New York Billiards
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Antique Pool Tables
So, you find yourself the proud owner of an antique pool table. What do you do next?
This is a question many people who have either inherited or bought an antique table struggle to answer. Well, here, we’ll address this question and many others so you can have something worth bragging about.
No one really knows the exact origin of the games collectively known as billiards actually came from. Many think it is an adaptation of croquet. Croquet was (and still is) played by using a croquet mallet to knock wooden balls through hoops staked into the ground. If one uses their imagination, they could easily make the connection to billiards.
Some think “billiards” migrated to an indoor sport sometime around the 14th or 15th century. While I’m not saying that this is the absolute lineage of billiards, it does make sense. Regardless, billiard tables have, indeed, been around since at least the 17th century and, it was the game of aristocrats. So, you can imagine all of the interesting conversations, business deals, and even the shaping of entire countries that happened while playing pool.
Since billiard tables were considered an extravagance, only the richest people could afford them prior to the industrial revolution. As with most other things, automation and assembly-line manufacturing techniques brought the cost down on billiard tables; making them affordable to even the middle-class. New steam powered excavation equipment in the 1820s – 1840s put an end to the laborious task of making “billiard board” (laminated planks sanded smooth and back-filled with plaster to achieve a level surface) play fields; making slate the new (and current) medium of choice for play fields. Gone were the days of a single artist working 500-600 hours on what amounted to a single – highly ornate – billiard table. Instead, again, steam powered machines automated most of the woodworking process. Tables got relatively cheap. And have remained so ever since. Other than modern materials, glues, and CNC machines that do the cutting, pool tables have remained (for the most part) the same for the past 160 years.
Nice example of a well cared for antique table.
What goes wrong with an antique table?
Time has a funny way of taking its toll on us all. Pool tables are no exception. The glue used in pool tables prior to about 1930 was animal based. Ever hear the old saying, “sending a horse to the glue factory”? Well, that’s exactly what it was. Hide glue is made from boiling animal bones, tendons, cartilage, and skin until all of the collagen is released. Then, the solids are removed, the remaining liquid is clarified, and evaporated until nothing is left but solid collagen. Oddly enough, with just a few extra cleaning and sterilization steps, you end up with gelatin. Yep. Jello and hide glue are basically the same thing.
Hide glue is fantastic stuff. It’s water-based. It tacks up very quickly. And, assuming it doesn’t get wet, it will form a rock hard bond in wood. Its water solubility is both good and bad. Its great because you only need water to thin it out. But, once two pieces of wood are joined together, water alone will dissolve that bond. And, almost all antique tables were assembled using hide glue. So, years and years of basements flooding, leaky roofs, and moping floors wreak havoc on old tables.
Pockets are another issue that often comes up when people want to bring a pool table back up to playing condition. Well, prior to the 1930’s, there was no industry standard on pockets. This makes finding replacements next to impossible. The stock market crash of 1929 effected almost every single industry around the globe. Where once there were hundreds of small shops producing small numbers of pool tables, only the largest manufacturers remained. Many of those small businesses got bought out for pennies on the dollar. Metal foundries, too, got hit. Many people never stop to realize that businesses 100+ years ago operated much the same as businesses today. Everyone looks for the least expensive way of accomplishing their goal. As such, pool table manufacturers would source out certain parts like pockets and hardware to whoever would quote the lowest price. Most of the time, the exact specifications weren’t strictly adhered to. So, rather than send back thousands of pockets that were 1/8″ off (for example), manufacturers would adjust their production and design to make them work. This saved both time and money. This isn’t good news for the owner of one of those tables today who needs new pockets. Chances are, you won’t find an exact match for the pockets used on your table.
Options for your antique table that’s in less than optimum condition…
Here’s what can be done – starting with the least expensive and going to the most expensive along with the pros and cons of each choice.
SERVICE AND TOUCH UP
Service only: This consists of a proper installation, new cloth, and new rubber cushions. This is by far the least expensive means of getting an antique table back to play-able condition. While this will not drastically increase the value of your table, it should play fine.
