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When looking from the outside, you may think that all pool tables are alike. After all, they all have the appropriate number and placement of pockets, not to mention felt over their entire play area.
But as it turns out, what’s below the surface is actually one of the most consequential elements of a pool table.
Just past the surface, you’d find the pool table bed. This broad, flat structure supports the entire pool table play area and may be made out of a couple materials. If you’re in the process of building or buying a pool table, it is crucial that you learn about both slate and MDF pool table bed options.
This guide will take you through both of these as well as their most important differences.
Pool Table Bed Basics
To start off, let’s take a moment to understand the pool table bed and its crucial role in a pool table’s operations.
In essence, a pool table bed (or just the “bed” when discussing a pool table’s construction) is a broad, horizontal surface that is mounted into the frame of a pool table. After being covered with a pool table’s iconic felt, this bed serves as the full playing area.
In this way, the pool table bed is one of the most influential aspects of a pool table’s performance, regardless of whether you build or purchase your pool table.
The process for mounting in a pool table bed is fairly standardized in order to maintain a level playing surface. However, a pool table bed can be made from several materials, depending chiefly on the quality and price of the overall table.
In particular, slate pool table beds and MDF wood pool table beds are the most common today.
What Is a Slate Pool Table Bed?
As its name suggests, a slate pool table bed is constructed entirely from one or more pieces of high-quality slate that have been aligned to make a horizontal surface.
Multiple pieces of slate with gaps filled using beeswax are typically used for a tournament-length pool table as well as standard snooker tables. When multiple slate slabs are used, they are bound together using a special epoxy resin that dries and creates a fully seamless joint between each slab.
Slate pool table beds are used in commercial, professional, and even consumer-grade pool tables. Slate used for this purpose tends to be sourced internationally, with Italy, Brazil, and China being the source of most slate slabs in the US.
As you might expect, pool tables that make use of a slate table bed are very heavy.
In fact, the heft of a table’s several slate slabs tends to be why those tables are so hard to move without professional assistance. Even those pool table models that use 1/2-inch slabs across its playing surface tend to be heavier than an average person can move alone or with assistance.
What Is an MDF Pool Table Bed?
For much of its history, pool and the associated cue sports played on a billiards table were considered “upper class” sports of leisure. As such, there was little to no concept of substituting building materials in a pool table to make the overall unit more affordable.
However, pool today is a well-democratized leisure activity that can be enjoyed everywhere from bars to one’s own home. As such, it is no surprise that some pool table construction modifications have been made over time to make tables more affordable to the average consumer.
One such modification has involved the use of MDF (medium-density fiberwood) boards as a pool table bed. In particular, MDF pool table beds have become very common in commercial-grade pool tables due to its ability to be replaced cheaply.
Pool tables with an MDF bed rarely ever see use in tournaments, especially those administered by a cue sport governing organization. This is because those with ample experience in cue sports are able to notice so-called “playability” differences when shooting on an MDF table.
In particular, differences in drag and resilience can be detected as a billiard ball rolls along the length of an MDF table bed (regardless of the felt used).
Slate vs. MDF Pool Tables: What Are the Differences?
Now that you know the basics of these two types of pool tables, let’s look at their differences in more detail.
Rigidity and Resilience
One of the most noteworthy differences between slate and MDF pool table beds is their level of rigidity. In other words, the manner in which both bed types take in and distribute pressure applied to them differs noticeably.
For example, when striking a ball on an MDF pool table, keen players will notice a slight bit of “give” on the table’s part. This is because the width of an MDF table bed is such that it may bend slightly under pressure.
By comparison, a slate pool table bed will not ever bend, regardless of how much pressure is applied directly or indirectly to it. This is because slate in particular is a stone with a great deal of horizontal resilience. As such, the several slate slabs used to make up said pool table bed are absolutely going to remain as rigid after decades of use as they are on their first day in use.
Along the same lines as rigidity, MDF and slate pool table beds also differ when it comes to durability in a major way.
To be specific, a slate pool table bed can withstand years of regular play and still remain as structural sound as the day it was cut. This is even true of more affordable slate pool tables, which use a slightly thinner cut of slate for their table surfaces.
In all, there’s a good chance that you will never need to replace a slate pool table bed.
Meanwhile, MDF pool table beds are not exactly known for their long-term durability. In fact, quite the opposite. Due to their wood structure, these pool table beds are prone to warping over time, which in turn can create an uneven playing surface. Moreover, a hard impact onto an MDF table bed can cause it to break or dent.
As such, it is common for MDF table beds to be replaced over time, especially if they are used in a high-traffic capacity (such as in a bar or entertainment center).
Skilled cue sport athletes will often talk about the differences in “playability” between these two table types. Though this may refer to a myriad of factors that influence play in pool, “playability” is often short-hand for the amount of drag a table places on a struck ball.
To that end, slate tables allow for smoother rolls, while an MDF table may cause extra resistance.
Warping experienced by an MDF table may also impact its ability to be fully “playable.”
Weight and Portability
Without a question, these two table types differ when it comes to weight.
Slate pool tables are very heavy and not very portable, in fact. This is a direct result of their entire playing surface being made up of large stone slabs.
MDF tables, by comparison, are much lighter and portable. As such, they are preferred in residential installations where the table’s placement is non-permanent.
As you might expect, these two pool table bed types also create major discrepancies when it comes to pricing.
To that end, slate pool tables tend to retain the “premium” pricing associated with classic billiards tables. Depending on the craftsmanship used, these tables can cost several thousand dollars.
MDF tables, meanwhile, were created explicitly for the purpose of cutting costs. As such, they are more widely accessible due to their price tags of several hundred dollars.
Which One Should You Get?
When it comes to choosing between an MDF and a slate pool table bed, you must first consider their respective prices.
MDF tables are far more affordable and suited for use in a leisurely home setting. By comparison, a slate pool table could cost you a pretty penny, but provides a far superior level of playability.
Also, you’ll want to take into account any long-term concerns about durability before choosing a table type.
MDF tables are less resilient overall but are still considered the better option for use with kids or novice players. Slate tables are more able to take a hit and remain structurally sound. But as a matter of course, they are generally best-suited to players with a lot of experience with cue sports.
In all, those are the most important differences between slate and MDF pool table beds.
These differences are fairly stark and straight-forward, so you should be able to keep them all in mind as you move forward with constructing or purchasing your own pool table.
In any case, be sure to take your own pool playing situation into account before settling on an MDF or slate table bed. Each has its own benefits when it comes to durability, playability, and more.
So, selecting the right table bed could really have a major impact on your long-term enjoyment of your new pool table.