Handmade Snooker Cues
Well, before we get started I guess it’s best to ask the question, “What are handmade snooker cues?”
We will take a look at some of the questions being raised regarding “Handmade snooker cues” as technology improves and competition increases from overseas cue makers.
What are handmade snooker cues?
You would think this is an easy question to answer. It has been long argued by cue makers and enthusiasts as to how the introduction of machines affect whether a cue should be classified as handmade, part handmade, hand finished or machine spliced.
The use of machines, especially in the modern day has certainly made the debate very lively. These “Handmade snooker cues” debates can get somewhat heated as each person endeavors to protect either their own opinion on the matter, or the product they make and sell.
Handmade snooker cues from well known cue makers can fetch into the four figures as players and collectors fight for available stocks. Even the slightest mention of a cue at this level not being a completely handmade snooker cue can create a lot of bad feeling. What seems most annoying to purchasers of “Handmade snooker cues” is the potential decrease in value once a query has been publicly raised. On one hand, cue makers can obviously get passionate about protecting their brand and how they craft a handmade snooker cue. On the other hand, enthusiasts regularly spend serious amounts of money on cues for their collection. The collectors obviously and want them to retain value so want the build process to be in line with industry expectations. On top of this, we obviously also have the players who want to buy a completely handmade cue crafted by the best cue makers hands.
Questions have been raised as to some well known cue makers short cutting recognised methods. Machinery and pre-prepared shafts (cue blanks) seem to have caused most of the frustration and in some cases, anger.
What are the questions fueling emotions?
Let’s take a look at a few of the more common areas.
Before tapering, a board (ash, maple, pear wood, hickory etc.) is normally cut length ways into squares (e.g. 2″ by 60″). Once cut from the original board, the squares are left to settle for a period of time. After this, the process of tapering the handmade snooker cue starts. The square is partially tapered and then left for a further period of time to release any movement stresses out of the wood. The square then undergoes further tapering, shaping and settling until an over sized ‘dry’ shaft is ready for the final stages. In days gone by, this process of removing wood at each stage by using a hand plane is arduous and time consuming. Although time consuming, this method has normally been accepted as part of the process by a cue making craftsman in days gone by.
A cue shaft is mostly tapered using an electric plane rather than a hand plane
Between the stages of tapering from the square, some cue makers use an electric plane rather than a hand plane to remove the bulk of the wood.
This is a pretty quick process and the electric plane can remove wood at greater speeds. Many shafts can be completed very quickly using this process. The shaft will be over sized at this stage so accuracy doesn’t need to be that intricate.
A cue shaft that is tapered using a lathe rather than a hand plane
Between the stages of tapering from the square, some cue makers use a lathe rather than a hand plane to remove the bulk of the wood.
Again, this speeds up the process of cue making taking a lot of the heavy work away from hand planing the square. In some instances, a copy lathe can be used by cue makers to replicate a finished shaft almost automating the production. There are some lathes out there where a square can be placed in the lathe and then after a few runs of the lathe blade up and down, an almost completed shaft can be removed. With the right machinery, hundreds of these cue shafts can be completed in a single day!
A cue shaft that is tapered using a jig and a router / circular saw
Between the stages of tapering from the square, some cue makers use a pre-made jig and router / circular saw. This will remove the bulk of the wood rather than a hand plane.
These methods are fairly recent in the making of “Handmade snooker cues” and really cut short the process of tapering. Both methods may seem a little unusual but as long as the jig is well designed (and most seem to be), the product cuts are very accurate. Runners are usually set to the required tapering angle and the runners support the router or circular saw. As the blade/s are moved up the square, the cue square is turned so the blade removes the wood until the desired shape is achieved. The square can be turned by a motor or by hand. This method (or close to it) is commonplace in the process used by many Asian cue makers.
A cue shaft that is tapered using a band saw
Between the stages of tapering from the square, some cue makers use a band saw rather than a hand plane to remove the bulk of the wood.
