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Tools of the Trade: The Cue. ~ Kimberly Lecumberri

In order to play pool, you have to have a cue, or a“stick.”

If you are knocking around balls in any other way, you are simply not playing pool. Social players tend to play with cues provided by the venue, or “house sticks,” but if you are part of a league or play on a regular basis, you probably have your own cue that was made by a particular person or company.

In this article, we are going to talk about cues and their history.

The game of pool has been around for centuries. Throughout that time, the game has evolved in a variety of ways. Therefore, it stands to reason that the equipment used to play the game has evolved as well. Before the invention of the cue that we currently play with, players used a golf club like object known as a “mace” to push balls around the table and into the pockets. The mace was difficult to shoot with because if a ball was too close to the rail, it was almost impossible to get the foot of the mace between the ball and the rail to make a clean shot.

By 1670, players started using the butt of the stick to shoot with. This is how the word “cue” was invented. Cue evolved from the French term, queue, which means “tail.” When players used the tail end, or butt, of the stick to make a shot, they were using the “queue.” By 1800, the foot of the mace was removed so that players shot with a pointed stick rather than the bulky mace. These first cues were used along with the mace and stayed in use until the early 19th century. Initially, only skilled players were able to use the cue in public billiards rooms because it was believed that novice players and women would tear the fragile fabric with the pointed cue.

With the invention of the cue, tables also changed. Originally, tables were shallow and the rails were very low; their only intention was to keep the balls from rolling off the table. With the cue came more maneuverability for players and an ability to push the ball more effectively, or “stroke” it, off the rail. For this reason, rails that were originally stuffed with cotton flocking or linen became rubber.

The original intention of the cue was to try to strike the cue ball as centrally as possible to avoid a miscue.

The idea of spin was actually discovered before the invention of cue tips. Francois Mingaud is credited with inventing the leather cue tip. While being held as a political prisoner in France, he studied the game of billiards, experimenting with the leather tip and in 1807, after his release, he demonstrated his invention to others. He is also credited with being the first person to demonstrate that by raising the cue vertically, to the position adopted by the mace, he could perform what is currently known as a Massé shot.

In pre-tip days, players would often twist the end of their cue into a plaster wall or ceiling in order to “chalk” the tip of their cue to reduce chances of a miscue. The first person to market chalk was John Carr, a marker from John Bartley’s billiards room in Bath. Carr and Bartley are credited with discovering how “side” or “sidespin,” known in American terms as “English”couldbeusedtoaplayer’s advantage. This discovery led to Carr selling chalk in small boxes. He called it “twisting powder” and because of the magical quality of the name, he was able to sell it at much higher prices than would have been possible if the public had known it was nothing more than simple chalk.

Today, three different types of cues are used.

The simplest of the three is a one piece cue that can generally be found in any venue with a pool table. These are provided by the venue for public use and are known as “house sticks.” The quality of these cues is not the best because they are used by the general public and are rarely well maintained. Experienced players or competitive players or competitive players can be found using the second type of cue more often, which is a two piece cue that is connected by a joint in the middle. One of the benefits of using your own cue rather than a house cue is the quality of the tip.

You have control over the quality and hardness of your tip, which leads to more accuracy and, with the investment of money into your own cue, are more likely to maintain it properly. The two piece cue was designed to allow for easy transport in a case from location to location without damage. Snooker players use a third type of cue that is still a two piece design, but varies slightly from a regular billiards cue. The joint is located 12 or 16 inches from the butt of the stick, rather than in the center. A snooker cue also differs in that the tip is usually smaller than that of a billiards cue and therefore, the taper from the tip is smaller in diameter. In addition, a snooker cue is slightly shorter than an average billiards cue, measuring in at 55 inches in length. An extension can be used to make it longer.

A typical two-piece cue for pocket billiards is usually made mostly of hard rock maple, with a fiberglass orphenolic resin ferrule and steel joint collars and pin. Pool cues average around 58 inches long and the weight can range anywhere from 17-21 ounces with 19 ounces being the most commonly used. Shafts can be made with various tapers, but the two most commonly found are the “pro” taper and the European taper. The pro taper has the same diameter from the tip to 12-14 inches toward the joint where it begins to widen. The European taper, on the other hand, widens continually and smoothly from the ferrule toward the joint and despite its name, is most commonly found in most American house cues. Despite the term “pro” taper, not all professional players prefer a straight pro taper on their custom cues.

As for the tip of the cue, it is usually glued or screwed into the end of the stick and is still made of leather.

There are a variety of tips available for players to choose from, ranging from very hard to very soft, and the one you choose to shoot with depends a lot on personal preference and skill. The compression and tanning process during manufacturing determines the hardness of a tip. Softer tips hold chalk better, but wear faster because of chalking, hitting too hard or shaping. Harder tips maintain their shape better and last longer, but do not hold chalk as well as the softer tips, which can lead to an increased chance of a miscue. Another option available on the market is a laminated tip, which is made of leather layered together and then laminated into one piece. Laminated tips also last longer and maintain their shape better than traditional one piece soft tips, but a potential downfall of a laminated tip is that it can lose its lamination and begin to come apart.

However, this is not a common occurrence and is usually a result of the tip having been improperly installed, misuse of tip tools or repeated high impact Massé shots. Laminated tips also mushroom less than a traditional one piece tip.

