An Introduction to Cuemaking
Below is a series of articles I wrote back in 2013 which will provide an introduction to the art of cuemaking. The first article will describe a lot about my philosophy of how I approach cuemaking in general, and the subsequent articles go into more detail about the preparations, purchases, and other aspects of getting started with the hobby.
An Introduction to Cuemaking
There is no greater satisfaction in this world than to create an object of beauty which pleases not just the eye... but the mind, body, and soul as well. Drawing, painting, writing, cooking and other arts are wonderful hobbies. I spend lots of time doing all of the above. Each brings a unique satisfaction to my life. I find no greater joy in my life, though, than crafting items which can be used and enjoyed by myself and others who appreciate them. I love working with my hands to create an object which is not only beautiful, but functional as well. So what exactly is a cuesmith, you ask? A cuesmith is a surgeon, an engineer, and a scientist. A cuesmith is a tailor. The lathe is our sewing machine. A cuesmith is a physicist and a doctor. But above all other things, a cuesmith is a translator. A translator who speaks in sawdust. To be a great cuesmith, one does not need a lifetime of experience. One does not need a huge shop full of expensive tools. One does not need extensive lists of famous customers. One does not need a vast knowledge of obscure, well-kept secrets. One simply needs to be able to observe the world around him. One simply needs to be able to listen. One simply needs to be able to feel. The most important job of the cuesmith is to change things. A cuesmith is successful when they are able to change bad things into good things. In order to affect positive changes in the world, a cuesmith must be able to observe the world around him. A cuesmith must pay close attention to the slightest of details and be able to understand how and why they affect a much larger picture. A cuesmith must have a closed mouth and an open ear. You must listen to the people around you. You must listen to the cue. The wood speaks, and a cuesmith must remain quiet so he may hear what the wood has to say. Rarely ever is a cuesmith aiming to please himself. What a cuesmith has to say is rarely important. Sometimes a cuesmith will need to ask a few questions. Sometimes a few answers are provided as well. Talking generally serves the cuesmith poorly in many cases, though. Listening is a much wiser activity. A cuesmith must be able to feel. Your hands must be able to speak clearly to your mind. Your mind must pay attention to your hands and listen to what they have to say. As I stated before, above all other things, a cuesmith is a translator. We must translate the needs and wants of our customers into physical changes in the gear they use in the game. To be a good translator, we must be able to observe, listen, and feel the world around us. These tools are the most important tools of the cuesmith. The tools of the ear, the mind, and the hand. Without these tools, one has no place at the helm of the lathe. Before setting out to become a cuebuilder, I recommend taking stock of the hopes, dreams, and expectations you have as motivations for learning the trade. Many people get into a professional craft such as cuebuilding with expectations of fame and fortune. While there are certainly many examples of very successful cuebuilders out there, there are countless other cuebuilders out there who find the trade to be too costly, too challenging, and too intimidating to pursue it much beyond a passing interest. Take things slowly. Hone your skills over time. Expect very harsh criticism from all who see your early work. Being "successful" as a cuebuilder can be hard to define. Building things you are proud of and enjoy using is fairly easy to do. Pleasing customers with highly-refined tastes can be very challenging. You should expect cuebuilding to be a financial liability for many years after you first begin. Some cuebuilders, even very talented ones, find themselves in regions of the world where local demand for their services may be very low, perhaps even nonexistent. Other cuebuilders find themselves in the fortunate position of being the provider of a very specialized service in a very active local pool community. Plan for expensive, time-consuming failures. Plan on doing lots of free work for people at first. Plan on filling trash bins with hundreds of pounds of expensive mistakes. Plan on messing things up, and then messing them up even worse. Approach these failures with a positive attitude, though. Each mistake is like a small lesson. You pay for that lesson like you pay for a college course. The opportunity to learn is there, don't pass up the chance to learn something from the mistake. Stand behind your work, and if you do something wrong, spend the money from your own pocket to make it right. Do it all with a smile on your face, and never make your customer worry about trusting you with their cherished (and sometimes irreplaceable) cues. Admit your mistakes, and then smile genuinely as you do whatever it takes to make it right. These things will happen, so prepare yourself emotionally to deal with it. Be a fast learner, ask lots of questions, and mistakes will be much less likely to repeat themselves. Over time, mistakes become fewer. They never completely vanish. No cuebuilder in the world can claim to never make mistakes. Cuebuilding is not hard. It does not have to be expensive. You can take it to whatever level fits your budget. You can fit the hobby to whatever types of pool cue work suit your tastes. Some people like to build cues, but hate the repair and maintenance work. Some like just the opposite. There is nothing wrong with telling people "no" when they ask about getting some work done. Be friendly, be respectful, and just let people know what you are comfortable doing. Let them know it is not personal, you just lack the tooling or experience to tackle the job. Personally, I don't really enjoy putting tips, ferrules, and wraps on pool cues. It is tedious work that has little "artistic" appeal to me. Building cues is much more fun. I do the repair work as a favor to my customers. In my area, they would have an hour drive to get to the next guy who could put a tip on their cue. It might be weeks before he could get it done and then they would have to drive another hour to go pick it up. Repair and maintenance