I haven’t seen too much of this method but you can see that a skilled machinist could probably remove most of the wood from the square reasonably easily. Templates (jigs) could easily be attached to a band saw arrangement. Personally, I can certainly think of easier and more safer ways to remove the bulk of the wood! Now obviously, thinking aloud, The square could be tapered using a band saw and then run on a planer / thicknesser to provide a nice finish prior to rounding the cue.
What’s the overall issue with tapering choices?
When making “Handmade snooker cues,” the process of removing vast quantities of wood from each square with a hand plane is costly as regards labour time. Trying to compete with another cue maker using some of the more modern methods (machined) we have discussed is almost impossible unless you charge for it.
For me, splicing is where a cue maker gets a chance to show off their true cue making skills.
One well known cue maker said to me once that it’s pretty easy to get the top splice fingers accurate all round the cue. But, to get the base of those fingers constant at the same time using hand tools is what you pay for. According to him, this is the sign of a skilled and experienced cue maker worth his while. This is also why you have to pay ‘top dollar’ for those skills.
Do I agree with this statement? Yes, for me I think I do and why I would pay more.
Now accepting the fact that we all have an opinion, this would be mine when you are charging four figure sums.
Again, splices can be achieved from your finished taper using a band saw, router and a circular saw utilising jigs. Once this part of the process is completed, a hand plane can then remove that final cut to make it sharp and crisp. Sometimes one pass of a hand plane after this is all that is required so potentially the whole part of this process could be virtually machined.
I have seen many types of jigs used for this process that are very ingenious. Once an accurate cue jig has been made, the process of making “Handmade snooker cues” can then become almost assembly line production with the right planning.
Three quarter handmade snooker cues
I find three quarter “Handmade snooker cues” the most open to the method of construction debate, let’s take a look.
The cue maker potentially turns a solid piece of ebony on a lathe to 16″ and adds a top and bottom joint using the same lathe.
A 42″ top section is first cut using a band saw (or bench saw) from the plank, hard tapered using an electric plane (or band saw), tidied up on a planer / thicknesser and finished on the lathe for sanding.
The top fingers of the splice are cut from the shaft using a pre-made tapering jig (or band saw) and electric planed until the surface is prepared using a bench sander.
The top joint is fitted using a lathe and then the ferrule is also fitted using a lathe or tenoning machine.
The badge is fitted using a pillar drill and then the badge and butt is leveled using a bench sander.
The cue is given one final sanding in the lathe and then oil is applied whilst also in the lathe to provide a nice even finish.
Polishing on the lathe? I don’t see why not, it would take the energy out of it!
The tip is then fitted and shaped on the bench sander, by hand, or in a wooden jig (video’s on the internet)..
It also has to be noted that at some stage of this process, an additional weight may have been added depending on the cue specification required. Either one weight or multiple being fitted after drilling the top and bottom sections of the butt. Higher depths may be achieved by using a gun drill in the lathe.
Does it matter how the cue is made?
This always raises some emotional questions between the parties :
- Is this a handmade cue?
- Will the cue play any worse than a totally handmade snooker cue?
- Does it really matter how it is made?
- Should this be classified as a handcrafted, handmade or machine made cue?
The answers I have heard are very mixed. Collectors may feel their collection may have been devalued as they discover various cue making methods. Players who feel they paid a lot of money for a cue from a renowned cue maker can also be disappointed. If either feel the whole of the cue making process wasn’t actually ‘handmade’ in it’s application then this can lead to dissatisfaction of the product they bought.
Surprisingly, it also has to be noted that many players who have been involved in the debate (and own a cue that has been discussed) really don’t care. They feel that it won’t affect the playing ability of the cue so what is the problem? The problem from the other side of the fence is that a lot of these cues are sold at a premium price.
To try and keep balance to the debate I’ll re-emphasize this point.
Using machines does in no way reduce whether the cue will be a good player. This alone raises many other points as to what makes a cue a good player but using a machine to make a cue shouldn’t affect these in any way. The debate seems to focus mainly on the lack of time to make a cue using machines and then charging as if made using traditional, slower methods.
