"Measure twice, cut once."
Billiard tables can last a few years or hundreds of years. Whether you want a table the next generation will enjoy or just want to avoid buyer's remorse, learning about the basics of good design and construction can help make the difference between owning an heirloom or a replacement project. Regardless of what brand you finally choose, do yourself a favor and take a couple of minutes to read the following notes.
The Main, or External Frame
The main frame of most furniture style tables are the visible sides and ends of the table that rest on the legs. Ideally, the main frame is made of solid wood, or veneer-core plywood that is more than 1" thick. While veneer-core plywood can be as strong as solid wood (and more stable), many production tables use MDF. MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) consists of a pressed wood chip core and a wood veneer face that, when finished, appears exactly like solid wood. MDF is hard, flat, and stable, but it "creeps" under load and should never be used as a structural member.
The Inner, or Center Frame
The main frame supports the center frame which in turn supports the slate. The best way to attach the center frame to the main frame is to use a mortise joint to lock the center frame into the supporting frame member.
There are a few popular manufacturers who tout a one-piece seamless slate support bed. These one-piece beds extend over the edge of the main frame, creating a "springboard;" the design also makes leveling difficult. These same manufacturers often have patriotic names for their inferior products - which are imported from you-know-where.
Oh, and by the way: MDF should never be used here either.
A popular way of attaching the legs to the main frame is to use solid steel corner brackets. This sounds good, but steel brackets can flex, and thermal cycles can cause fasteners to loosen over time, resulting in a table that you can push a "wobble" into. Better to use heavy wood joinery where each leg bolts on at the corners of the frame, which results in a more solid and longer lasting standing table.
The Billiard Congress of America (BCA) sets standards for such things as corner pocket opening (5"), side pocket opening (5") slate height (29") and playing field sizes (50" x 100"; 44" x 88"; etc.). Every Best Billiards table is true to BCA specifications. You might be surprised at what is out there.
Fit and Finish
Does the pocket fit it's mating surface on the rail nicely? Does it allow seamless ball entry from the playing field? How quiet is the ball return? Well-executed fit and finish will last the lifetime of the table. I have witnessed tables with their original glass-smooth finishes "cracked" or "crazed" due to improper finish application.
A few notes on lasting joinery...
Often in frame and leg assembly, glue blocks are used. Glue blocks are pieces of solid wood that are glued and nailed to one frame part and then bolted to a second frame member to enable assembly and disassembly. Glue can be stronger than the wood itself, but if the block is only a few square inches in size it may not have a sufficient bonding area and may fail under load.
If wood is not properly selected, dried, supported and finished, it will move by itself over time. Best Billiards products have been in place in environments as diverse as Florida and Colorado, and look brand new even after 20 years. It is safe to say these tables are stable!