isn't much fun, but it can generate some revenue that can balance out the expenses of doing other kinds of pool cue work. There are not a whole lot of hobbies out there than can be financially self-sustaining. Lucky for us, cuebuilding can be one of them. In summary, when first getting into the hobby of cuebuilding or cue repair you should set yourself some very realistic goals: Make it a goal to become familiar with the terminology of pool cues, cue parts, tools, woods, and machine shop/wood shop lingo.Set up a monthly budget that you can comfortably use to purchase the first things you will need to begin cuebuilding. Shelving for your future wood collection. Toolboxes for your cuebuilding tools. Long term financial expenses like purchasing your first table saw and band saw. Eventually, as you have prepared your workspace and collected your woods, you will need to purchase a metal lathe.A good cuesmith is always a sharp pool player. While you certainly do not need to be the best player around, you definitely need to be intimately familiar with the game of pool. Stay active in your local pool community. Play on the local and regional tables. Meet the players. Participate in the tournaments. Make yourself as familiar as possible with every aspect of the pool in your region of the world. This may seem like something you already do, but take it to the next level and focus on being acutely observant of the pool world around you and your customers. Your credibility as a cuesmith is strongly and directly tied to your pool game. Are you an ass on the pool table? People will assume you conduct your cuebuilding affairs in the same manner. Are you polite, sportsmanlike, and professional on the table? Yep, his cuebuilding business affairs are probably like that too. Your reputation can be your biggest asset, or your biggest liability. Only you decide that.Stay up to date on current products and technology in the world of pool. Brands of tips, new technology in pool cues, new models of cues, and other trendy things. People will always reference the latest and hottest fads in the pool world, so you should be up to speed on this stuff so you know what they are trying to compare stuff with. If they use it on ESPN, you need to know about it. Even if you dispute the validity of what makes it popular, you still need to understand why it appeals to people so you can replicate those effects in the work you do. The goals listed above will give you a great start as you begin your quest to become a cuebuilder or cue repairman. In the articles titled "Part 1 - Workspace Selection and Preparing to Collect!", "Part 2 - Wood Collection and Storage", and "Part 3 - Machines, Tools, and Materials" I will explain the next steps you should take along the path to building your first cue. I strongly suggest following the steps I lay out in order. Deviating from the order I am suggesting can cause you to end up with expenses for items that you currently either cannot use at all, or are not ready to use yet.
Part 1 - Workspace Selection and Preparing to Collect! Cuebuilding is a hobby that requires space. The amount of space it requires depends completely on how far you intend to go with this hobby. Some of the greatest cuebuilders in the world work in tiny, one car garages. Some of the greatest in the world have huge, sprawling shops filled with massive amounts of tools and materials. The size of your shop, as most ladies will tell you, matters very little. There are many things you can do right now, or in the very near future, to begin preparing to build pool cues. Most people who approach me with the interest to learn cuebuilding have questions about lathes, tools, and other stuff. Those things are definitely important, eventually, but when you first begin your quest to build cues there are several things you will need to do before you even consider buying a lathe. So set aside any questions you may have about lathes, woods, pool cue parts, and all that. Let's take things one step at a time because there is an order that must be followed. Cuebuilding is like cooking; you have to follow the recipe. Skip an important step and you are gonna have a bad time. The first thing on your list will be to set aside a clean, dry, and relatively quiet space where you will conduct your cuebuilding affairs. This space should meet the following criteria for now. Later on, as your experience and collection of tools and materials grows, you may find additional criteria to add to this list which will accommodate the growing and changing needs of your own shop. This list will get you by to begin with.
WORKSPACE CRITERIA: First and foremost, select a workspace that is indoors. Cuebuilding is a precision art that requires you to keep tools and materials sheltered from the elements. Sunlight and moisture (airborne and liquid, alike) can be very problematic elements to cuebuilding. Select a workspace that has a clean and dry environment. Make sure that sunlight is manageable with blinds, shades or curtains as well. Some indirect sunlight is fine. Direct, bright sunlight is bad. Access to electricity is gonna be nice. Electricity is not required to build cues, but having power tools available sure speeds up many of the processes of working with wood and shaping it into pool cues. Whittling is fun, but not THAT fun. Choose a workspace that is out of the way. Avoid selecting a workspace that is heavily traveled by other members of your household. Avoid a workspace that family pets will have any access to. Many woods, glues, and chemicals used in cuebuilding are fatally toxic to children and pets. Pick a spot that is secure from both! Running water is not very important. It is convenient if you have a shop sink, but mostly just to wash your hands now and then. Running water is rarely used for any cuebuilding processes. Water is generally a loathsome element in the world of pool cues and woodworking in general. Once you have a suitable space selected to begin your hobby, you should put some time and thought into preparing adequate storage spaces for the various things you will soon be collecting for your new hobby. Cuebuilders are collectors of many things. Tools, woods, chemicals, and other things as well. There are several forms of storage you should contemplate setting up in your new workspace as soon as possible. Your first priority should be setting up a strong shelving unit of some type which will serve as the storage area for your upcoming wood collection!