I guess a cue maker adopting this method of sales would focus on the quality of the cue rather than the time spent, this would seem like a more sensible argument.
Cues made in other countries
Do other countries get as passionate about this subject? In general, not so much I think but top cue makers cues are just as sought out if not more.
It is common place in many countries like Thailand to use all sorts of jig arrangements. Their ingenuity has fueled many a cue makers thinking in the UK to reduce wasted labour time. When you look at the accuracy of the splice work of the more credible jigs, it’s hard to argue against the quality of the product turned out. Sanding rollers certainly support accurate tapering so this can make it hard for a fully handmade snooker cue maker to compete against the cues by cost alone.
It also has to be said that cue making process followed by some overseas makers adopts the use of shorter shafts that do not run the length of the entire cue.
What do we mean by this?
In a one piece cue, let’s say Ash, the taper probably starts out at around a 60″” square and is tapered until ready for splicing. Once the tapered dowel is complete, Ash is removed from the butt end of the square down to around 10 mm (or so). Various splices are added but the Ash still runs through the whole length of the cue from tip to butt. Lots of overseas cue makers finish the ash further up the butt so there is less ash and more butt/splice wood. The cue can then be a little heavier using this method if the butt wood is heavier than the Ash being used.
In the USA, cue makers use a lathe and also CNC type machinery is commonplace. It has to be said that the art of cue making in the USA is somewhat different to the average snooker cue produced in the UK; this is of course an understatement. Looking at cue makers in the USA, they have embraced modern day machinery and developed all sorts of highly complex design and decorative methods to set their cues apart from other cue makers.
As a group, they hold periodic get-togethers and discuss ideas and passions whereas in the UK, cue making and processes are more guarded.
The fear factor
It is difficult to say whether people in the UK are more critical of cue makers and the cue making process. I have played snooker on and off now for nearly 40 years and until I took an interest in cue making I was unaware of any issues. The sheer mention of a cue not being handmade in its truest sense seems to have sent ripples through the UK cue making industry. Debates have gotten more and more heated and opinions on both sides do not meet at all and I guess they never will.
As discussed, lots of people really don’t see the issue as long as the cue is a player while others are incensed.
Why do others feel upset on occasion?
Some feel they have paid an awful lot of money for what they thought was a handmade cue and in their opinion it was actually machine made.
Not surprisingly, the cue making processes in the UK are pretty much a guarded secret with the various methods being protected by people within the trade. Try and find a snooker cue making book and you will be very disappointed. In the USA you can even sign up to watch videos of every part of the cue making process if you wish.
The art of cue making in this country has been painfully learned (self taught) by most of the current cue makers. Some have been lucky enough to have methods passed on to them mainly by the larger cue manufacturers.
Information seems like ‘gold dust’ to obtain and so do the process steps to making “Handmade snooker cues.”
Protectionism around short cut cue making processes or total labour costs verses cue selling prices clearly create much emotion. When you consider there are livelihoods at stake you can see why debates are more than passionate with an element of fear around acceptable marketing.
So, lastly, this brings me onto cue blanks.
What is a cue blank?
At the moment, a cue blank is considered to be a pre-turned cue shaft. It is normally made on one of the many types of lathe (or nowadays even a jig/router as I have seen).
Why has the topic of cue blanks been so heated as regards manufacturing handmade snooker cues?
Cue blanks, and the potential use of them has probably caused most of the heated debates within the UK.
Let’s take a brief look at who might use them and why they may add fuel to the debate.
A cue blank is beneficial to a hobbyist as they can get on with the art of splicing without all the pain of trying to taper a cue. Some cue blanks can (when available) be obtained at very reasonable prices from time to time and certainly simplify the process of producing “Handmade snooker cues.”
The Professional Cue Maker
A professional cue maker (and I am by no means suggesting anyone) has the opportunity to take advantage of utilising cue blanks made by and delivered to them by third parties. This would enable the cue maker to make huge labour savings.
