Six-Rail Artistry
by Joe Harkins

Antique Tables Transform Billiards and Pool intocatalog.jpg (12732 bytes)
Games Worthy of the Grandest Parlor

   The fat aroma of a fine cigar, the urgent hiss of Aramyth balls  across the hard nap of emerald-green Simonis cloth, the swish/thunk of the object ball into a leather basket, all fit together like a three-rail shot. Satisfaction is complete when the massive pool table itself, richly carved and inlaid with exotic, rare veneers, is one of the beautiful giants built by Swiss-born immigrant cabinetmaker John Moses Brunswick and his artisans.

   Surviving examples from the golden age of pool and billiard tables, 1845 to 1929, are a legacy of exquisite beauty with a degree of utility and functionality unmatched in their modern counterparts. Alone among antiques, most of which are fragile and untouchable, old pool tables are superior in their daily  playability, even compared to most pool tables made in the last 60-odd years.

   Today, prices for the least elaborate tables in museum-grade condition start at around $7,500. Some tables, made with one-of-a-kind custom decorative designs, have sold recently for up to $225,000. Most prices, however, remain in the lower five figures, mostly because so many were built to last, and did. It is also still possible to buy "raw" antique tables at auctions for a few hundred dollars. These almost always need extensive restoration to achieve their original beauty and realize their potential market price. For this, a small industry has grown up across the United States, specializing in faithful restorations.

   Of course, Brunswick was not the first, nor the only, maker of pool tables but, like
manhattan.jpg (27075 bytes) Henry Ford and Bill Gates, he applied newly emerging technology to an object of underexploited value, creating a product that dominated and defined the era. More than any other industrial activity of the time, until the automobile and airplane chugged onto the scene, the American billiard table industry incorporated and drove forward almost every craft and technology of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

   Although billiards had been around for hundreds of years, especially in the royal courts of Europe (its predecessor, ground billiards, can be traced back even longer), neither the equipment's dimensions nor methods of play were standard. Billiard tables had been made in North America since the late 1700s, and in Europe much longer, but the game was generally more a knockabout pastime, varying with the practical capabilities of each individual table, than a sport with widely recognized or uniformly defined rules (although The Complete Gamester, published in 1674, outlined rules set by certain localities). Early tables had wooden beds that warped. Cushions were stuffed with horsehair or rags, making for irregular, unresponsive play.

   In the early decades of the nineteenth century, when per-capita consumption of alcohol was five times what it is today, taverns often used billiard tables as an attraction. America's expansion and the long period of peace between the War of 1812 and the Civil War created booming cities and an expanding middle class with money in their pockets and time for leisure. Primitive tables were also not uncommon in upper-class homes. In an age hungry for recreation, baseball and football were still far off in the future. All it would take were a few improvements for billiards to gain widespread American attention.

   Those improvements were to come from England. In 1845,  London billiard table maker John Thurston, whose company had introduced the slate playing bed in 1826, became one of the first buyers of a license for vulcanized rubber. (American inventor Charles Goodyear had recently obtained a patent for the product.) Thurston promptly installed a set of the new, cured India-rubber cushions on a table made for Windsor Castle.

   Later that year,  in Cincinnati, a wealthy friend showed 26-year-old John Brunswick, owner of a carriage-making shop, a newly imported English billiard table that incorporated Thurston's latest improvements. The table Brunswick saw had a solid, permanently flat bed of polished slate and cushions of India rubber.

   Steam-powered manufacturing equipment for sawing, drilling and stamping, combined with improved steels for saws and carving tools, allowed rapid, inexpensive production of the large components, freeing the growing immigrant labor force of skilled craftsmen to concentrate on more elaborate and beautiful handiwork.

   The slates, originally from New England quarries, then later from Italy, started out as large slabs, up to 12 feet long and six feet wide, which were sawed, honed and polished to a uniform flatness, then sliced into sections that could be reassembled and leveled at the installation location. Slates were usually two, and sometimes even three inches thick. The table's interior frame, usually of fir, a stable and strong wood, became massive to support the weight of the slates.