WOOD COLLECTION STORAGE AREA: Any reasonably strong shelving unit, large or small, will suffice. Common metal garage shelving is fine. Old bookcases work great. Old dressers and cabinets with strong frameworks are good too. A good storage unit for your collection should have an open back if possible. Your wood collection will benefit from having good air circulation around all sides of the woods you collect, so having a wood storage area with open sides is beneficial for this reason. A storage area with only an open front will work fine for now. In the future, you can modify or upgrade your wood storage area for optimal air circulation. Wood collections can grow to become extremely heavy. Make sure the storage space you select is strong enough to not collapse as your collection grows. To begin with, you will need to store various boards, small logs, and other larger pieces and chunks of wood you collect. Later on, as your collection grows and ages, you will begin to process your wood collection by cutting and slicing it into smaller "squares" which will eventually be turned round and made into pool cue parts. So for now, set up a good space that can hold and organize any random bits of wood you get your hands on. Wood should never, ever be stored on the ground! This is especially true with concrete floors. Moisture condenses and collects at ground level. Moisture fluctuations are the biggest enemy of the cuebuilder. Make sure all of your wood storage areas are off the ground. The higher up the better. Keep all wood at least 12 inches off the ground. If you are interested in building pool cues, there is a good chance that you already have some tools of different types. You likely already have a tool box, tool cabinet, or some other type of storage for your existing tools. Here are some additional considerations for storing the tools you will eventually acquire for cuebuilding: CUEBUILDING TOOL COLLECTION STORAGE AREA: There are many specialty hand tools you will eventually purchase or make just for the purposes of building pool cues. Look into acquiring a special, separate tool box or cabinet for your specialized tools that are dedicated specifically to your cuebuilding hobby.Any standard toolbox or tool cabinet is fine. You will find having lots and lots of small drawers will be handy. Many of the special tools you make and buy are small, so small drawers and boxes are great. "Nuts and bolts" drawers are awesome for cuebuilding. You know, those metal or plastic hanging boxes with lots of little clear pull-out drawers. Whatever they are called, I like them. I have several which I use for tools, cue parts, and other stuff in the cue shop. Any kind of hanging, small-item storage is great. The more of that stuff you can hang on the wall, the less of it clutters up your work benches.You will eventually collect many different types of small tools. Think about using a clear, easy to read labeling or identification system for your tools. Plan on having separate storage spaces for various drill bits, router bits, blades, and countless kinds of hand tools. Keeping these tool types separated and organized will be very helpful, especially when you are first learning to build cues. Cuebuilding uses many different types of glues, adhesives, finishes, and other liquid chemicals. You will want to set aside a clean, dry, and SECURE place to store your future chemical collection. CUEBUILDING CHEMICAL COLLECTION STORAGE AREA: Use common sense for cuebuilding chemicals just like all other chemicals.NO FLAMES, NO SPARKS! Do not store your chemicals next to your shop furnace. Do not store them on top of your woodstove. Do not store them inside your clothes dryer. Do not store them under your child's bed. Do not store them in your refrigerator. DO NOT STORE THEM IN YOUR WIFE'S MAKEUP CABINET! You think she is mean and ugly now? Wait till she mistakes your super glue for eyedrops. You are gonna have a bad time.In all seriousness, this stuff can kill you. Keep all chemicals in clean, tightly-sealed containers. No leaks, no drips, no puddles. Clean. Dry. Separate. Ventilated. Secure. Whew! If you have made it this far, you have set aside an appropriate workspace for cuebuilding. You have also planned out appropriate storage areas for your collection of collections! Tools, woods, chemicals.... they are all fun to collect! I cannot stress this enough. As I stated before, do not worry about the size of your workspace or the sophistication of your storage areas. Start small, expand as your collections grow. Keep things simple and organized at first. Chaos will happen as you collect more and more stuff. Make it a priority to periodically evaluate your storage needs and address them accordingly. Don't worry about it too much to begin with, though. Come up with a system that works for you. It doesn't matter if it is different than somebody else's system. If it meets your needs and makes sense to you, then it is a good system. Congratulations, you have completed Part 1 in your quest to become a cuebuilder! Step back, take a deep breath, and prepare to tackle Part 2!
Part 2 - Wood Collection and Storage
This article will summarize the second phase you will enter on the path to becoming a cuebuilder. In "Part 1 - Workspace Selection and Preparing to Collect!", we discussed the first steps you took to select and prepare a workspace and storage spaces for your tools, woods, and other supplies. In this second part of my guide to beginning cuebuilding, we will discuss the next step in your preparation to build your first pool cue, which is collecting wood!
