Want to Make Your Own Cues?
The following article appeared in the April, 1995 edition of Pool and Billiard Magazine and is reprinted by permission of both Pool and Billiard Magazine and Thomas C. Shaw. Pool and Billiard Magazine is one of the industry standards for Billiard publications. They can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the Web at http://www.poolmag.com/
SO YOU WANT TO MAKE CUES
By Thomas C. Shaw
The American Cuemaker's Association was formed to "advance the art of cuemaking as a unique American art form, establish and maintain high standards, educate the public, promote collecting, and cooperate with other organizations engaged in billiard promotions whose objectives are compatible with the ACA." Cuemaker Jim Buss says the relatively young organization is seeing a record number of inquiries from would-be cuemakers.
"Almost every one of them is surprised at what it takes to become a cuemaker," he said. "One of the first things I tell them is: If you want to make cues because you love doing it, fine. But if it's for the money, you should know that only a handful of individual cuemakers are making a reasonable living at it. And they're all working 70-80 hours a week."
Cue making -- much like playing pool -- is one of those things that looks much easier than it is.
Buss, who was born in Iowa, educated as an electrical engineer at Iowa State, spent 27 1/2 years working in the space industry. He didn't see his first pool table until getting to college. "My home town was small, the only pool tables were in bars, and I was too young to go in those. My first day at Iowa State, I walked by the student center, and heard the break of a 9-ball rack, and I was hooked."
He'd done woodworking in high school, and a visit to Bert Schrager's shop in the early 70's, to get a ferrule repaired, inspired him to think about cuemaking. By the early 80s, he had a plan.
"Nine years before retirement, I decided to start trying to build cues. I wanted to be able to make a cue a pro would play with by the time I retired."
Having been through the process and having heard the background stories of many of the ACA's members, Buss has formed an idea of the best method to follow for potential cue makers.
"Start with minor repair work," he suggests. "Do tips and ferrules and shaft cleaning with a small lathe or Willard's tool. As you get a reputation for good work, people will start bringing more difficult problems to you. Anytime you come across a broken cue -- especially a two-piece cue someone has broken in anger -- take it home and carefully dissect it. See how the cuemaker put it together, and try to figure out why certain things were done. Learn wood and how it machines. Finally be a good player, because that qualifies you to understand what a good player wants in a cue."
The process can take a couple years for most folks, and longer for many. Another step that's often difficult to achieve is finding employment in a cue shop, though this may cause some resentment when you leave to open a competing shop.
"I also tell people what its like to be a cuemaker," Buss says. "You have to be an expert marketer -- and an efficient one. I was gone from my shop for a total of eight weeks last year, seeing buyers and going to various shows. That's two months of the year when I couldn't work on cues. And you don't have time to play pool anymore. Most people who want to make cues love the sport, and are really disappointed when they find out they won't have time to play. Be prepared to work 70-80 hours a week. I don't have any statistics, but I would estimate that only one out of fifty people who start making cues sticks with it."
"There are other surprises awaiting would-be cuemakers. The cost of special tooling," Buss suggests, "is usually a surprise. The chuck on my lathe costs $1,000, and I know cuemakers who spend more than the cost of the engine lathe for an accurate chuck. There are substantial health hazards with the materials. Regrinding tools can produce carcinogenic carbide dust. Some woods are toxic, such as cocobolo dust. The biggest danger is in the carcinogenic nature of the many finishes. Elaborate breathing equipment has to be used, and you can absorb some toxic liquids through you skin."
Crosslinked finishes, such as CAB, catalyzed lacquers, and conversion varnish are all very dangerous. Polyester is among the worst. Even the common urethane lacquer and nitrocellulose lacquers are dangerous.
And if the fumes don't kill you, the flames might. Many finishes are highly flammable. Shellac, with an alcohol solvent base, is a common fire hazard, as are most finishes without a water base. Moisture cured polyurethane is both flammable and very hazardous. Most of the auto finishing products used by cuemakers are hazardous, or very hazardous in gaseous or liquid states. Even something as simply as an oily rag can ignite spontaneously, without any spark or flame needed to set it off.
"Insurance can be a problem," Buss said. "If you work at home and the shop burns down, the homeowner's policy won't cover it. If you insure as a business, you have to include the entire house, and the costs are very high. Some zoning restricts the amount of spraying you can do -- so many gallons per year, for example."
Then there's the danger of learning sophisticated milling machines and big engine lathes. I know many cuemakers with only nine fingers, or with chunks out of fingers or forearms. The bigger equipment isn't easy to learn if you're not trained as a machinist.
Finding good, reliable, reasonably priced sources of wood isn't easy anymore. There are some exotic woods that can cost $1,000 for a piece that's about the size of a fireplace log. You have to learn wood and the techniques of stress relief. There's a lot to it.
In some cases, people start out building cues without enough knowledge, and the problems don't show up until the first cue has been out there for six months or a year. Then it breaks because the wrong glue was used for that type of wood, or the wrong technique was used and it created a weak spot. When that happens, he knows that every cue he built like that is probably going to fail and come back to him.
The pitfalls seem almost endless, but the number of people willing to take the big step is rapidly increasing. The ACA, understaffed and under financed as it is, is trying to meet the challenge and handle its own rapid growth at the same time.
The first ACA meeting took place in January, 1992, and their first show was in February, 1993, (See Pool & Billiard Magazine, April '93). Since then, they've held cue shows in Baltimore (Oct. '93), Valley Forge, PA ('94 & '95), and Chicago ('94).
"The ACA has really become a successful organization," Buss said. "For example, in Chicago, we took almost the entire downstairs area during the WPA World 9-ball Championship, and did tremendous business. We had collectors flying in from Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Switzerland and other countries. The Allen Hopkins show in Valley Forge, PA was a great success for us. I think cuemakers have really needed an association or guild, and though it's been talked about for a long time, now it actually exists. It gives us a platform and organization to build on."