Table Maintenance 101
You just screwed up your courage, called the bank and then made a big investment in a pool table - perhaps at the expense of your child's third year in dental school. Or, if the purchase was more modest, perhaps you put off that minor knee surgery.
Before you get too carried away with your new showpiece, you should learn how to keep it in one piece and playing in great shape in perpetuity - or, at least, well past the point where that knee gives out.
It's simple, really. Just study this short list of potentially destructive implements, interlopers and elements and keep them away from the table:
Chalk. Cue tips. Balls. Dogs. Cats. Jewelry. Coins. Heat. Moisture. Your bottom. Frisky neighbors and family members. The sun.
That's right. Sometimes, a pool table's greatest enemies are the game itself and its owners, especially if they forget to treat the table like the piece of fine furniture it is.
Of course, no one wants to keep a pool table locked in a temperature-controlled vault or really large mayonnaise jar. So let's assume that you're reasonably responsible and want to actually play on your new table.
BD asked some of the billiard industry's leading manufacturers, distributors and service providers to spill some maintenance tips you can follow - and a few common-sense warnings you can observe - that will allow you to both enjoy your table and pass it on to future generations.
"Every table will play great at the beginning," says Paul Roberts, a sales rep for Evansville, Ind.-based Escalade Sports. "Ask yourself how long you want it to play like that."
Chalk - the silent killer
There may be nothing that looks cooler than the absent-minded way an ace chalks up between each shot, but the lingering dust is playing a deadly game with your table felt.
"The chalk is abrasive; it gets into the cloth and destroys the cloth," says Dwight Porter, table designer and manager of the high-end Renaissance line for AMF Billiards & Games, based in Bland, Mo.
Brushing the table frequently - even after every session - is a good start, but realize that 50 percent of the chalk dust actually gets brushed into the cloth, Porter warned.
To brush, or not to brush. That's a tricky question, and there are several differing opinions across the industry on how to deal with chalk dust.
Joe Marra of Excel Billiards, the U.S. distributor for Belgian tablemaker Gabriels Billiards, insists that suction with a small vacuum is the only way to go. Otherwise, you could end up with a layer of dust 1/16th of an inch thick under your felt. Imagine what kind of quirky roll that could give your winning shot on the 8 ball.
But too powerful a vacuum could lift and stretch your fabric. Felice Enright of Gurnee, Ill.-based clothmaker Iwan Simonis Inc. suggests using a brush with soft bristles for daily use. Instead of brushing in circles, be careful to either brush toward the pockets or from one end to the other. You may also use a low-powered vacuum - but without a brush attachment, which otherwise would damage fibers.
Enright expands on her list of felt felons and boneheaded things people do to cloth: Pieces of jewelry can get snagged on fabric; that quarter you flip on the table creates minute cuts in the felt that develop into tears; and digging your cue tip into the cloth on masse and jump shots is utterly devastating.
Here comes the sun
You know what happens to your skin when you sit in the summer sun for more than a couple hours, right? So, why do some otherwise intelligent and compassionate pool table owners sit their prize possessions next to a window, by a fireplace, or even in a - gasp - sun room for years at a time?
"You'd be surprised how many people put them in a room with a big window, and after a year half of it is faded," says Andee Atkisson, table designer for Vitalie Manufacturing, based in Rosman, N.C.
Obviously, sunlight will fade the cloth. It can also bleach the table's finish. If you're dead set on playing in natural light, Atkisson suggests you investigate window glass with a film that blocks ultraviolet light, or investing in old-fashioned shutters or blinds. Of course, reason would also dictate buying and using a table cover, no matter what the surroundings.
You also should gauge the level of moisture in your environment. Dwellers in desert and high-altitude areas should be aware that the dry climate is sucking the moisture out of the table's wood and contributing to surface cracks. That also holds true for many homes during the winter months when arid, heated air starts blowing from the furnace.
"You need humidity conducive to fine furniture," Atkisson says, prescribing humidity levels of 40 percent to 60 percent as the best possible environment for fine wood.
The good news is that surface cracks will close up on their own with the right level of moisture in the air. So, consider buying a humidifier if you live in a dry climate.
Also on the subject of light: George Papoutsas, owner of Toronto-based custom lighting firm True Light Billiards, warns against using incandescent bulbs above your table. "The heat will dry out your cloth," he says. Instead, try fluorescent bulbs.
Yes, your table seems extremely heavy and sturdy. No, it's not a jungle gym.
"The No. 1 sin for a pool table is to sit on it," says Roberts of Escalade Sports. "The No. 1 thing people do with their pool table is sit on it."
There are a number of reasons why this is a bad idea. The most obvious - once you do it one time too many - is that the rubber rail cushions will pop right off. They typically are glued to the rails, and can only take so much weight before snapping off.
There's another reason, and it holds true for sitting as well as bumping, leaning, jostling, rocking and several forms of more intimate, indiscreet activity.
