rubber billiard cushions are quite a recent introduction.

During the early part of the 19th Century and before, all Billiard Table cushions were made of "List" - in other words the cushions were stuffed with layer upon layer of felt, and similar materials, which provided something of a soft cushion from which the balls would rebound a short distance. Clearly however, by modern standards, "List" cushions had nothing at all to recommend them. We would certainly describe them as being "extremely slow".

List Billiard Cushion

Picture show a section of a 'List' Billiard table cushion

In the year 1835 John Thurston, who had in the previous year introduced the slate beds, now introduced "India Rubber Cushions". The original rubber cushioning was made from pure natural rubber. This was not perhaps the complete improvement that you will imagine. Pure natural rubber cushions were reasonably satisfactory in warm weather conditions, when indeed they were a great improvement on the "List" cushions, but in the cold winter weather, the rubber became extremely hard - so hard in fact that you might just as well have fitted wooden cushion nosing instead of rubber.

Thurston Advert Standfast Cushions

Picture of page from January 1936 The Billiard Player magazine

However, when the cushions were warmed the natural rubber regained its resilience, and so it was that long metal pans, shaped to match the nose of the rubber cushion were placed all round the Billiard Table and filled with hot water and placed around the Billiard Table two or three hours before play commenced.. I have an example of one of these hot water pans with me for your inspection.

Billiard Cushion hot water bottle 

"Hot Water Bottle" for early rubber Billiard Cushions

Even during my own earlier years in the Billiard Trade, we frequently brought cushion rails into works for "remodelling with new rubber" and when the cushions were stripped we found that they were still fitted with Pure Natural Rubber which was literally as hard as wood, and I have here a few small sample pieces for examination.

In these days, to which I have just referred, we used to save the natural rubber and dissolve it in naphtha in order to produce our own rubber cementing solution which was then used to fit the new rubber into the wooden supporting blocks.

My father (Norman's) used to tell me how, in his own younger days in the Billiard Trade, he and other travelling Billiard Fitters were frequently sent to the larger private residences, when the owners intended having their friends in to play a game of Billiards, in order to take off the cushion rails and warm them in front of the fire in order to soften up the natural rubber cushions.

Later, when the proceed known as "vulcanising rubber" was discovered or invented, this had the effect of preventing the rubber from becoming extremely hard at low temperatures. So it was that once again John Thurston introduced the first Vulcanised Rubber Cushions which were generally described as being "Frost Proof". They were in fact built up by hand with great skill using layers of vulcanised rubber approximately 1/8" in thickness.

strip rubber billiard cushion

Picture of early rubber cushion made up from strips of rubber

Throughout this time the shape of the cushion nose was very much rounded - a shape which we describe as being "Bull nose". The cushion was so high that when the ball came to rest against the cushion it was almost impossible to strike the ball, as only a small fraction of its surface was above the top of the cushion.

Thus the shape of the face of the cushion nose has gone through many modifications, lowering the height of the cushions so that it was much easier to strike the ball. Thus for many years the lower style of cushion, using vulcanised rubber, was described as being "a low frost proof cushion".

I have also available for your inspection one or two sections showing you hand built up rubber cushions, and it was always considered that "built up rubbers" were superior right up to the start of the second world war in 1939, although moulded rubbers had also been on the market for some years. Since the war, moulded cushion rubbers have entirely superseded the built-up type, partly I think because the very skilled personnel who used to build up the rubbers and left the trade during the years of rubber scarcity, and once again the trade was faced with the economic facts of life that the time and cost involved in building up rubbers by hand at post-war rates of pay would have made the price of Billiard Cushion Rubbers quite prohibitive.

So far I have really spoken only about the actual cushion nosing. The cushion rails themselves were generally made of the same timber as the Billiard Table under-framing, that is from Mahogany, or Oak, or Walnut.

It was however recognised that to some extent the heavier the cushion rail the better the foundation provided upon which to mount the cushion nosing - a good foundation resulted in a faster and quieter cushion, thus the different Billiard Table markers introduced various modifications in order to try and achieve the best possible results.

The most notable and successful undoubtedly was the "Steel Block" cushion introduced by Burroughes and Watts. This firm now being part of Riley Burwat Limited. Thousands of Billiard Tables are fitted with Burroughes and Watts Steel Block Cushions, which consists of steel plate about ¼" thickness running the full length of the cushion, and the full depth of the cushion body, onto which the wood cushion blocks and billiard cushion rubber are mounted. This plate is securely bolted to the edge of the slate bed, and then covered with a wooden rail so that the appearance of the table is no different to any other table with plain wooden cushion rails. (In fact it was W. Buttery, an employee of Burroughes & Watts, that patentedthe steel block cushion in1836 . Riley Burwat Ltd reverted back to the Riley name and ceased to trade in 2002/3)

Steel block billiard cushion

Steel Block Billiard Cushion patent 1886

Another attempt at producing a heavier and firmer foundation was made by Thurston's who actually fitted a slate slab into the face of the cushion rails, the full length and the full depth of the cushions and some are still in existence. (Thurston called their cushion the "Adamant" cushion a set of which are fitted to the cast iron framed table in the collection)

Thurston 'Adament' billiard cushion

Section of a Thurston 'Adament' Cushion showing slate insert

I think however it is perfectly fair to say that a good sound cushion rail made from a heavy quality Mahogany Oak or Walnut is in fact just as good and has many advantages when the table is being serviced, as they are more quickly and easily handled - an important feature in these days of high working costs.

© Norman Clare 1990. © E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2018.
Reproduction of this article allowed only with the permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.  

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