   Early tables were decorated using marquetry, a technique involving inlaid woods, that
giltleg.jpg (53642 bytes)flourished in France. Each required a dozen, and often more, rare woods, which were sliced into thin sheets that revealed the exotic natural grains, then treated with chemicals and dies to emphasize the distinctive natural figures within the wood. Craftsmen then fit and glued the small pieces into intricate patterns that marched and swirled across the sides of the tables and down the legs.

   Some marquetry patterns were exuberantly rhythmic designs that echoed organic forms, while others were inspired by classical Greek and Roman temple decorations. Even more exotic shapes were conjured up from wall paintings and furnishings found in the ancient tombs of Egypt that were then just appearing in European museums. In keeping with the highly individualistic American character of the time, manufacturers promised, "No two tables are alike."

   The promise of uniqueness was fudged a bit on models such as the highly successful series called the Brilliant Novelty. Each design was fully exploited, but remained
Lion4.jpg (23229 bytes) faithful to the spirit of the promise by the clever technique of executing the same pattern in different combinations of background and inlaid woods.

   Thus, a table might be fashioned for one customer in which the background veneer would be a bright bird's-eye maple and each inlay element would be a different combination of the dozens of colors of dark rare wood inlays--ebony, walnut, zebrawood and so on.

   The same pattern would be executed using dark Carpathian burled elm or Italian olive as the background veneer, together with bright inlays of burly ash, rosewood, tulipwood and others. To create yet another "one of a kind," the background wood might be rosewood, with inlays of Italian olive wood or Carpathian elm. When all the possible combinations of woods were exhausted, the cycle was repeated using a different design pattern.

   Then there were fantasy carvings and leg constructions. Some took the form of temple columns or animals supporting the huge main body. Cast-iron frames and legs were introduced in elaborately forged and gilded shapes. A small competitor of Brunswick, C.G. Akam of Chicago, briefly made a series in which the legs were curved elephant trunks. Perhaps the most highly sought-after table today is Brunswick's Monarch
akam.jpg (33666 bytes) model; it sits on four cast-iron crouching lions.

   Model names for tables often reflected the romantic pretensions and aesthetic aspirations of their day in a manner similar to the way automobiles are labeled today. They include Marquette, Nonpareil, Regent, Brilliant Novelty, Alexandria, Monarch, and The Thousand Dollar Beauty. For middle class buyers with smaller homes that lacked a Billiard Room, tables such as the "Home Companion" and the "Cozy Home" appeared. Each of those came with an matching wood cover that converted the pool or billiard table to either a piece of elegant dining-room or library furniture.

   Satisfying the demand for handsomely made pool and billiard equipment eventually would consume much of the exotic woods harvested throughout the world, and in some cases, such as the highly prized ribbon-grained mahogany known as "San Domingue," would virtually eliminate it all. As the self proclaimed "World's Largest Manufacturer of Fine Wood Furnishing", Brunswick announced the company was annually consuming one percent of the world's rare woods.

   Although the mid-1800s saw the growth of dozens of competitors to Brunswick,
elegante.jpg (3686 bytes) "survival of the fittest" was the only rule of the game. As a result, the infighting was often fierce, and it was not uncommon for larger companies to drive out their weaker challengers with predatory pricing or cornering of the market for supplies. During the period, Brunswick itself went through a series of mergers that absorbed its largest competitors and entered the twentieth century known as the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., the name that appears on the brass plate embedded in many head rails.

   It is not unusual to find that a table made by one company or supplied by one particular dealer is displaying the imbedded metal label of a different dealer or factory. After-sale service business for refurbishing the cloth and cushions is an important portion of a dealer's income. Even today, the practice of replacing the label on a table's rails is a common gimmick for inviting future service calls. In reaction to this, just as elaborate center cut-outs in razor blades were introduced to discourage users from substituting competing brands of blades in razor heads, the shape of these nameplates became increasingly elaborate. The struggle ended only when the expensive metal tags were replaced with modern, printed labels.

