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DIY billiard table for under $300 dollars

Top-down view of finished billiard table

The gratuitous prose introduction

After the summer which had been long and hot and very dry, winter came late in the year and the desert went cold in a matter of days. In those times the house had no central heating so we sought out other warmths. A community pool was open and heated and only a twenty minute bike ride away so I swam in the evenings that winter two or three times a week. The matron of the house kept mulled wine simmering on the stove. The house smelled of cardamom and cloves. I drank the wine but I still tasted the grappa from those days when I felt young and strong and didn’t worry about things too much.

With Hemingway out of my system I turned to billiards. There is something – I don’t use this word carelessly – something unique among games in the billiard table: it is a pure manifestation of abstract principles of physics – force transfer, triangulation, geometries – on a scale comprehensible to the human mind. Sure, kicking a football or hitting a baseball involves movements of object through time and space and mass, but they happen beyond the level of ruminative human observability. Though it takes no less precision, timing the swing of a baseball bat toward a fast-moving ball, even for the elite, requires transcending human-scale speed and vision, defying explainability. A cue ball, stationary on a green bed of felt, on the other hand, is seen, and readily described, as being such and such distance from an eight-ball that is such and such angle from the corner pocket, requiring such and such force to reach its terminus.

For some years I’d half-considered building a billiard table. I’d always liked the game. I got that ganglial hit when the ball rolled lengthwise across the table to tap the other into the pocket. I was too poor a pool player and too much of a cheapskate to entertain buying a table but foolish enough to think I could build a billiard table and with just enough woodworking experience to maybe, just maybe, pull it off.

What did it cost?

Material Cost (2023) Size/count
1’ x 4’ x 8’ select pine $100 6 boards
1’ x 4’ x 8’ common board $50 6 boards
4’ x 8’ 1/2” MDF $50 1 panel
Rubber bumpers $33 Pack of 6
Pool table felt $37 1 package
Contact cement $10 8 ounces
5/8” felt weatherstripping $2.50 17 feet

Required tools

This table can be fabricated in its entirety with just an Xacto knife and fine-grit sandpaper. Okay, that’s not true. But it really doesn’t take many tools.

Build steps

The following order of steps simplified the measuring process for me. Building the rail first allowed me to cut the table siding to snugly enclose the rails. Having the table base finished provided a workbench of sorts for finishing the playing surface.

Step 1: Rail frame

The finished frame looks like the image below. It consists of two levels of 1” x 4” pine boards (which actually measure .75” x 3.5”). The levels are glued together, but the four sides remain separate for disassembly. To avoid having to struggle shaping warped ‘common’ board from lumber piles, I splurged and bought ‘select’ pine boards for the rails.

The completed rail frames

For a standard seven-foot table (78” x 39” playing surface), the long sides were cut to 87”, the short sides, 48”.

The math:

I used a flower pot of about 4.5” diameter to pencil pocket cuts:

Rail frame showing penciled cut Single rail frame with jig saw cut Rail frames with cuts, fit together

I used a half-lap joint so that no bolts or pegs would be needed to keep everything snug. Conscientious chiseling/sanding made the curved edges fairly flush.

Half-lap joint woodwork Finely sanded curved edges

At this point, since I already had linseed oil and wood stain on hand, I added a varnish to give things that British pub whatness.

Step 2: Rail bumpers

I hadn’t done any building projects that involved afixing rubber to wood, so I did a lot of roughing out the position and shape of the bumpers before cutting, using staples to hold things in place. This rubber cut well enough with an Xacto knife.

Corner pocket with rubber bumpers Side pocket with rubber bumpers

I also hadn’t used contact cement before, which is applied to the two surfaces that will be bonded together. Manipulating the rubber continued to be a bit squirrely, so I added more staples to hold things in place while the glue dried. I also wasn’t super confident about the durability of the vertically-bonded glue, so I added duct tape to seal the deal.

Adding the rail felt wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Most pool tables use a wood feather strip to pin the fabric to the rail, something which I didn’t feel confident fabricating. So I folded the fabric in on itself, used index cards to create a stiff-edged border, stapled that, then pulled the visible side of the fabric across, obscuring the dirtywork. Attaching the felt to the bottom of the rail didn’t need to be precise, but I tried to make it snug.

Attaching felt to top of rail Attach felt to bottom of rail Single rail bumper with felt attached Two rail bumpers with felt attached

Step 3: Base stand

A few blocks from where I live someone had put a dining table out at the curb. Sturdy oak. The legs were 29” long, which would work well enough to get to a 31” standard pool table height:

A discarded oak table

I used the cheaper “common board” 1” x 4” pieces to furnish the sides since they didn’t need to be quite as precise as the rails. A second inner layer serves as the lip that the table surface sits on:

The table base with fabricated sides

The pocket-catchers I mulled over dinner for a few nights. There had to be something lying around I could use to catch 2.5-inch billiard balls.

A 28-ounce can of tomatoes is 4” in diameter. Using the bolts already on the table legs, along with new bolts for the side pockets, I fastened the tin cans. They wouldn’t be visible, so they didn’t need to be pretty, just sturdy. Eating through 168 ounces of canned food accounted for a fair amount of this project’s overall time. I lined the cans with leftover felt from the rails (not shown below).

Generic tin can as corner pocket Espresso tin can as side pocket with bolts

Step 4: Table surface

Much of this final work was easier than I expected, though it took some head-scratching to settle on the size of the pocket cuts. I also had to redo my felt strategy a bit. The main bits left to do:

I first cut the MDF to fit rectangle of the table frame, accounting for a 1/4 inch gap on all sides to more easily insert and remove.

Then I put the MDF surface onto the base and added the rails to pencil in where to cut the back end of the pockets. The front cut involved some guesswork. Billiard tables vary widely in “shelf depth” and this, in conjunction with the “mouth size,” largely determines table difficulty.

I figured it better to err toward a friendly pocket cut. My billiard table didn’t need high altitude training or a resistance parachute, and the fremitus of my middle-aged hands and bell-tolling presbyopia would add challenge enough. I looked at many top-down images of tables and then seasoned to taste. The main thing is not to have the front cut exceed the line, seen below, that bridges the bumper edges:

Top-down view of pocket cut Pocket cut in MDF set in table frame

A fine-toothed jigsaw blade cuts MDF like it’s hydrogenated oil.

It’s pretty essential for the table to be level. Before going further, because I wanted to avoid sleepless nights vexing over whether all those missed shots were due my inept play or my inept building skills, I checked the levelness by setting a ball, before adding felt. After a moment or two of youthful indecision, the ball settled into middle-management apathy:

A few months earlier I’d wandered through the clutter shelves of Kent’s Tools, a local second-hand tool-slash-junk shop, one of those places where ever day everything is always somehow “twenty percent off!” On the grounds that I figured it was a handy tool that I’d certainly have a use for on one project or another, I purchase a spring-operated staple gun. The pool table was finally my project for it.

Stapled felt surface on table Entire felt on playing surface

Videos of re-felting pool tables showed technicians stapling the felt on the underside, so that’s what I initially did. But when testing the table, I found that the felt bunched up unevenly and made the playing surface less level. So I added staples on top and cut away the excess.

Based on videos I’d watched, I figured I would have a tough time stretching the felt taut to avoid creases and wrinkles, but in execution, this didn’t pose much of a challenge.

And that was it. The pool table could be assembled. And, relatively easily, disassembled.

The finished pool table, with pool cue and cue ball

References

Testing, calibration, retrospection, and contraindications