As most athletes will tell you, the key to game-day performance is the strength and stability of your legs. If your base is faulty, so are you. It's the same for your pool table. The legs of most tables are screwed into the main cabinet with a large pin. When you sit on or bump the table, the pin will press into its housing. Eventually, the housing will expand to the point where the table starts to wobble. As a result, the entire table will be knocked off balance, and several elements, including the pockets and rails, will begin to shift.
"It's all about movement," Roberts says. "Movement is the enemy of pool tables."
Perhaps you purchased a model with "floor-to-ceiling" legs - legs that extend all the way up to the pocket and actually are a part of the main frame. You're golden. That's your best bet for long-term stability. Otherwise, if the table's a-rockin', get ready for some wobblin'.
We know. He's man's best friend, or the feline equivalent. Just hope he doesn't get jealous of all the time you spend at the table and decide to irrigate the leg.
"It's one of the more common problems," says John Quinn, production coordinator for Olhausen Billiard Manufacturing Inc., based in Poway, Calif.
"Nothing will pull a leg apart like urine. It's probably the most corrosive thing on the planet," Quinn says. And while the table may be too big to resemble a play toy, tabby still may take a shine to pockets with fringe and rip them to shreds.
So, keep the pets at bay. (Sorry, but that painting of dogs playing pool is imaginary.) Quinn also suggests protecting your table when shampooing the carpet underneath. A wooden leg could suck moisture right up into the table.
"You want to keep water away from the wood," Quinn says, a caution that includes keeping all drinks off the rails.
Roberts reiterates the warning, but with a qualification: Hard woods are much less conducive to absorption, whereas soft woods expand and contract more easily.
And in case of unavoidable spills, it might be wise to apply a fabric sealant like Scotch Gard to your felt, says Mike Hynes, director of quality and customer service for Brunswick Billiards, based in Lake Forest, Ill.
"It's one of those things you wouldn't think of doing," Hynes said.
Clean balls, clean table
Here's another culprit you might not expect when rounding up the usual suspects for felt destruction - game balls.
Keep them clean. You can mop your kitchen floor for hours, but all it takes is one filthy pair of sneakers to track in more dirt. On the felt, your game balls - and especially the cue ball - pick up dust and chalk and then reapply them to the table and rails.
It would be wise to clean your game balls after each session and the cue ball after each game, says Jean-Noel Delentre, an area sales manager for Belgium's Saluc S.A., which makes Aramith brand balls.
Delentre recommends using a microfiber cloth for cleaning, and suggests steering clear of waxes and silicone-based products that can add a slick film to balls and decrease player control.
Also be aware of the intense heat that is briefly generated by a ball after it is struck and is skidding along the felt. Some industry experts place the temperature of that friction at more that 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's enough to damage the felt and melt the exteriors of certain varieties of balls, leaving track marks on tables.
"The white marks you see on old tables are burn marks," said Hynes of Brunswick. Hynes recommended using balls made with phenolic resin, which best resist the degrading effects of friction heat.
Friction heat also is generated when stroking the cue against the rails and the pockets, Hynes said, so avoid pockets with a glazed or painted finish.
Again, and we can't emphasize this enough, your pool table is a piece of fine furniture, and it should be accorded the same care of an Edwardian-style mahogany desk or a Beaux-Arts armoire.
Protect your finish. For a hard, lacquer finish - including polyester, eurathane or catalyzed varnish finishes - Porter of AMF recommends using lemon oil applied with a soft cloth. He warns against using a silicone-based consumer product such as Pledge, which can eat into the finish.
For a patina (or painted) finish, Porter prescribes paste wax made with carnuba wax, which provides a thin coating to protect the wood and finish. For leather pockets, he suggested applying saddle soap with a soft cloth, letting it dry for 15 or 20 minutes, and then brushing it with a shoe or billiard brush.
Your first checkup
After your first year of ownership, you should consider having a billiard mechanic come and give your table the once-over. Many table dealers and installers offer this service, or can direct you to a suitable mechanic. You also can look in the yellow pages for billiard sales and service firms.
Here are the areas your mechanic should examine, plus a few tips for performing your own diagnosis:
- Is the table slate still level? (You could make your own approximate determination with a machinist's level.)
- Are the rubber cushions still attached tightly to the rails? (The rubber itself should last for decades. One troubleshooting tact you can perform yourself: Feel along the side of each cushion for dimply depressions in the nose, which usually are created by stapling the felt too tightly to the rail.)
- Are there any obvious signs of wear on the cloth, and is it still tight? (Here's a way to check cloth tautness for yourself: You should be able to place your open palm on the cloth and put your weight on it without moving the fabric.)
- Has the table slate shifted, or have seams opened up between the pieces of slate?
- Are the rail bolts still tight?
- Is the cabinet still sound and tight?
- Are there any surface cracks?
If nothing else, have your table examined whenever you change your cloth.
And don't be paranoid. Despite all the potential hazards to your pool table's health, make sure you play to your heart's content. Responsible use keeps it supple and responsive.
"If it just sits there and sits there, that's the worst thing you can do for it," says Atkisson.