The construction of a billiard table


Thurston International model Billiard/Snooker table 

A THURSTON 'International' modelBilliard/Snooker table

Most full sized Billiard tables stand on 8 legs. I think however we should perhaps immediately recognise that the legs and under framing of a Billiard Table are really only the physical means of supporting the playing surface at a convenient height above floor level.

Wood bed billiard table

Picture of an old wooden bed THURSTON Billiard Table

In the past some full sized Billiard Tables were made with only 6 legs whilst others were made with 12 and more legs. By and large it seems that the most convenient arrangement which enabled the table to stand firmly, and to be levelled up accurately, was a table standing on 8 legs.

The timbers most commonly used for the manufacture of Billiard Tables are probably Mahogany, Oak and Walnut but other timbers have been used with complete satisfaction.

In the early part of the 19th century, the bed of the table itself was also made of wood. The beds were usually made in three sections, and I have with me for your inspection a complete wooden bed of a full sized table in three sections. As you will see, it is in really very good condition for its age.

Each section of the bed comprises a frame made in Oak, into which tongued and grooved hardwood blocks have been fitted in panels rather like a modern wood block floor.

Wood Billiard Bed 

Note however that the grain of the timber in the neighbouring panels runs in the opposite direction to each other. This being done to minimise so far as possible the effect of warping. Even so, it was frequently necessary to send skilled Billiard Table Makers to the customer's premises to plane over, and level the bed of the table using hand tools.

I understand from my father (Norman's father E.A. Clare), that this was generally referred to as "flogging the bed".

Written records are still available in sales ledgers belonging to Thurston & Company Limited, of which the following examples can be quoted:­

"12th February 1825   The Travellers Club. Taking off the cushions and the cloth -planing over   and levelling the bed."

"2nd. November 1826. Letting in several pieces into the bed   planing the bed and finishing complete".

Clearly therefore wooden beds did present a considerable problem, although I do not suppose that any of them were even reasonably level.

However, so far as I have been able to ascertain, the actual under framing and legs of the Billiard Tables which were fitted with wooden beds, were not all that different from the under framing on Billiard Tables of traditional design, which are still being manufactured at this present time, and so before we look at the introduction of other types of bed, including the new universal slate beds, let us quickly look at the construction of a Billiard Table under frame by referring to the model which I have brought with me for this purpose
(shown below).

Mini Thurston Match Table

The replica of the Leicester Square Match billiard table that Norman used is only 3ft long

First of all we have the 8 legs to which I have already previously referred. We generally call 4 of the legs "corner legs" and the other 4 "middle legs".

Then there are 2 long side rails which are bolted to the corner legs at one end of the table, passed through the leg squares of the middle legs on each side of the table., terminating and bolting to the corner legs at the other end of the table.

Similarly we have 2 end rails, which are bolted into the corner legs at each end of the table.

Next there are 2 middle rails which transverse the table from side to side, being bolted into the middle legs.

underside of Billiard table

Then the commonest form of construction includes a number of bearers or muntins which are fitted by mortise and tenon, or by dowel joint, between the middle rails and between each middle rail and the end rails. Some tables of old design will have as many as 9 bearers/muntins. Generally the majority of tables have 6. The most recently constructed have only 3. One particular design of table however, made by Burroughes and Watts does not have any bearers/muntins, instead there are two additional middle rails on adjustable supports to assist in levelling the table. (Similar adjustable supports are now used for the bearers on most modern tables rather than using mortise and tenon or dowels)

It will be realised that when Billiard Tables were fitted with wooden beds the larger the number of bearers/muntins the better it would be for holding down the wooden bed and keeping it as true as possible. Clearly, the upper edges of the side rails, end rails, middle rails, and bearers, all had to be perfectly level with each other for this purpose. This was also necessary when the original slate beds were introduced, as they were rather thin by modern standards, and as a thin slate can easily "sag" and become hollow, or if one bearer was standing proud, the slate would become "rounded". It was always part of the skill indeed considerable skill, of the Billiard Table Maker to ensure that the under-framing itself was perfectly true.

However, before we consider the introduction of other types of bed, I should also mention that the under-frames themselves sometimes were made of other materials. If you care to visit Penrhyn Castle, Bangor in North Wales, there you will find a Billiard Table of which the entire under frame is made of slate. This is not perhaps surprising, as most of the original slate beds came from Penrhyn Quarries, so no doubt Lord Penrhyn himself decided that the entire billiard table would be made of slate.

Lord Penrhyn

Lord Penrhyn

Slate Billiard Table bangor North wales

Slate Billiard table in Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, North Wales

To my own knowledge two other full sized Billiard Tables, with under frames made entirely from slate, existed in Capel Currig in North Wales. As a young man when serving my time to Billiard Table Making, I was taken by one of our travelling billiard fitters to the club where these tables were installed. He himself had had the job of moving them some years earlier, and he took me to see them because of their particular construction. Years later, following the second world war, I again came across these two Billiard Tables in store - they had been dismantled when the Institute was closed, placed in store in Capel Currig - we received a message inviting us to inspect and make an offer for these two full sized Billiard Tables. I expected to find two tables of normal construction with wooden frames, indeed I had really forgotten all about the tables with the slate under frames. When I came to inspect them, here once again were the two Billiard Tables with the under frames and legs entirely made of slate, and so of course I flatly refused to purchase them.