The purpose of the ferrule is to absorb the impact of the shot and keep the less resilient wood of the shaft of the cue from splitting. Ferrules are predominantly made of carbon fiber, or a plastic such as melamine resin, aegis or phenolic resin which are extremely durable, high-impact materials that are resistant to cracking, chipping, and breaking. Ivory was once the most commonly used material in ferrules, but with the implementation of endangered species laws, it is no longer used to make modern ferrules. Therefore, the only cues with ivory ferrules are those that are antique customs and are usually extremely valuable, which puts them well outside of the average player’s budget. There are many custom cue makers, but a very large number of quality pool cues are manufactured in bulk by manufacturers such as McDermott, Lucasi, Players and Cuetec, just to name a few.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of technological advances in what cues are made of and some of the new materials used include carbon fiber and aluminum. However, the choice of materials used in the design and the beauty of the craftsmanship by custom cue makers can result in extremely valuable cues that can range anywhere from one hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

Designs or inlays can be made of anything from simple carvings or brands in the wood itself to precious metals and stones.

Some cues are made for decorative purposes only. This means that you would have the cue made not for play, but simply to hang on your wall, and these are generally referred to as “wall hangers.” An example of a wall hanger is a cue made by the famous cue maker, George Balabushka, who died December 5, 1975. An original Balabushka pool cue is currently on the market for $12,000.

In contrast, your local custom cue maker will have more reasonable prices, and depending on materials used, you can usually have a highly quality, excellently crafted custom cue made for just a few hundred dollars. Regardless of your personal preference, any cue you choose can last a player’s lifetime if handled with care and properly maintained. For this reason, most competitive and

professional players have a variety of cues they use for different shots.

Breaking can cause a tip to mushroom and there have even been instances of the high-impact of the break shot causing the wood to split in the shaft of the cue, so most competitive players have at least two cues; one exclusively for breaking and one for play. Another high-impact shot is a jump shot, and some of the more competitive players use a special cue for these as well. A regular cue or a break cue may be used as the player’s jump cue, but more often than not, a competitive player will have a custom made jump cue for the sole purpose of making this shot.

A jump cue is usually made of three parts.

The shaft is one solid piece that unscrews in the middle just like a regular cue, but there is an extra joint 1⁄4 from the bottom of the butt of the cue that unscrews as well. This allows the player to unscrew part of the butt and “jack up” enough to get the angle needed to make an over handed jump shot lessening the unwieldy extra weight of the butt of the cue. Occasionally, a player will use a jump stick to make a Massé shot as well. The angle needed to make a Massé shot is similar to that of the over handed jump shot, so in this regard; the jump cue is a valuable resource.

A professional player could have 20 different cues, each for a different trick shot.

In comparison, an advanced player who competes in tournaments regularly should have no need for more than 3 custom cues: a break cue, a cue for play and a jump cue. It is, however, recommended that whenever possible, at least one extra shaft for the play cue be included in your case. Most competition is found in bar settings, where on any given day a person who has imbibed too much can accidentally knock down your cue and cause the ferrule to be damaged or the wood of the shaft to crack or become dirty. A quick solution is a backup shaft that can be replaced by the regular shaft of your play cue.

Ultimately, when choosing which cue is best for you, a few factors need to be added into the equation.

Are you an advanced player or a novice? More advanced players may decide to go with a cue that is a bit more pricey, but novice players should consider their current budget and whether or not they are able to provide the proper maintenance required for a cue, which includes not only tip care, but regular shaft cleanings and refinishing as well.

The inlays of the cue in no way affect the outcome of your current shot. While most average players choose a cue based on what it looks like, the truth is, the “feel” of the cue also factors into how well you shoot with it. If it doesn’t feel right, then it will affect the focus of your game.

As a novice, you will probably occasionally bump the shaft of your cue against the lights above the bar or rub it against the pockets of the table, causing dings and black marks on the shaft. If you buy an expensive stick before you are ready, you are probably not going to be very happy with its condition at the end of the night.

One consideration before purchasing a cue is how often you play. If you only play occasionally and in social settings, a custom cue may not be the best option for you, as a regular house cue will suit your immediate needs. If, however, you play in tournaments or on a league and play every week, you may decide your best option is to go ahead and invest in a custom cue.

Buying your first custom cue is an exciting and very personal choice.

You need to decide what is ultimately best for your personal needs and act accordingly. Whenever possible, it is always best to explore your options online at various websites, and contact your local cue maker for pricing and options. When you buy from your local cue maker, you are supporting not only your local economy, but an artist as well, and that should also be a consideration when deciding which cue is best for you. When you buy from your local cue maker, there are sometimes benefits, such as a discount on cleaning and getting the shaft re-tipped, which, if you’re just starting out in league or competition will probably need to be done on a fairly regular basis until your skill improves.

A custom cue maker can also make your cue a complete one of a kind or custom to your exact specifications, whereas factory produced cues are usually mass produced and sold all over the country and/or world to various people. Discuss all of these aspects with the cue maker, and see what kind of deal he or she is willing to work with you. In conclusion, pool and the equipment used to play is ever evolving and becoming a bigger and better sport. With passion, skill, dedication and the right cue, you could be the next big thing.

Never give up, never give in, if you miss, try it again!


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