At this point you have your workspace selected and set up with your toolboxes and storage areas (empty for now!) for the materials and supplies needed to build your first pool cue.
One of the most surprising challenges a new cuebuilder faces is the difficulty of finding high-quality, suitable woods for building pool cues with. As you become more familiar with the hundreds of species of woods out there, you will soon learn that there are many woods that are used in making pool cues. There are literally hundreds of species of woods that are commonly used to make pool cues, inlays, and the other parts and pieces of cues that may or may not be visible to the eye. Surprisingly, there are almost as many kinds of wood that are NOT used very much in pool cue work.
There are some good reasons for why some woods are good for cues and others are not. I will lay out a few basic guidelines that many cuebuilders use to determine if a wood is "good" for use in a pool cue. These guidelines are very open for debate, especially with respect to any particular species of wood in particular. Different builders have different tastes and experiences with certain woods. My advice: trust your own judgement and experiences. Try stuff, see how it works out, make your own opinions about what certain woods are good for!
Most common pool cue woods are generally considered a "hardwood" by classification. From http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hardwood: 1. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Forestry) the wood of any of numerous broad-leaved dicotyledonous trees, such as oak, beech, ash, etc., as distinguished from the wood of a conifer. 2. The wood of an angiosperm tree. Hardwoods are in general harder than softwood. However, some hardwoods, such as basswood, are comparatively soft, while some softwoods, such as yew, are comparatively hard. Characteristically, these woods produce sharp, smooth surfaces with little splintering or "tear out". Most cue woods are relatively dense, hard, and stable. They often are less prone to warpage, cracking, shrinking, and other unsavory effects (assuming they were harvested, processed, and stored appropriately prior to production of the pool cue parts).
Good woods can come from almost any region of the world. Domestic (US) woods like maple, walnut, ash, cherry, and hedge can be wonderful cue woods. Other common woods from around the world are woods such as cocobolo, ebony, purpleheart, rosewoods, can work equally well. Certain woods are virtually unheard of in cuebuilding due to their poor machining qualities, weaknesses, or other negative attributes. Woods like pine, balsa wood, and virtually all of the composite wood products like MDF, Masonite, and most plywoods are rarely used in cuebuilding.
Essentially, if it has a reputation as a durable, strong, and stable wood... it is probably a good cue wood. If it is known to shrink, crack, expand, split, tear, or otherwise break easily... it is probably not gonna make you happy if you build a pool cue out of it. Don't just take my word for it. I encourage you to try these materials out for yourself and formulate your own opinions based on your own experiences! Sometimes intentionally doing something that you expect to fail is the best way to evaluate and quantify the "level of wrongness" in a result.
Beyond the type of wood you select, there are many more important factors and considerations that determine if, or when, a wood is suitable for use in building a pool cue. There are several general guidelines that usually apply to selecting good pool cue woods. These guidelines are not always the best basis for selecting woods or guaranteeing that wood you purchase will remain suitable for cuebuilding, but they provide a framework of criteria that will give you a good chance at selecting woods that will remain suitable for cuebuilding once the wood has fully rested and reached the point that it is ready to be turned into cues or cue parts. I will explain more on "resting" later.
In general, the longer the wood has been "out of the tree" the better. Assuming storage conditions have been optimal for all available woods, always select the woods that have been "out of the tree" for the longest period of time. Wood does not begin to fully "cure" or dry out until the tree has been harvested and taken out of the natural elements. All other things being equal, choose wood that has been physically stored in your immediate geographical area over wood that has been recently brought in from another area. For example, maple that was harvested, milled, and stored for several years in my area is already seasoned to the climate of my pool cue shop. Maple trucked down from way up north will have to rest much longer in my shop to become acclimatized to my area of the country. Working too quickly with wood that is not seasoned to your area will result in warpage, cracking, and many possible other bad effects.
If possible, purchase exotic woods from a reputable hardwood dealer. Importing woods is an expensive, complex process that involves having the wood inspected and tested for various diseases, parasites, and other nasty things. Avoid unscrupulous internet vendors who do not provide credentials and licensing information for your review. Some woods can kill you if you contract the nasty things that might have been spotted had they been properly tested and inspected!
Never overlook the less-obvious sources for great cue woods: auctions, estate sales, and garage sales! Believe it or not, antique furniture can often times be salvaged into amazing, aged wood blanks for cuebuilding. Furniture makers often select highly-figured, beautiful woods for their furniture. Couple that fact with the age of the piece of furniture, and you have the potential for acquiring some beautiful, seasoned woods that are excellent for cue construction.