Billiard Tables were also made in Liverpool during the second half of the 19th century by a firm called Marsden and Saffley, in which the under-frames were entirely made of Cast Iron. These tables stood on 6 legs only, and I have with me an actual photograph of one of these under-frames, and you will note the Liver Bird borrowed from the Liverpool Coat of Arms has been cast into the end rail. One of these tables existed in the Tate and Lyle Staff Recreation Club in Liverpool until a few years ago, when on our advice it was scrapped.
(Norman later regretted that he had not obtained the table for his collection. In 1998 Norman's son Peter was delighted to accept a donation of a cast iron table frame to the collection. However it wasn't a Marsden & Saffely but from a London firm called Harris & Sons - see Article 'Cast Iron Billiard Tables' See also article on a Marsden & Saffley Billiard table on display in Thurston Liverpool showroom)

Marsden & saffley Casst Iron Billiard Table

Picture shows the cast iron under-frame of a Marsden & Saffley Billiard table

Note Liver Bird motif cast into end rail

I also have with me for your inspection a Sales Leaflet published by Marsden and Saffley, containing testimonials as to the quality of their Billiard Tables, and so it is that you will note their tables were also fitted with patent composition beds. In these days we would in fact call them "Concrete" beds. You will note that they claim that wooden frames and slate beds are now entirely superseded, only the wooden cushion rails being retained. (We have a concrete bed from this period in the collection, which we believe came from a Marsden & Saffley table. It was found in the old Ashcroft & Co. premises in Victoria Street, Liverpool .The bed has another unusual feature in that the sections have tongue and grove joints and bolts that go through from the end slates to the middle slate to 'bolt' the bed together)

We must now go back in time to the actual introduction of the slate beds, but before doing so I will just mention that some Billiard Tables were also fitted with beds made of Iron - such tables existed in Ireland where my father erected a number of them at the beginning of the 20th Century - he came across them during the years he worked in Ireland from 1902 until 1912. I understand that considerable difficulty was experienced when installed in a damp room atmosphere - the bed of the table would of course develop rust, and the rust would stain the cloth. Great difficulty was also experienced in releasing rusted nuts and bolts used for the assembly of the Billiard Table.

I have also heard about Billiard Tables being fitted with beds made Float Glass, but this is only hear-say, although it is quite true that very recently Pilkingtons of St. Helens did approach various members of the Billiards Trade in order to try and ascertain whether their new "Float Glass" could be used for Billiard Table Beds (in fact they did produce UK pool table beds in glass, which Rex Williams Leisure used in their tables for a short period but it wasn't successful. An example of such a bed, from a later trial is in the collection).

It would seem that the first slate beds were introduced by John Thurston somewhere about 1826, when the first reference can be found to an "Imperial Petrosian Billiard Table" and it seems that thereafter nearly all the tables manufactured were fitted with slate beds.

As I mentioned earlier, the original slate slabs were rather thin, generally being about 1" thickness, and thus as slate is in fact quite flexible, it was necessary to have at least 9 bearers in the supporting frame work, and it was essential that the bearers, end rails, and middle rails, and side rails, should all be perfectly level with each other. If a table was badly erected by an unskilled person, so that the bearers were not level with the side rails, then the slate bed would go out of shape - in practice this generally meant that the slate bed became "hollow" from side to side across the table. Thus, as time went on the practice of using thicker and thicker slate beds was followed, and for the past 60/70 years it has been generally accepted that a slate bed should be somewhere about 1 ¾" - 2" in thickness if it is going to be satisfactory. The thicker the slab the heavier it becomes, with all the attendant difficulties of moving a Billiard Table, especially if it has to be carried up or down stairs. So I am sure you will understand that as each slate slab weighs somewhere between 3 ½ - 4 cwt. it requires four men to handle it safely. Thus four men are required whenever a Billiard Table has to be erected, dismantled removed etc., and so it is now a very expensive operation.

There is still nothing better in sight than a slate bed for the surface of a Billiard Table. Slate has the advantage that it is reasonably easy to cut, and to drill and to plane the surface true. Unfortunately, even in the course of careful handling of the slate slabs, some small pieces may be chipped off edges, however it is reasonable easy to repair the damage using modern filler materials, whilst minor damage can be easily filled in using a fine quality plaster of paris. Clearly, it would be much more difficult to cut/drill or otherwise work concrete beds, glass beds, or iron/metal beds, therefore it would seem that we will have slate bedded Billiard Tables for a long time yet.(In the mid 1980's during a brief boom in the manufacture of snooker [billiard!] tables slate was in short supply. Various companies tried 'modern' resin materials but none proved to be as good or as economic as slate)

© Norman Clare 1990. © E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2018/19/20.
Reproduction of this article allowed only with the permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.  

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