   In addition to tables installed in thousands of pool halls, many thousands more were placed in private billiard rooms. Some acquired histories that have added greatly to their appeal and monetary value. Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain,  had his billiard table installed in his writing attic. In one of his essays Clemens comments that the game is something of a fraud, pointing out that with the flat slate bed, uniformly responsive cushions, straight cues and new, perfectly round artificial-ivory balls, anyone could play the game well, and make just about any shot that might be imagined.

   He suggested that to restore interest and sportsmanship to the game, the table bed should be made wavy, and players should use crooked cues and irregularly shaped balls. That may have been the inspiration for W.C. Fields, a merciless pool hustler throughout his life, in creating a famous cigar-puffing, crooked-cue routine at the Ziegfield Follies that launched his fame. (One of Clemens' tables now sits in the museum at his Hartford, Connecticut, home.)

   During the first quarter of this century, Brunswick made a series of elaborate and handsome versions with rails that could be removed with the turn of a few cam levers. The six rails that make up a pool table, with cut-outs for six pockets, could be replaced in minutes with a set of four rails that converted the table to carom billiards by closing off the pocket openings.

   Legend has it that as they played on one such table in a wealthy Chicago home in 1924, two young men, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, plotted the kidnapping and murder of a child. The entertainment company executive who bought the table more than 60 years later added a wing to his home to accommodate the restored baronial table.

   Only the Great Depression ended the market for, and the making of, the great tables. Following the Second World War, pool and bowling equipment  manufacturers returned to peacetime production after stints as defense contractors. Brunswick briefly manufactured an Art Deco table of the wonderful heavy construction of the early days. The smoothly rounded chrome-plated corners and airfoil-shaped walnut sides of The Anniversary have been widely copied by table makers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan and even China, but none duplicate the solid feel of the original. Thousands of them survive and are still played on in pool halls across the country.

   Although a successor company of the same name, Brunswick Corp., still makes popularly priced pool tables, and even a limited line of re-creations, a robust industry today has grown up around finding and restoring the original beautiful tables.

   The Manhattan showroom of the largest in the field, Blatt Billiards, is the Vatican of antique pool table devotees, and third-generation owner Ron Blatt, with his pure "New Yawk" accent and his graying 1960s-style ponytail, is its unlikely, but highly respected, pontiff. grand.jpg (3482 bytes)

   The five-story building is showroom, restoration shop and warehouse to a breathtaking array of some of the oldest, most elaborate tables to be found anywhere. The third floor has tables stacked four high—more than 125 assembled antiques of all sizes and ages, from six-foot parlor tables made to fit in small rooms common in nineteenth century homes, to 12-foot-long major pieces that often were the centerpiece of a public club or a millionaire’s proudest room.

   On the same floor, there are approximately 50 more models in carefully sorted and racked pieces. No two are alike, and each is a masterpiece of cabinetmaking and decorative art. Blatt estimates that he has upwards of 2,000 antique pool tables in warehouses and storage sheds outside the city. A look around the shop reveals that there are three or four dozen tables being refurbished at any given time.

   Every component of each table is disassembled, cleaned, remanufactured if necessary, and refinished using more stable modern versions of the older glues and varnishes. Even old veneers are removed and reinstalled in the hope they will withstand at least another 100 years or so of daily use.

   The workload for Blatt’s artisans, who come from all over the world, is currently lighter than normal. The waiting list, which at times swells to two years, is now "only" six months, but Blatt eases customer impatience by arranging for a serviceable old loaner to be provided until the refinished table is installed. The shop’s list of famous and infamous clients, starting with those served by Blatt’s grandfather, includes presidents, kings, film stars and even those whose names and occupations are best not mentioned as references.

   He has installed tables in every state and regularly dispatches restored tables and installation crews to such remote and obscure locations as St. Peter’s Island (a private retreat in the Caribbean), a palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and a plantation in Hawaii. There are enough antique tables available—still being unearthed in long-shuttered attic rooms and old pool halls—that Blatt has plenty of competition.