Beware of screws, staples, nails, and other hidden surprises though!In most cases, you should avoid woods that are beginning to rot, become moldy, or show any signs of parasites or worms. Sometimes, however, natural processes of decomposition can be caught early enough that you find that the wood has taken on a distinct feature called "spalting". Spalting is the natural discoloration of wood that can occur when the wood first starts to decompose. If caught at the right time, this discoloration can add beautiful colors, streaks, spots, and other features to the wood. The important thing is to determine if the wood is still structurally intact. The spalting process can happen while the wood is still very suitable for pool cues. Given too much time in the natural elements, though, and the spalting process will eventually render the wood unusable, weak, and rotten. Avoid woods that have knots, worm holes, cracks, splits, and excessive grain runoff. These features will cause weak spots, warpage, and other possible problems after the cue is finished. Some features like "burl" can be highly prized in cue woods. These burl woods are beautiful, but often require extensive stabilization and other steps to integrate these woods into a cue design without compromising its strength and durability. Some features in wood will not make it unsuitable, necessarily, but they may add extra steps to ensure you end up with a strong, reliable result.
There are many other potentially good guidelines that could apply to picking out good woods for pool cues and other types of woodworking. I will add to this list if I can think of any important ones that I missed. This list gives you a good start, though. Next, I will discuss the appropriate way to transport, process, and store your cue woods after the purchase!
Transporting your Wood
You want to pick a day to transport your wood purchase that has no chance for rain, excessive heat or cold, or any other potentially nasty weather conditions. Wood purchased from specialty hardwood stores or mills has often been stored in climate-controlled conditions. Exposure to even small amounts of rain, excessive heat or cold, or even unusually low humidity can cause the woods to crack and become damaged. Don't expose your lumber to conditions you would not expose yourself to.
Once you get your logs or lumber back to your shop, you should set them aside to rest for as long as possible. Remember, never store any wood on the ground. Especially on concrete floors. Concrete holds and releases heat much differently than the air above it. This nearly constant temperature difference causes huge fluctuations in moisture levels near the floor of your shop. While average, seasonal air moisture levels are not going to be a huge concern for you, the crazy fluctuations of moisture near the ground level in your shop can be a huge problem. So store all of your raw lumber and logs as high up off the floor as possible.
The First Cut!
After you have allowed the raw lumber or logs to rest in your shop for a few months or so, they will be rested and ready to be processed into the various "squares" that will eventually be turned into round blanks for pool cue parts. Using a table saw or a band saw, you can slice the logs into raw lumber. If starting from raw lumber, saw the boards into some appropriately sized squares. Commonly, most cue builders aim for a square size that is dimensionally pretty close to the final size of the part they are going to eventually make. I build my cue butts to be 1.25" diameter down by the rubber bumper, so I cut butt squares that are about 1.5" thick. This gives me .25" of extra wood that will be turned from the blank to size it down to the size I need. A little extra is good, too much extra size just leads to more waste.
Once you have processed your logs or lumber into squares, I recommend sealing the ends of each square with a waterproof sealant of some sorts. Many builders use a product called Anchorseal, which makes a waxy coating on the end grain to prevent the wood from drying too quickly at the ends (which causes cracking). If you cannot afford a premium product like Anchorseal, you can grab a 99 cent can of clear spray paint and that works great as well. The goal is simply to seal the end grain so the square can slowly release any excess moisture through the side grain on the side of the square. Slowing this process down as much as possible allows the wood to dry more evenly throughout its length, thereby reducing unsavory changes and damages.
After allowing your sealing process to dry completely, usually a day or so, go back and write the date on the end of each square with a permanent marker so that you know the exact date you processed the square. Later on, you will be able to pick up a square and read the date and know precisely how long the wood has been resting in your shop, thereby allowing you to decide if it is ready to be used yet.
Finally, after all of your raw lumber has been processed into squares, each end sealed, and the squares have been clearly labeled with the date, you will need to place the squares into your wood storage area that you set up during Part 1 of my cuebuilding guide. This last step is important, so I will go into more detail about the proper way to arrange your wood squares within your storage area.
Arranging and Storing Your Wood Squares
This important step is often overlooked by novice cuebuilders, but it is very important that you take the extra time to follow this process without exception.
The key to creating the ideal environment for cue woods to "age" or to become "seasoned" in is to make sure you have adequate air circulation on all sides of your wood squares. By "adequate", I mean "open" airflow. Using shelving with an open back is preferred. In order to allow wood to slowly reach its optimal rested state, air needs to be able to flow equally on all sides of your wood while it rests. This includes the bottom of the squares, too. When processing your raw lumber, it is likely that you had some thin scraps or ends that were leftover after sawing the lumber into squares. These small pieces are well suited to be used as spacers between the squares as you stack them within your wood storage area. Do not stack more than four layers high, excessive weight can distort the natural shape of the squares over time.
When stacking squares for long-term storage and resting, make sure they do not touch each other. Leave a quarter inch of airspace between each blank, and stack each layer (including the bottom layer) on spacers that allow air to circulate evenly under the squares as well as on all sides. Do not store your wood in direct sunlight. Keep the wood storage area as dark as possible. Do not store next to heater vents, air conditioning vents, or any drafty place in general. Remember, store your wood as high as possible above the floor as well. Optimal storage height is waist level. Pool cues are used at this level during play, so store the wood at the same altitude that will eventually be the natural altitude of the finished cue. If you live in a mountainous region, and your shop is at a different altitude than your local pool hall, I recommend arranging to store your wood collection at the level of the pool hall. Seems strange, but even small changes in air pressure and humidity have have huge effects on finished pool cues (especially the shaft of the cue).
