'Racking Up' Success with Pool Tables
A former pro player uses his experience to build pool tables to last a century.
By Hannah Miller
In eight years of playing professional pool, Gilbert (Gil) Atkisson picked up an appreciation for the finer points of the game â and the pool tables.
âThe heavier the table, the better it plays,â says Gil, who is partner with his wife, Andee, in Vitalie Manufacturing, which manufactures pool tables in Rosman, NC.
The hardwood must be sturdy enough and the joinery strong enough to hold 450 to 2,000 pounds of slate, the material, Gil says, that helps create the correct amount of friction for shooting pool. âIt has to hold it absolutely perfect forever,â adds Andee. And, Gil says, âThe whole thing with pool tables is, they must be flat.â
The Atkissons keep these and other requirements of the sport in mind as they make the mid- to high-end tables, which they ship internationally from a 60,000-square-foot shop in the mountains of North Carolina. Gil decided 30 years ago that he would rather make and sell pool tables than compete on them, so he and Andee took the financial plunge and started manufacturing. This year, they hope to sell $9 million worth of tables, which can run up to $40,000 each for limited-edition, top-of-the-line models.
âThey are made better than most furniture,â Andee says. âYou could probably build two first-class dining room suitesâ with the wood and work that goes into one pool table, she adds.
Inspiration from the past combines with modern technology
That means, in the higher-end âVitalieâ and âAndrew Gilleâ lines, using 2-inch-thick solid hardwood joined by wooden dowels. It also means milling assembled table bodies on both top and bottom sides, something that Gil says no other company in the world still does. The traditionally styled Vitalie tables and the more stylistically varied Andrew Gille models range at retail from $4,000 to $40,000.
âYou canât do it cheap,â Andee says.
A mid-priced âSterlingâ line, with a retail price range of $3,200 to $5,000, is made from 1-1/2-inch-thick hardwood joined by interlocking pieces that are bolted together. The shop uses two SCM Routech Record 220 computerized routers to cut the interlocking pieces so that they fit together perfectly to provide strength, says Andee. The Sterling bodies are not milled after assembly.
The 75-employee company sells internationally to homeowners through a network of dealers. Andee designs the 60-plus models that range from an oriental-looking, shiny black table in the Andrew Gille line to a graceful, curved-legged âComme Chippendaleâ model in the Peter Vitalie line. Wood is walnut, maple, wormy maple, ash and tulipwood. Several sizes are offered, with 4-foot by 8-foot the most popular.
In the Vitalie line, about half of the finishes are created to match a homeownerâs furniture, Andee says. âWe do some of the funkiest finishes,â she says.
âI think the most unusual one I have ever done was for a customer who sent me a shirt,â she adds. There was a billiard cloth the same color, and the customer wanted a wash for the table in the same shade of seafoam green. âWe did it. If thatâs what the customer wants, thatâs what he should be able to get,â she says.
âWe often do vibrant colors, purples, reds,â she adds, with red being particularly popular, especially on a Chinese-style table.
The company uses the same kind of alcohol-based aniline dyes that were used 100 years ago, Gil says. Stains that enhance the grain are used, as well as paint. One of the most popular finishes is âOld World,â a rich wood finish in which light and dark shades are carefully blended. Finishes from Mohawk Finishing Products are applied with Kremlin spray guns.
The company averages 30 tables a day, including multiples of several styles each day. Designs range from the simple, rectangular lines of Mission to the carved elephant heads of Indian-themed Ganapati, which at $12,000 to $14,000 retails in the high end. They sell about 150 of the Ganapati models a year, Gil says. Other popular styles include black-finish oriental, ball-and-claw early American and country French.
To build their tables, equipment ranges from âancientâ to state-of-the-art, Gil says. Newer purchases include the two SCM routers, plus a computerized Andreoni carver that uses âthe most elegant, time-saving moves to carve,â according to Gil. In fact, he was so pleased with it that he had his employees watch it working âso they could start picking up the same moves on the manual machines,â he says. The shopâs manual carvers include one La Scolpitrice, two Marianis and three Master Carvers.
The router makes nearly all the cuts needed at Vitalie, says Andee. âIt cuts the bodies, routs them, routs the rails, blind aprons,â she says. On the rails, the routers also make grooves and circles to hold decorative inlays and round or diamond-shaped holes to hold the âsightsâ a player uses to line up his shots.
Sights are often mother-of-pearl, and Vitalie sometimes encircles them with a ring of ebony-colored phenolic resin. Plastic wonât work for inlays, says Andee, because the heat generated by sanding would melt it.
Vitalie bought its first SCM 220 more than two years ago and replaced pin routers, hand routers and radial arm saws. The Atkissons then bought another, and now the two are placed 15 feet apart so that one operator can oversee both.
An RFS (Radio Frequency Services) gluing machine that uses radio waves to glue lumber in blocks for legs also is a great timesaver, says Gil. It glues leg blocks in 4-1/2 minutes. Small pieces of lumber that would otherwise be scrap are glued into the blocks, which âsaves money for us and also gives us the strongest leg possible,â says Gil. The company has cut its waste down to 5 percent, he adds, with most of it coming from faulty lumber.
Other equipment used at Vitalie includes: two System Pro 1100 sanders from Quick Wood, used to remove burrs; a Taylor pneumatic clamp; Northfield bandsaw and shaper; a Weinig moulder; a Rockwell planer; a Pellegrino carving lathe, and a Ritter chop saw. To assure a completely level playing surface, Vitalieâs woodworkers go over the joined and cross-braced table bodies with an abrasive drum sander the Atkissons fashioned themselves.
The parts that form table joints are carefully numbered so that when a dealerâs installer reassembles the table in a customerâs home, there is no question about where everything fits, says Andee. The dealer adds the cloth cover and pockets, which pocket manufacturers sometimes create to match Vitalie designs.
Switching from a player to a producer
âHe would do a few little thingsâ to improve the merchandise, which he felt was less than perfect, Andee remembers. âHe kept saying, âBoy, we should be making our own.ââ
After they both kept saying, âHey, we can do better than this,â they finally decided to make and sell their first table on a shoestring. They were shocked to learn they would have to wait 30 days to get payment, Andee says.
Even now, they build everything to order. With the wide choice of woods and finishes that they offer, Andee says, âI am not going to guess what I am going to sell.â
They built their reputation slowly and carefully, naming the company after a former coach of Gilâs and, when expansion time came 15 years ago, they moved to Rosman from Anaheim. World champions Nick Varner and Mika Immonen now serve as spokesmen for the company.
In addition to pool tables, Vitalie makes chests and racks for holding cue sticks and also some hardwood game tables. In certain styles, customers can order matching table leaves to temporarily transform their pool tables into dining tables. They are stored in matching cabinets made by Vitalie. Matching benches can also be ordered in a limited number of styles. Business people sometimes order a pool table with a removable top, so that it can double as a conference table.
While it was logical to branch out into complementary pieces, the Atkissonsâ chief focus remains on making elegant, strong pool tables that fit a specific purpose and will last for years.
âWe go to a great deal of trouble to build a correct pool table,â Andee says. âWe are not part of the disposable society.
âItâs always a pool table first with us,â she adds.
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