Because they haven’t been involved in making the shafts and significant wood wastage. The other benefits are that they can ensure that they only accept quality shafts to their specification e.g. stiffness, arrows (chevrons) and pattern.
Within the normal cue making process, a cue maker can spend a lot of time producing shafts only to find they:
- Warp or twist too much as stresses and strains are released on tapering
- Have knots in the shaft not seen at first glance
- Have grain patterns that aren’t straight or tight enough
- Are too whippy or just don’t feel right
You will often read or hear that a cue maker may only achieve maybe three decent shafts out of ten squares. This tells us that potentially 70% of their efforts and materials could potentially have been wasted.
Where would these costs be transferred to?
Well clearly, and rightly, these costs will have to be transferred to the cues that are sold. Why wouldn’t they be? Cue making is a business, that’s why!
Where people have been upset is that they may have purchased an expensive handmade snooker cue from a well renowned cue maker and someone has inferred that their cue may have been made from a cue blank. A cue blank that could have been purchased by the cue maker without out any manufacturing effort. A cue blank that is without wastage or the use of a hand plane but still sold as if made with their own hands.
This is where the inference has become heated.
Why not buy a load of cues blanks, splice some wood to them and sell them at premium prices as if they have been honed over a number of months?
The prices would then reflect that an in-depth handmade snooker cues manufacturing process has taken place.
The sales description may also reflect a product that has been through this process.
The inference, for various reasons may also dictate that not all products sold at these prices, with these descriptions, were in fact manufactured either by the cue makers hand or by using handmade efforts.
Is this right or accurate? You will have to make your own minds up.
What are my thoughts?
For me, I guess that I would always like to think I am purchasing what is says on the packet.
We could carry on and argue what constitutes the terms, “Handmade Snooker Cues.”
If a cue maker is open enough to describe the steps in their cue making process i.e. “This is how I make my handmade snooker cues” then great. This is them making a statement as to how they say they make their cues.
I see lots of videos showing some of the steps taken to make “Handmade snooker cues” but this doesn’t generally mean that the person is saying that’s how they actually make them. Unless they state it on the video they are just showing a potential manufacturing step.
I accept that making handmade snooker cues requires a lot of experience to know whether a good playing cue has been produced.
Certainly, I accept that using various types of machinery in the process does not stop that cue from being a good playing cue.
I accept that using cue blanks produced be a third party will certainly save the cue maker valuable time and effort.
As long as the person selling the cues have described their cues with as much accurate information as they can then what is the issue?
If a cue maker describes a product as one thing and then totally sells it at an inflated price then I guess that’s where the tension starts.
When I took the game back up again after a lay-off I purchased a new snooker cue described as a “handmade snooker cue.”
I wanted a cue made by a craftsman using a plane and methods passed down though the ages. I wanted a handmade snooker cue made by someone who had a world renowned reputation.
Did I get all those things?
World renowned reputation? Yes
Use of a hand plane? Uncertain……….why?
Having seen a cue jig lying by the side of lots of tapered top sections this was a bit of a clue for me. Seeing the cue butts piled by the side of many lathes was another.
Did this affect the cue playing well? Not at all…………any poor shots were certainly down to me, the cue felt fine!
Was the cue well made? On the best part I would say yes. Apart from the fact that I can drop virtually the full length of a pencil in the base of the butt joint (which was a surprise).
Again, did it affect the snooker cue from shot making? No.
My only criticism was that I had paid for what I thought was a handmade snooker cue and the clues suggested it was not.
Well I guess they will be varied and from experience, some certainly more passionate than others and the debate will certainly roll on.
For the cue makers that are very open about the process by which they make cues then hat’s off to them.
For the cue makers that keep their process well guarded (as they feel they have learned their trade through blood and sweat and don’t want to share it), hat’s off to them too. Why should they, it’s their right.
For the cue makers who say they make their product one way but sell it as if it were made a different, more time consuming and costly way………..
I think we probably all think the same on that one, don’t you agree?