After all of this is done, you should be able to take a big step back and view a nicely organized wood collection that is full of carefully sealed squares that are all dated and easy to identify. You can now crack open a beer and relax for a bit. By a "bit", I mean "as many years as you can make yourself wait". Now begins the period where you save up money to purchase your first cuebuilding lathe! Don't be in a rush, the longer you stretch out this process, the more rested your wood collection grows. Wood can never be too rested, assuming optimal storage conditions are maintained. The longer it takes for you to get your lathe, the better your wood collection becomes!
Next, head to Part 3 - Machines, Tools, and Materials
Part 3 - Machines, Tools, and Materials
Part 3 of my beginner's guide to cuebuilding picks up after we have discussed two previous phases of preparation that one would first undertake as they begin to head down the path to building their very first pool cue. In Part 1 - Workspace Selection and Preparing To Collect!, we discussed how to properly select and setup an appropriate workspace for cuebuilding. We also discussed the importance of setting up a strong wood storage area for your wood collection. In Part 2 - Wood Collection and Storage, we discussed the factors that come into consideration when selecting woods for purchase. We also covered the topics of transporting wood, storing wood in your shop, sawing lumber and logs into "squares", and the arranging and long-term storage of your wood squares while they rest and prepare to become cue parts.
In Part 3, we will cover the much-anticipated topics of machines, tools, and other materials you need to build and/or repair pool cues. I must stress that I advise you to fully read the first two parts before putting serious thought and concentration into the material presented in Part 3. I feel that it is very important to follow the advice presented in each separate part in the order it is presented. Glance over it all once, just to see if you are still interested in pursuing the craft, but when you actually set about following this guide, please follow the steps in order. You can save yourself some much-needed time and money by investing your hobby budget in things that you need and can use now instead of things you will need much, much later on down the road.
While it seems counterintuitive at this point, a lathe is actually one of the last tools you will need to buy on your journey to becoming a cuebuilder.
Workhorse - The Shop Saw
In Part 2, we discussed sawing your first wood purchases into smaller "squares" which will eventually be turned round on your future lathe. Obviously, the first major tool that you will need to invest your money into is a good, high quality table saw or band saw. Either can do the job quite well. Invest your money in the largest possible machine you can afford, but remember to allow enough money to purchase a professional quality blade for the machine too. Often, the nice machines come with a cheap blade just to get you by for the time being. Don't leave the tool store without picking up a premium blade or two for your new machine. Take the factory blade off and put it into storage immediately. It can serve as a back up blade in case you damage or dull your premium blade.
The table or band saw will serve as the main "workhorse" of your shop in the beginning. With that saw, you will process your wood purchases into smaller squares which will need to rest for as long as possible before they are ready to begin the transformation into pool cue parts. Do yourself a favor and spend the extra money to get the nicest machine you can afford. It can last you a lifetime if you keep it clean and well maintained.
Once you have your main shop saw purchased and setup, you will regularly add to your wood collection with new wood purchases. Periodically, as your wood purchases become well-rested in your wood storage area, you will process the lumber into squares and carefully seal the ends, date the squares, and arrange them for their much needed slumber. Use this time between wood purchases to begin to prepare your workspace for the addition of a large metal lathe. Plan your workspace so that the placement of the lathe will allow for easy electrical connection, dust collection systems, and easy access to your specialized tool cabinets for the cuebuilding tools, bits, and accessories that you will purchase. While you keep in mind the general idea for the shop layout you will eventually have, there are quite a few smaller tools that you will find handy before you get your first lathe setup.
Drills, Taps, and Other Small Bits
While much cuebuilding work is accomplished on the lathe, there are many small hand and power tools that are necessary (or just very convenient) to have for things that the lathe can't do.
The first type of tool we will discuss is one of the most important small tool investments you will make. Drill Bits!
Drilling and boring operations in cuebuilding are some of the most critical steps in several processes like installing joint pins, making tenon joints, making ferrules, and other important cue parts and pieces. One of the biggest mistakes that novice cuebuilders make is skimping on cheap drill bits. Drilling accurate, round holes is absolutely critical for building a cue that ends up being straight when screwed together. Cheap drill bits can often wander off-center, bend excessively, and generate excess heat due to a dull cutting edge and a poor debris clearing design. High quality bits are made from much stronger alloys. They have sharper edges, they bend less, and they have better debris-clearing designs. Personally, I have loved the Norseman brand of bits that are sold at my local Fastenal store. I have random bits from other makers that have held up well and performed nicely, too. Basically, avoid any kind of "tool sale" bit. Most bits from the discount tool stores are pretty much garbage for precision work like what a cuesmith needs. They might be fine for building furniture or other wood projects, but cuebuilding requires you maintain accuracies near one thousandth of an inch. Don't trust a two-dollar drill bit to achieve that level of accuracy for you. For the absolute truest of holes, you should consider investing in live tooling (such as a small router or Dremel tool) to bore holes accurately with high speed router bits. Live tooled boring and tapping is the most accurate way to make holes and cut threads, but start with the basics first and once you learn traditional drilling and thread cutting then you can move up to the more sophisticated live tooling.