Service and Touch-up: Along with the above mentioned services, minor nicks, dings, and dents are filled and painted over to match the grain of the underlying wood. This is a bit more expensive and is only a viable option when the wood veneer and finish are mostly intact. It should increase the table’s value somewhat.
Restoration: In a true restoration, your table will be completely taken apart, all missing and loose veneer will be repaired or replaced. The finish will be stripped off, dents, dings, dents, and scratches will either be sanded, steamed, or filled, and then painted to match the underlying wood. Any missing inlay or marquetry work will be repaired or replaced. Missing hardware or parts will be replaced or fabricated. Exposed screws, escution plates, and brass covers should be polished to the appropriate finish. Broken pocket irons will either be braised or welded and recovered in new leather. New leather or knit pockets will also be made and installed. The wood will also be sanded, wood pores filled, stained, sealed, and a new top finish applied.
As you might imagine from the above list, restoration work is expensive. Often times, it will dramatically increase the table’s value. A table that may only be worth $2000 in unrestored condition can be worth many tens of thousands of dollars once restored. Don’t be surprised to be quoted $6,000.00 – $12,000.00 to do a proper restoration though.
Conservation: Conservation work on pool tables is virtually unheard of. This type of work is typically reserved for museum pieces and is extremely expensive. The goal of a conservator is different than that of a restorer. The two words say a lot about the process. The goal of a restorer is to restore something back to what it once was. The goal of a conservator is to conserve something’s current state. Meticulous cleaning and wood stabilization is typically what a conservator is doing. Conservation, again, is reserved for museum quality pieces.
Don’t move your table yourself!
Aside from damage caused from use and Mother Nature, the biggest reason why more antique tables didn’t survive to present-day is, unqualified people trying to move the table themselves.
As I often tell my customers, there’s a reason why I get paid what I do. Having a bunch of your friends come over and everyone grabbing a piece of the action is a great way of destroying what could be a fantastic playing table.
The screws that hold the slate down are really there just to hold the slate in place laterally and aid in the final leveling of the table. They are not meant to be load-bearing. Not to mention, slate itself is brittle. So, too much stress on one spot and you could easily snap off one of the corners or even break a slate in half.
Flipping a table on its side, taking off the legs, strapping it to a dolly, and rolling it out of the house is equally as dangerous. Not only is this likely to damage the slate, the wood, pockets, or all of the above, it’s likely to get you
hurt as well. 3,4, and 5 piece slate tables were never designed to be moved whole. And, if you don’t have the qualifications to take apart, transport, and reassemble the table, you should absolutely hire a professional. The money you spend to have it done right could very well save you a LOT more in both repair bills and hospital bills.
Assess your table.
When you find yourself in possession of that antique table, do a thorough examination of everything. Be as observant as possible. Look for missing veneer, dead rubber, peeling veneer, missing sights, overall condition of the rails and pockets, and try to find out as much as possible.
Find out as much as you can about the specific table you have. Is it a common table? Or is it rare? Who is the manufacturer? What model is it? Is it an 8′ or a 9′? What species of wood veneer was used? Are there any ornate carvings, inlays, or marquetry work? Fully restored antique tables can be worth $10-15k and up. So, knowing what table you have can often determine how much money you can put into it before it’s no longer cost-effective. Spending $8,000 to do a basic restoration on a table that’s only worth $12k might not be the best idea. However, spending $15,000 to do a top-notch restoration on a $50,000.00+ table is certainly worth it.
I doubt the table you have was the one that Marie Antoinette played on. I’m sure it wasn’t the one Virgil Earp was playing on the night he got shot. I’m equally certain it wasn’t the one installed in Monticello for Thomas Jefferson. But, what I am sure of is, if your table could talk, it would have a mountain of stories it could tell.
Today, the games collectively known as billiards, have been one of the few ties that bind the common man from the aristocrat. Anyone, regardless of their upbringing, can become a phenomenal pool player. When you think about it, it’s a direct link to our past. And, that table you have can bring you closer to all those who came before us.
So, what are you going to do with that old table?
Billiards of New Orleans