We’re in the middle of the South Florida season that is analogous to the Northeast’s winter, i.e., a period when it is often more pleasant to be inside rather than out. Thus, it seemed like a good time to try to duplicate, at tremendous expense, the convenient availability of the pool table that we received rolled into our old apartment lease via the landlord’s “clubhouse”. This post is to record what I learned.
First, it seems that there is no standard size for a pool table. There are tournaments in various parts of the country in which people play on 7-foot tables, but you can also find regions where 8-foot tables or 9-foot tables are conventional. Make sure that you have 58 inches from the table (rail edge, not playfield edge) to the walls on all sides so that the butt of the cue doesn’t hit. The cue should clear low furniture, e.g., another game table or a sofa, but you’ll want 50″ all around (from the outer dimension, i.e., the rail edge) to accommodate your posterior when crouched.
There are only a handful of billiards stores in South Florida, perhaps because so many sales of new tables have moved online. The waiting time for a new high-quality American-made table, which could be customized in various ways, was approximately 3 months. Prices would be $6,000-$15,000 depending on the elaborateness of the decoration. Delivery would be another $500. The favored in-production brands seem to be A.E. Schmidt, Connelly, and Olhausen. The most serious players like Diamond (a one-piece slate; super ugly; made in the U.S.) and Brunswick Gold Crown (also ugly; made in Brazil (the rest of the Brunswick line may be made in Indonesia)). Local dealers also sell used tables and it seems that pool tables are so cumbersome to move that the geographical price variations are enormous. A used pool table in South Florida is worth twice as much as one in the Midwest, just as a house in South Florida is worth twice as much. One dealer here quoted $3,500 for a pristine used “American Heritage” Camden table. Plus $500 for delivery and a month of waiting because all of the delivery crews were busy. Of course, “American Heritage” means “made in Malaysia” and the importer says that the list price on the table, brand new, was… $3,500 (the company shut down in mid-2020).
I described the shopping excursion to our next-door neighbor, a mechanical engineer who designs electric vehicle powertrains. “You can always get a pool table for free on Craigslist,” he said, “from someone who needs the space. I got mine from a lady who wanted to use the space for a dining table and she cut the price to $0 on condition that I get it out of there.”
Inspired by the smart neighbor, I found an Olhausen that was perhaps 20 years old in our neighborhood. The guy had sold his house and was moving to Europe so that his teenage son could get elite soccer training (he’s a little too old to play against the U.S. Women’s team). It was only about 10 days before the house needed to be cleared out and he was still asking $900 for the table below:
The Olhausen cushions are supposed to last forever and a good table is supposed to support 4 bounces off the cushions if you throw a ball with your arm on the short dimension, but there were only 3 bounces for this table. The owner had the contact info for Fred Bost, the guy who installed it 10 years previously (the table might have been 10 years old at that point). We called him up and he said that the rails (wood on the sides of the table) were likely loose after years of play and that slowed things down. If the felt and balls weren’t pristine that also slowed things down. The balls were old and yellow and the wisdom of the Web is that billiard balls need to be replaced every few years (example).
What about the damaged finish on the rails? Fred said that he could refinish the rails for about $1,000. The felt was a mess, but could be replaced for $350 at the time of a move and that good-condition felt could be put back on the slates. The cues were also shot on this Olhausen table, e.g., missing tips. Replacing the cues and balls would have cost $400. The owner offered to reduce the price to $600, but I wasn’t sure that the table was a great deal even at $0 given that it looked like it was sitting on Home Depot 8×8 posts.
(What if the slate is cracked? It is possible to get new slate for as little as $400. This makes me wonder why a new table can cost $8,000+ if all of the components are cheap-ish. Maybe the answer is that the exterior cabinet is where all of the cost is.)
A $2,000 Connelly 30 minutes away seemed to have some potential. My main concern was that it had been living in a garage for 4 years. Fred told me not to worry about that and, in fact, that pool tables in semi-outdoor spaces were common in Florida and the heat and humidity did not damage the tables. The owner ran a pizza restaurant with his middle-school sweetheart-turned-wife. They were young and fit and doing well financially because they’d been showered with Federal funds for their restaurant that hadn’t been closed even for one day by the Florida version of coronapanic. The pool table, however, had to go because it wasn’t getting enough use and the wife wanted a gym in the garage. The owner explained to me that he kept the balls in their original Aramith box because leaving them in the pockets causes the leather to sag (a new set of pockets is under $300, but these ones stamped “Connelly” cannot be purchased separate from a new table). He had everyone play with special gloves so that they didn’t need to use “hand chalk” to make the cue slide on the bridge hand. He would put an extra piece of felt down before breaking because the acceleration of the cue ball during a break can leave a burn mark on the felt (Fred Bost later explained that this was true only for some high-end Simonis fabrics (made in Belgium) and not for the less expensive Teflon-coated Championship fabrics (from Mexico) that he prefers; he uses Invitational with Teflon for his customers).
