Playing pool (or billiards or snooker) is unique for one delicious reason: no other game is so simultaneously low-class and high-class. It's both raffish and refined. No other game delivers both.
You lean over the green expanse of a pool table and you can be either a) Minnesota Fats in a smoky pool hall or b) an English gentleman in an exclusive men's club. When you think about it, cigars are always present in both locales, too.
I'm not, regrettably, a member of either group. (I'd rather be Minnesota Fats or, better yet, Paul Newman in The Hustler.) But give the exclusive men's clubs one admirable advantage: they've got -- or used to have, anyway -- incredibly elegant pool tables.
No matter how skilled or pokey your pool game, there's nothing like a great table. No other piece of furniture is quite like one of those massive, rare-wood wonders from what was the golden age of pool tables, roughly 1890 to 1915.
"That was absolutely the era of great tables," confirms Ron Blatt of Blatt Billiards in New York City. He ought to know. Although there are perhaps a dozen dealers of antique or vintage pool tables around the country, Blatt Billiards (www.blattbilliards.com) is easily the grandest of them all.
Located in a six-floor factory-showroom in lower Manhattan, at 809 Broadway near 12th Street, Blatt is to billiards what Tutankhamun was to tombs. "We have the world's largest collection of antique pool tables," says Blatt. With approximately 2,800 pool tables in inventory, it's a believable claim.
Although Blatt Billiards, among others, makes new, custom-made pool tables (more about those in a moment), it's hard to resist the sheer "swoon appeal" of a restored vintage pool table.
"High-end pool tables are becoming real rarities," says Ken Hash of Classic Billiards in Perry Hall, Maryland. "There's really nothing like a vintage pool table, especially once they've been properly restored, which nearly all of them need. The variety of veneers, the intricacy of the inlays, the carvings -- they're really something to see," he enthuses.
Classic Billiards (www.classicpool.com) is typical of the small coterie of vintage pool table dealers around the country. "There's always a lot of bragging about how many vintage pool tables you have in stock," Hash explains. "We've got 50 to 60 tables on hand at any time. Out of those, we restore about 12 a year. All told, we've restored about 300 tables. It's quite exacting, as well as highly personal to the customer's specifications."
Restored antique pool tables are drop-dead regal, real traffic stoppers. What's more, as supplies of the finest tables dwindle, they've become good investments, too.
"It's a long-haul investment," notes Blatt. "You're not going to get rich quick. But there's no question that they do appreciate in value. The ones that are going to appreciate the most are the more elaborate tables. Also, there's no question that the supply is dwindling. I don't see too many antique tables coming up in the market."
Hash says the same thing. "The market for these tables has doubled in the last six or seven years. The supply is simply drying up. Today, I may not buy even five or six tables in an entire year. There's a lot of junk out there, but far fewer really fine tables."
Not surprisingly, the price of investment-quality pool tables is comparable to classic furniture. "Prices for a restored antique table start at $18,000," says Blatt. "You can figure that a new table is about two-thirds the cost of any good antique."
Blatt Billiards is unusual in that not only does it specialize in restoring antique tables, but it also is perhaps the leading builder of high-end new tables. "We take the craftsmanship of those old tables -- all that carving, the inlays, marquetry -- and we use that as our quality standard," says Blatt. "Our work really is all handwork, with real craftsmen who've been doing this for decades."
Blatt's new pool tables fall into two categories: variations on classic designs of the past or modern designs employing polished stainless steel or chrome. "Right now, the new tables are very much in the traditional or vintage styles," says Blatt. "The stainless steel and chrome tables -- well, that was the '80s."
Refurbishing antique pool tables -- or building new ones -- is like nothing so much as restoring, say, a Duesenberg. Everything is redone to a standard long since discarded in our postindustrial age.
"All the vintage tables -- 95 percent of which were made by Brunswick, which bought up dozens of smaller pool table manufacturers -- were each crafted by pretty much one guy," says Blatt. "It wasn't an assembly-line thing back then. That's why when you take apart a pool table, like we do for every one we restore, you'll see that every component has a serial number. That number is really the signature of the craftsman who created the table."
When you walk into Blatt Billiards or Classic Billiards, you first find the style of table you seek. At Blatt's, the tables are stacked on top of one another like books in an overflowing private library. Once you've chosen the style you want, then comes the customizing.
"Nearly all vintage tables need to be restored," says Blatt. "Why? Because for the first 30 or 40 years of their lives, these tables were in mansions or men's clubs. But then the estate or the mansion gets sold, whatever, and the tables get stored in basements, where it's damp. The veneers start to delaminate. Also, the old glues start to deteriorate. There's a lot of weight to these tables, anywhere from 1,400 to 2,400 pounds.
"Remember, these tables aren't just incredible pieces of furniture," he adds. "They're instruments. When you play on a table refinished by us, it's not just beautiful, it's also a pool table that meets the most exacting playing standards. That's no small thing."
Classic Billiards' Hash points out that, "Not only do we disassemble the table, strip and refinish the wood, replace the veneers, the rail tips, the cushions, etc., but we even reproduce the old brass plates. That's a specialty of ours," he adds proudly.
As the customer, you specify exactly what you want: the exact shade of green (or any other color) of the felt; the stain of the wood to match your billiards room; new or revised veneers or carvings. "We can do anything you want," says Blatt. "Hell, we've gotten requests for diamond sights -- not diamond-shaped sights, but sights made out of real diamonds. No problem."
After four to six months -- and $20,000 to $60,000 later -- your refinished (or new) table is ready for installation. "We ship the tables with fine arts movers," says Blatt. "If it's on the East Coast, we'll move it ourselves. But our tables have been shipped all over the world. We send out one of our installers to set up the table and make it exactly level. That takes about four or five hours.
"But then," he adds with obvious satisfaction, "you've got something that will last you for life, like nothing else in your house."
Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.