Aside from drilling, another very common operation you will perform is tapping. Each cuebuilder has his own preference for joint pins and thread pitches. Everyone has an opinion about which is best, and which are less-preferred. Like I always advise with anything related to cuebuilding; Try them all out and make up your own mind. The different joint pins affect the hit or "feel" of a cue in different ways. You will eventually discover that certain types of joint pins seem to help create a specific type of "hit" you are trying to achieve with a cue project. Also, each different style of joint pin has a different weight that it adds to the cue. Often, the desired final cue weight and balance will be factors in the pin type and material you select. There are many, many different taps available for cuebuilding. There are quite a few modern, common types that see widespread use today. There are also several old, proprietary specialized taps that are no longer used for production cuebuilding. The only reason to even have one is for repair or maintenance work on an old cue that used that type of joint pin.
I order most of my cue taps from a company called Atlas Billiard Supply (www.cuestik.com). They keep almost every tap I need in stock, and shipping takes two days.
I recommend picking a few of the commonly used taps to begin with, and add to your tap collection as needed down the road.
Taps to Buy
5/16" x 18 TPI By far, the most common thread size on factory production cues is the 5/16" x 18 pin used in cues like Meucci, Players, Lucasi, and scores of other factory cues. Ironically, despite the popularity of this joint pin, I dislike this pin because it requires a matching brass insert to be installed in the shaft. The thread pitch is so fine that if you directly thread this into wood, the wooden threads inside the shaft will strip out and become loose very quickly. This is what I call a "hardware store" joint pin, because some of the earliest two-piece cues were assembled using common bolts available in regular ol' hardware stores. The first cuebuilders did not have the luxury of being able to order all of the specialized pool cue joint pins like we use today. While I do not personally recommend using this joint pin for building custom cues, it is a necessary tap to keep around for maintenance and repair work that will find its way into your shop from time to time. Try it out for yourself, make up your own mind if you like the results. There is a less-common pin that looks nearly identical to this. It features the same 5/16" diameter pin, but the thread pitch is 14 instead of 18. Difficult, but not impossible to discern with the untrained eye. Always carefully check the diameter and TPI of a pin or joint insert before doing machine work!
3/8" x 10 TPI I call this pin the "McDermott-style" pin because I see it in those cues more than any other factory cue out there. This is my "bread and butter" joint pin for my basic, entry-level cue projects. These pins run about two dollars each, and they are considerably stronger than the wimpy 5/16" x 18 pins. It is used by several manufacturers and many custom cue builders too. There are several variants of the TPI on this pin as well, although most are fairly uncommon. There is an 11 TPI, 11.5 TPI and a 14 TPI version too. I wouldn't worry about those unless you come across a maintenance job that requires one. Don't buy it unless you need it!
Uniloc Radial This is one of the nicest, but most expensive joint pin systems on the market. The Radial pin is my preferred "high end" pin for use in my own personal cues which I use. They are about 6 to 10 times the cost of the 3/8" x 10 pin which I use for my entry-level cues. These pins are available in brass, aluminum, stainless, and even titanium and G-10 glass epoxy. Lots of options for tuning the weight and balance of a cue, but the price tag will make you sad. The pins are extremely strong, and feature a round "concave" thread instead of the regular "v-cut" threads on other pins. This thread shape allows you to tap directly into shaft wood without the need for an insert. It makes the strongest wood thread setup on the market.
Uniloc Quick Release This pin system gained a lot of popularity due to the speed with which you can assemble or take apart a cue joint. Unfortunately, I see many problems with this pin system and therefore cannot recommend it as something to use in building custom cues. This pin system uses a brass insert that is poorly designed and prone to coming loose and falling out of the shaft or break handle.
7/16" x 14 TPI This larger tap is commonly used to tap the large, threaded hole for shaft inserts to accomodate joint pins like the 5/16" x 18 Meucci style pin. If you plan on making a lot of replacement shafts for the factory cues, this tap is a must-have for installing inserts for those joint pins.
Tenon Taps Occasionally you will find the need to install a new wooden tenon in various locations within a cue. I use a 5/8" x 11 tap for tenons near the joint of a cue. I use a 3/4" x 10 tap for the larger tenons near the bottom of the cue butt.
Metric Taps There is nothing wrong at all with going metric. It is a better system, it makes more sense, and everybody else uses it outside of the USA. I personally use the traditional standard US stuff, simply because 99% of cues I get my hands on use those sizes.