   Most of these restorers also serve clients across the continent, often right in each other’s backyards. There’s Ed and Rosann O’Connell in Danbury, Connecticut; Joe Newell in Clay Center, Kansas; Richard Kendler in Lake Forest, Illinois; and Pat Sheehan in Portland, Oregon, to name a few.

   Joe Newell works out of a third-generation facility in Kansas, filled with antique tables awaiting restoration. His brash, cocky manner reflects his earlier career as a successful copy machine salesman. Out of an intense love for antiques, and by the constant scouring of small-town auctions and flea markets, he has accumulated one of the most complete collections of old billiard catalogs and advertising materials in existence.

   When the modern Brunswick Corp., now a Fortune 500 company that can boast a 150-year history, closed one of its outdated factories, Newell spent days combing through the dumpsters where the blueprints and patterns for the old tables were discarded. Now that Brunswick has recovered from that episode of corporate amnesia, when it needs to know what it once made, and how it was made, the company gets on the phone to Newell.

   Richard Kendler added his antique pool table business to an already successful custom luxury home construction operation on Chicago’s North Shore. He had learned that business from his late father, developer Robert Kendler, who built much of Skokie, Illinois, and is widely respected as the founding father of modern racquetball and handball.

   Given the long association between billiards and cigar smoking, a personal anecdote is in order here, one that notes a cautionary bit of billiard etiquette.

   When I owned the antique pool table business that I sold about seven years ago, my best craftsman had apprenticed in one of the world’s finest modern antiques restoration conservatories, in Kraków, Poland. One of my customers selected an antique table to be restored but wanted us to put cigar and cigarette burns on the rails to reflect the pool hall origins of the piece.

   Just before the table was scheduled for delivery, we placed lit cigars and cigarettes along the rails in an artfully chosen pattern to reproduce the burn marks that had been cleared away in the restoration process. My refinisher watched with growing horror and obvious distress.

   During the three years he had worked in the shop, and until that moment when he saw what we intended to do, I had never heard him speak a word of English. With tears in his eyes, he swatted the butts onto the floor, repeating "no, no, no" in a forlorn monotone. Then he stomped on the ashes. As he reached the door, he turned back, shaking his head from side to side in sorrow, and said one unhappy word, "America."

   He left, taking his tools with him.

   I called up my client and explained the crisis. He agreed to accept the table with the perfectly finished rails.

   The next morning, another worker, a cousin of the offended craftsman, brought him back to work. We never attempted another "pool hall rails" re-creation again.

   I later learned that after the table was installed, the owner did his own rail burning, but also posted a prominent House Rules notice from an old Baltimore pool hall. The first rule said, "A gentleman does not lean over the cloth while smoking."   -30-


The Encyclopedia of Billiards

   Until recently, the history of pool and billiards was a patchwork quilt of mistaken myth and unsupported speculation. With the publication of the 512-page The Billiard Encyclopedia (The Stinehour Press, 1994, $129.95, Regular Edition, $500, Collector’s Edition) by Victor Stein and Paul Rubino, the gaps have been filled in one stunning stroke.

   The all-encompassing reference book took six years to compile and includes 760 illustrations, many of them in color, most of which have never been seen in modern times.

   There is absolutely nothing of any possible interest about pool and billiards that is not covered in the most complete and scholarly fashion. From the origins of ball and stick games thousands of years ago in Greece, Egypt and the pre-Columbian Americas, to the minutiae of brands of chalk and detailed treatises on the design and manufacture of leather cue tips, the book explains it all in text and illustrations.

   Any fan of the sport, anyone who owns or contemplates buying or restoring an antique table, cue-rack or cue-stick, anyone who enjoys holding a superbly printed and bound volume, must have this book.

   The writing of this article, despite my once having owned my own pool table restoration business for eight years, was greatly facilitated by the generosity of The Billiard Encyclopedia’s Stein and Rubino in sharing the fruits of their six years and roughly half a million dollars invested in this labor of love.  --JH

Cigar Aficionado Magazine - Spring Issue 1997

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