by John Barton
I have been playing pool for nearly 30 years since I was 12 years old. In that time I have owned and played with hundreds of cues in every class. From the $4 cues found at the flea market, to $3000 custom made cues I have owned them all.
I have also been in the billiard business for 20 years and have seen the quality of every major brand from the seller's perspective. I have seen pool cues advance to the point that I tell people it's hard to buy a bad cue these days. Even the low priced ones from most brands are well-made and durable. 15 years ago this was not the case and it was easy to buy a bad cue.
These days however cues live up to the advertising quite well. At least the ones sold by reputable dealers do. And this is the focus of my article. We will get in to the checklist of what makes a good pool cue later but I want to share what makes a good cue seller first so that you understand that who you buy from is as important as what you buy.
Everyone claims to have cues which use the best materials. And while this may or may not be true that doesn't mean that the company who made the cue used the best methods to create that cue. Cue making is one of the few endeavors left where the final product cannot be rushed and also be good. Every major manufacturer has tried to hack the process to shave time and produce more pool cues in less time and in most cases the results have been disastrous. The reason is very simple, wood is a celluar and complex material that loves to absorb moisture. When it does it wants to bend and twist along the grain lines and expand and contract according to how much water each cell can take.
Basically the only two ways to get wood to a fairly stable state where the moisture level is pretty constant and the wood stays straight, are to slowly cut it a little at a time and let it move and cut it again and let it move until it's not moving anymore OR to immerse the wood in harsh chemicals which fill up the cells and petrify the wood. Now petrifying is perhaps a bit over the top but the act of using wood stabilizer generally deadens the feel considerably.
After years of trying to use chemicals to get straight and stable cues the bigger cue makers have succumbed to traditional methods of slow aging the wood properly to result in very consistent cues. And they also still use some chemical stabilization but they have figured out how to balance it so that the cue retains it's feel but benefits from the treatment. The end result is a well built pool cue that plays good and stays good.
Now it's possible to buy a good cue for less than $100 and great cues for less than $500 and exotic cues made with intricate inlays for less than $1000. But how do you know which pool cues are good from the outside appearance? This is the question we are going to attempt to answer.
The short answer is that it's difficult for a novice and easier for an experienced buyer. So let's go over the obvious things first:
When you run your hand over the assembled cue is everything smooth to the touch? No edges poking out where they shouldn't be? Can you lightly move your fingernail along the entire length of the cue without it hanging up? Is the finish smooth and without visible scratches? Is there glue anywhere to be seen? Nicks or blemishes? If you see any of these things on a finished cue then that's a red flag right there.
Ferrule and tip
This is the business end of the cue. The first 12 inches of the shaft and the ferrule and tip is the part of the cue you will be most intimate with. The ferrule should be flush to the shaft and the tip should be flush to the ferrule with no glue visible. The tip should be well attached and you should not be able to pop it off with your finger. The tip should be shaped to a nice even dome. When this is done it indicates that someone took the time to present it to you properly. When a maker does a sloppy job on the tip then I don't feel confident in the rest of the work below that tip.
Joint and Pin
The joint of the cue should be flush to the wood and match when screwed together. There should be no light showing at any point between the shaft and butt facing when screwed together. The pin should be perfectly centered in the butt. If it not then it could mean that the wood was cut at an angle to force it into shape, which can then mean that it is in a state of stress instead of a state of rest. The pin should be free of glue and polished. The parts should go together easily and snugly. You should not see any wood chips or glue anywhere in this area.
The wrap should be smooth and flush to the body of the cue. If it is a string wrap, such as Irish Linen, then it should be smoothly pressed with no knots or raised areas. No loose threads. If leather then the seam should be smooth and nearly invisible. If rubber then it should be clean and not oily/tacky as some rubbers degrade faster than others and will be constantly oozing. Higher grade rubber and silicone will feel slightly cool and dry.
Buttcap and Bumper
Again should be flush at all points with no glue visible. No wood chips visible at the end.
Any rings should be flush and nicely done. No finish bubble under the finish. Metal rings are a good indicator of a cue maker's skill since the cue maker has to use just the right type of finish and technique to make the finish stick to the metal and wood at the same time. So when you inspect this area carefully you can see if the maker understands the material or not by how well the finish is done.
The assembled pool cue should roll without any wobble on a flat surface. However a cue can be straight but not perfectly round due to the hand sanding during the finishing stage. The best way to tell if a cue is straight is to sight it. Hold it in one both hands like a rifle and look down it as you turn it. You will see if it is warped at any point. Rolling the cue does not always show this properly because the surface you are using might not be perfectly flat. Pool tables are notorious for having tiny lifts in the slate which make a cue rolled in one direction appear to be warped and when the same cue is rolled in the other direction is appears straight. So learn to use your eyes to sight down the cue from the butt end to the tip.