That sums up a nice, short list of handy tap sizes to consider buying for when you get your lathe and can begin to assemble cue parts together. Now lets look at some nice power hand tools that you will want to pick up for various cuebuilding processes.
Power Hand Tools
Cordless Drill - Probably the most frequently-used power hand tool in my shop is the basic cordless electric drill. I use that thing countless times each day for various tasks. Pick up a good name brand drill and a handful of quality hex, star, and regular screwdriver bits for the drill. It makes quick work of removing rubber bumpers, weight bolts, and other stuff like that. I also use my cordless drill to drill small centering holes for when I chuck up squares in my lathe to be turned round. A cordless drill is a very nice convenience for many tasks around the cue shop.
Belt Sander - Another indispensable tool in my shop is the good ol' belt sander. I have an old Craftsman 4" x 36" belt sander that has been my trusty friend for almost 20 years now. I keep a couple rough belts and some fine belts hanging on the wall next to it for all of my different sanding needs.
Router Attachment - Eventually you will pick up your main cuebuilding lathe, which will be a metal lathe that has a power carriage feature that allows the cutting tools to be driven under power to automatically perform cutting operations on pool cue parts. Aside from the main shop saw which does all of your lumber processing and cutting, one of the most-worked tools you will have is the router attachment you affix to your metal lathe. Essentially, any decent router will work for this purpose. I prefer the smaller style "laminate trimmer" models offered by Ryobi or Porter Cable for this purpose. The Ryobi and Porter Cable small routers are super powerful, yet small enough that they don't seem like they get in the way and obstruct your vision too much. When you go to turn a square into a round, you do not use conventional wood lathe chisels and gouges to do this. To achieve a super-round shape and clean, accurate cuts you must use high speed router bits to turn squares into rounds. I will explain how to machine wood on a metal lathe in more detail later on. For now, spend your budget on getting a good small router for future use as an attachment for your metal lathe.
Bench-top Grinder - Pick up one of these for sure, you will need it on a daily basis to sharpen various bits and tools used for cuebuilding. Most have two spinning wheels. I leave a fine grinding stone on one side, and a wire wheel brush on the other. The wire wheel is great for cleaning glue, melted plastic, and metal off your cutting bits before you sharpen them again. I also keep a cotton buffing wheel and a stick of jeweler's rouge handy for polishing work. Many problems in machinework can be attributed to dull cutting edges on bits and tools. Two seconds on the bench grinder and cutting tools are good as new again. Don't pass up getting a good grinder!
Dremel Tool - It is a Dremel tool, I doubt I need to explain all the handy things they are good for.
That sums up a short list of very handy small power tools to get for the cue shop. Other tools could easily be added to the list, but this will get you off to a good start.
Some of the final small things I can think of will be your normal screwdrivers, small picks, allen wrenches, hex drivers, and other hand tools that are necessary for basic cue maintenance and repair work.
There are some basic shop supplies that I use a lot of during the cuebuilding process.
*Kleenex - or a generic brand. Unscented, no lotion or other chemicals. Anytime you are around sawdust or chemicals, you will get a runny nose. Good for cleaning and polishing surfaces, too.
*Paper towels - I use a ton of them for many reasons.
*Razor blades - many, many uses. Get a fresh pack of them.
*Sharpie permanent markers - great for writing on wood.
*Clicker pencils - great for marking faintly on finished wood surfaces. Easy to remove marks.
*Yard stick - get a couple, they are handy for many uses.
*T-square or L-square - good for marking square lines for cutting up your lumber purchases into squares.
*Dial calipers/micrometers - The most used tool in the shop. Keep several on hand. You can't do any kind of precision work without a good measurement tool. The 6" versions with the spinning dial indicator will last forever if they are cared for. Digital micrometers are usually garbage unless you blow a ton of money for the expensive professional versions. I avoid digital with all hand tools.
*Magnetic base indicator - This is the tool of choice for setting the taper offset on your metal lathe. This tool allows you to accurately set up to taper a butt so it comes out with the exact taper you desire.
*Super glues, epoxies, wood glues - available in many flavors, each has its purpose in the shop. Do not buy in bulk. Purchase in small amounts so your supply is fresh and potent. Seriously, most glues go bad after a short period of time, so buy small lots and refill your stock as often as necessary.
*Sandpapers - I go through a truckload of sandpaper each year. The roughest I use is 80 grit for taking the splinters off freshly-machined round blanks. Finish sanding is achieved with successively finer grits starting with 500 grit up to 12000 grit polishing papers.
*Waxes, polishes, cleaners, sealers - I use Turtle Wax on my cues, other brands work fine too. 3M makes a great buffing compound which leaves a mirror shine. Atlas Billiard Supply keeps a nice selection of different cleaners and sealers you can try on your cues. Everyone has a different preference on products they like to use.
That's a pretty complete list of the miscellaneous supplies and tooling you'll need to start doing basic cuebuilding and repair work.
I'll put together a separate article on buying a lathe sometime soon hopefully. Enjoy the info and good luck in your preparations to become a cuemaker!