Prior to the introduction of MDF into the industry, pool tables (as well as snooker tables and billiards tables) had always been made from hardwoods.
The term 'hardwood' designates trees typically from the deciduous family, and typically broadleaved. As the name suggests the wood from these trees is harder and more durable than that from their softwood relations.
The most common hardwoods used in the construction of pool tables are mahogany, oak, birch and rosewood. The durability of these woods makes them ideal for holding the weight of a slate playing surface, without the risk of warping over time. Not only are these woods extremely hard wearing but the grain and finish of the wood adds to the character of the finished pool table.
Mahogany was particularly prevalent in the pool and snooker industry up until the early 19th century. When polished it displays a deep red brown finish which darkens over time, and straight grain. While it is still considered as one of the best choices for larger pool tables, intensive deforestation has increased the cost immensely. The same is true to a lesser extent of other hardwoods, and this has led to the introduction of MDF as a cheaper alternative.
The introduction of MDF to the pool table industry created a wealth of cheaper, less durable models which, for the first time, made pool tables affordable to almost anyone. The main reason for the introduction of cheaper, smaller pool tables was for the domestic consumer market. These tables are not hand crafted / finished as their prerequors were, but machine made.
The main benefit of the wider availability of pool tables, which had once been the privilege of the very wealthy, was that the game of pool was brought to a much wider audience. Whereas before you had to join a club, or be old enough to go to a pub to play, people could now enjoy the game in their own home.
The major disadvantages of using a cheaper, man made composite like MDF are that it is not as durable as a natural hardwood, and must more tolerable to variations in humidity and temperature. In order to maintain the appearance of a 'real' pool table, these MDF bed tables are typically finished with a wood effect veneer (typically of mahogany, rosewood or oak) and domestic quality cloth / rubber.
The use of MDF has also extended to some slate bed pool tables. In a similar fashion to MDF only pool tables , the cabinet and legs of the table are finished in re-enforced MDF. A wood effect veneer is then applied to the MDF to finish the pool table off. The two main benefits of finishing a pool table like this are:
oproduction costs are kept down, as MDF is much cheaper (not to mention environmentally kinder) to produce
oa much wider variety of finishes can be applied to the table, rather than just a traditional polished hardwood as before
It is a shame that traditional methods of pool table construction have dwindled as the need for cheaper consumer goods to be produced, however as we have seen above it is not all bad news. While reducing the use of hardwoods in pool tables may offend some, it has the advantage of reducing deforestation and preserving the shrinking supplies of hardwoods.