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Tables you can count on

Mose Duane knows his way around pool halls. But he's no pool shark — he's a pool mechanic.

Duane owns Phoenix Billiards in Glendale, Ariz., and he's assembled and repaired every brand of table in his 30-year career. He can tell you why "thousands of tables are sold every year that don't play worth a nickel."

The heart of a good table is a 400- to 600-pound slate slab. Slate is no flatter than substitute materials, such as compressed wood (called Slatron) or plastic, but it is about four times heavier. Of course, a weighty tabletop won't be stable if it's perched on weak legs. Avoid fiberboard, particleboard and softwoods, such as pine and fir. They are less dense than hardwoods, which makes them prone to bowing and weakening over time.

The next key consideration is the rails. A loosely attached rail will prevent a ball from bouncing true. Duane recommends this test: Roll a ball against a rail so that it caroms back and forth across the width of the table. Tight rails will rebound the ball at least five times.

Rails should also be made of a hardwood, because such woods hold nails and screws best over time. The brands that use hardwood rails also often line their rails with top-notch cushion rubber, which helps produce consistently crisp rebounds.

At the Billiard Store in Phoenix, Duane spies a minimalist model with the proper construction: the Sheraton by Olhausen. He likes how the Sheraton plays, and its hardwood rails (made of oak and maple) are firmly attached to the slate. The price for an 8-foot-by-4-foot model with optional tapered hardwood legs is $3,100.

Once you're satisfied that the materials and mechanics are sound, looks come into play. At a Connelly Billiards dealership in Glendale, Ariz., the table with the greatest heirloom potential, says Duane, is the Scottsdale, part of Connelly's Pinnacle Collection. The table's elaborate designs, carved into hardwood, will last for generations.

Connelly also uses four bolts to secure each rail to the slate. The industry standard for tables of this size is three bolts per rail, with six rails per table (each long side has two rails).

The table meets Duane's construction criteria, plus it's made almost entirely of hardwood (maple, oak or cherry). An 8-foot-by-4-foot model, featuring legs in a ram's head design, has a suggested retail price of $6,000 (cherry wood costs extra) — although some dealers will knock off as much as $1,000.