The one-piece “house cues” were in good condition and the balls were only about a year old. It was easy to get 4 bounces out of a hand-launched ball and the table played noticeably well. The owner accepted $1800. Fred Bost had a cancelation the next morning and the table was in our house less than 24 hours after purchase (compare to 3-4 months if we’d bought at retail; this Connelly table seems to list for $9,000 and sells for $7,000 new). Moving cost $500 plus I tipped 100 Bidies for Fred and Freddie’s lunch.
Installation is an impressive operation. Heavy straight edges and levels are used and shims the thickness of a business card may be employed. Connelly is unusual for having four bolts to secure each rail rather than the industry-standard three. It may thus be possible to have longer intervals between tightening.
Here is Fred and his assistant (Freddie!) re-covering the 1.25″ slate with the old felt:
“I’ve installed exactly 1.5 brown felts in 30 years,” Fred said. What was the 0.5? “I was halfway through putting the brown felt on a guy’s table when the wife came out and shook her head.” Fred explained how to rough up the leather cue tips with sandpaper.
I’m glad that we didn’t wait 4 months to spend $8,000 for a pool table. All of the experienced players who have tried this table out say that it is great. I’m also glad that we didn’t get an imported table, much as I love the idea of everything being made in an economically efficient manner. Fred says that the imported tables can be set up to play well, but he doesn’t like any of them.
Our next step was to visit the Professional Billiard Instructors Association web site and find a teacher. Ed Kiess came over and tried to correct decades of bad habits. From him we learned that one of the world’s leading pool cue makers is in Wellington, Florida: Dennis Searing. The average cue sold by Searing is $5,000, but it is possible to go glitzy and spend $40,000. It is a 12-year wait for a Searing cue! Ed was horrified at the idea of using sandpaper to rough up the tips. A specialized tool with pins and a scuffer is the correct device. Every year or so, one should pay $20 to get new tips put on the cues (Triangle is the preferred brand for house cues; Searing’s own multi-layer tip is the best). Ed is a huge fan of Simonis 860 cloth (Belgian), which is supposedly super fast. Fred likes Championship Invitational Teflon (made in Mexico; less expensive).
Perhaps because of an introduction from Ed, we had the honor of getting our crummy house cues tuned up and re-tipped by Dennis Searing himself!
We learned that it takes at least 10 months for Searing to make a cue, mostly because the wood has to age. This is not so that the wood can dry out but so that the “stress” can come out of the wood. Searing is not disdainful of the ignorant and incompetent, as you might expect, but generous about sharing his knowledge and love of craftsmanship. Searing explained to us that if you happened to find a big piece of wood without flaws you could make an excellent one-piece cue. An expert pool player thus might be able to get a very good cue by trying out 25 house cues and picking the best one that just happened to be fabricated from a great piece of wood. The two-piece cues that Searing makes offer some additional options for balance and are easier to transport, but Searing didn’t tell us to throw out the Nick Varner house cues that had come with our table.
- a Maine dealer’s rating and ranking of all of the major pool table manufacturers (American Heritage is bottom of the ranking. The company went bankrupt in 2020, but the assets were purchased and the web site continues as a zombie?)
Instructional materials recommended by Ed:
- Play Your Best Pool (Phil Capelle)
- The Science of Pocket Billiards (Jack H. Koehler)
- The Pro Book (Bob Henning); this one seems rather advanced
- Barry Stark videos on YouTube (mostly about snooker?)
Interesting-looking instructional materials that Ed did not mention:
- The Illustrated Principles of Pool and Billiards (by a MechE professor)
August 16, 2022 update: Proving my neighbor correct, Facebook alerts me to a Peter Vitalie pool table that would cost $15,000 new (if the company were still in business). $500 to the person who can arrange same-day removal!