If you roll the cue then make sure that the tip stays down with no lift. It should not lose contact at any point with the surface. Also, the joint should not leave the surface at any point. These are the two most important areas to watch. If those two areas stay in contact with the surface then the cue is straight. You might see a slight wobble in the shaft between the tip and joint but this is an indicator that the cue is not 100% round. This is ok if it's slight. If it's very noticeable then that means that the shaft was sanded improperly and has a low spot. This doesn't affect using the cue but it could be uncomfortable if it's noticeable when you stroke the cue.
For a long time people have been under the impression that only a clear maple shaft with no grain is good and everything else is bad. This all came about due to the marketing from one particular cue maker who was in the practice of bleaching their shaft wood to make it "white" and clear. In fact this practice breaks down the cellular structure of the wood and make it's more susceptible to warpage. Bleaching was simply a way to make lower grade shaft wood appear to be a higher grade.
Shaft wood is still rated on various scales from AA to D according to how tight the grain of the wood is and how many visible lines there are. This is primarily for appearance rather than performance. The important thing to remember about a shaft is that if it was properly cured then it will probably stay straight no matter what the grade of the wood is. I am in the leather business and the comparison would be a beautiful piece of A-grade top grain cowhide with no blemishes vs. a piece of C-grade with lots of bite marks. Both pieces will be the exact same for durability and strength. The only way to know if a shaft has been properly cured is to know the reputation of the maker or brand. If that brand has a reputation for pool cues that warp then you know to stay away. If the maker's cues stay straight most of the time then you're probably ok. And if there is a guarantee against warpage then so much the better.
Now, these are the main things I look for when I pick up a pool cue. Then I feel it's balance and swing it a little to see if the weight distribution feels smooth. Sometimes a cue can be weighted in strange ways so that one 19oz cue will be uncomfortable to swing and feel bulky while another 19oz cue might feel effortless and as if it's an extension of your arm. The best way to think of this would be to consider a hammer. Which is easier to drive a nail with, a normal hammer you know with a long handle and most of the weight at the head or a hammer with half the weight at the back. Both hammers have the same weight but the conventional one is much easier to handle.
Then, after all that, I hit some balls and try to get a good sense of how the cue feels. "Hit" is the most elusive characteristic of a cue because it means different things to different classes of players. Take a professional player who can put the cue tip consistently on any point on the cue ball, that player feels every tiny difference between cues on one level but then can't tell if one cue has a stainless steel joint or a phenolic one. Famously a study was done at a tournament with something like 50 cues and a lot of top players where the cues were taped up so that the players could not identify the maker or the construction. The cues were numbered and the players were asked to list which ones they liked best. The ones that the players liked best were not constructed as the players thought that they would be when revealed. This means that the way a cue truly feels doesn't have as much to do with particular components as much as the overall construction. And the only way to know if a cue is right for you is for you to play with it.
This brings us to buying a pool cue without being able to play it before hand. These days there are thousands of pool cues available to the buyer through the internet. You can order cues from a dozen online stores and hundreds of custom cue makers. So without being able to see and touch it what should you be considering? The first thing you should consider is the reputation of the dealer. How long have they been in business, what is their return policy, what sort of guarantees do the cues carry?
Next how well do they present the cues? Are the photos clear and large so that you can see the detail? Keep in mind that they cue shown is almost certainly not the cue you will get unless it's a small custom maker. But people who take the time and care to show you the cue in high resolution detail have nothing to hide and are trying to allow you to see the cue's quality as best they can through the internet. People who use small and low resolution images should be avoided. On the internet the whole premise is that the customer can get tons of information and if the seller is not willing to take the time to provide that with clear descriptions and large images then it's best to find another seller.
As I said previously it's difficult to buy a "bad" cue but you should definitely confine your purchasing online to retailers who stand behind their products with 100% satisfaction guarantees. This insures that when you get the cue if it's just not a good fit then you can return it and try again.
Remember that a pool cue is a precision instrument. Modern pool cues have evolved into well honed tools that are designed to allow you maximum control over the cue ball. Not every cue will feel the same to you but just about every cue sold by a reputable shop is good enough to win world championships with.
Lastly, when you get a cue there are many things you can do to tweak it further to be to your liking. This starts with changing the tip. Many people don't realize that this simple change can be the difference between a good hit and a bad one. Then you can change the ferrule, the weight, the wrap, and even the joint if you really wanted to. In other words the base cue is going to be pretty good already and like any good relationship it grows with time.
I hope that this has helped you to understand a little more about pool cues and to make an informed decision.