Cue Manufacturing from an Historical Prospective

 

1

I have restored antiques, of all types, for more than 40 years. My dining room table, as an example, 14 people and is English tutor from the 1700's. The top of the table is detailed parquet oak and the legs are heavily carved. I look at this table and wonder, "With the primitive tools of the time how it is possible to have produced a table with such great craftsmanship???"

I look at the antique cues, like those shown above, that are in my billiard room and I'm in complete wonder of the talents of the billiard cue craftsman 100 years ago who had far less sophisticated tools than we have today. Maybe that is why I got hooked on restoring these "works of art".

Have you ever wondered how a billiard cue was made? Take for example the second cue from the top. It is a Brunswick cue with and an "Eisenmeister" woven silk wrap that is nearly 100 years old. This wrap is woven directly onto the cue rather than wrapped with material from a bolt of fabric. What type of equipment did Brunswick-Balke-Collender have that could weave such a pattern on the grip of a cue after the cue already had its finish coats applied. What was the cost of the equipment? Did Brunswick get a return on their investment for a cue with low production volume? The second cue from the bottom of the picture above is a Brunswick-Balke-Collender "Valcanite" model cue. How was this exterior marbleized coating applied over the cue core of maple?

The cues above are in fact quite plain, mass produced cues compared to the many very sophisticated cues shown in Mark Stellinga's book on pages 235 to 237. Take a look at the marquetry cues in Mark's book that are over two hundred years old.

If you do not yet have Mark's book, take a look at Guy Huybrechts' billiard cue collection on the internet. Guy is a great example of a person's compulsion for collecting gone wild. This has to be great fun for Mr. Huybrechts. According to the Billiard Encyclopedia, since 1990 Guy has put together a collection of over 500 books on billiards, many of which are very old and rare. Guy has, since 1996, assembled a great collection of billiard cues that show the outstanding workmanship of European cue makers of the last 200 years. Click on Guy Huybrechts' marquetry collection or his richly decorated cues. These are amazing cues. It is hard to imagine the talent of the individuals and hours invested in making one of these cues 150 plus years ago.

Billiard cue manufacturing, like most everything else, has been segmented for the ages. Two hundred years ago there were the mass produced, simple tapered sticks for the commoner and the very sophisticated cue for the elite who could afford to pay. As with gun makers and furniture, in the world of billiards the cue has always been a status symbol as much as it is an instrument for superior playability.

Today's technology has brought quality, attractive billiard cue pricing down to a point where these cues are affordable to many more people. Yes, today's cues are often works-of-art but one must consider the fact that modern cues are being made on high-tech "CNC" machines and other computer controlled devices. Take a look at this YouTube video of a modern cue being made. As seen in this video modern glues and epoxies also make today's billiard cues much easier and faster to assemble. Very likely the majority of modern cues produced today come from China where there is skilled labor, low wages and modern manufacturing equipment.

From a playability stand point, the modern cue will always win out when compared to a 150 year old billiard cue. The collector of antique billiard cues puts playability aside and will purchase a beautiful antique cue that may have a slight warp, a missing ferrule or a linen wrap in need of repair just because it is rare and of fine workmanship.

Which is more impressive from a craftsmanship stand point, a modern cue or one of Guy Huybrechts' vintage marquetry cues? I for one have a greater appreciation for the craftsmanship in antique billiard cues than for contemporary finely crafted cues. This is why I feel it is so important to preserve and restore these antique/vintage cues when they are found in disrepair. Too many of the early cues that are to be considered antique master pieces have been turned into firewood only because they were missing a ferrule or the finish was badly damaged. We must save those antique billiard cues that remain for future generation to admire in an antique cue rack next to a restored antique table.

Since I have found no pictorial evidence of a 17th or 18th century cue maker shop, I can only look at these antique billiard cue master pieces and wonder: What would have a cue makers shop looked like? What wood turning tools did he use? How many cues could a master billiard cue maker turn out in a years' time in the 19th century? Who among the social elite could afford these cues? Clearly a cue such as a marquetry cue must have defined a person's status in society.

With the boom in popularity of billiards between 1850 and 1920 there was a significant demand for billiard cues in Europe as well as the United states. It is estimated that in the early 1900's there were more than 30,000 billiard/pool rooms in the U.S. With so many people playing billiards on both sides of the ocean, billiard cue production went from a cottage industry of high quality cues made by the masters to high volume mass produced cues that most everyone could afford.

Thurston is, I believe, the oldest billiard table and cue manufacturer in England. "The Billiard Encyclopedia" does quite a good job discussing the history of the company. Unfortunately there is little insight into the company's early cue manufacturing operations offered in this book or on Thurston's web site.

Peradon is a well-known English manufacturer of billiard cues that was established in 1885 at the height of the billiard craze. I purchased a set of four early Peradon cue manufacturing pictures shown below. I love these pictures. Check the very properly dressed cue manufacturing worker of the time as evidenced by the white shirts with ties and a vest or jacket. I have placed my guess as to the stage of cue production on each of the pictures in red type. Can you imagine shaping a cue with a block plane as shown in the second picture below? Modern cue makers taper shafts and butts in a series of steps, taking off as little as 1/16th inch on a pass before returning the cue to a rack for several months to wait for any further movement in the wood. During its rest period the modern cue is hung or racked vertically to avoid any warping action. Look at the pictures of the early Peradon Production below. See the cue blanks propped against the wall while awaiting processing. Is there any wonder that one finds early cues with some amount of warp? Were these cues allowed to rest between stages of production so that any minor warp could be turned out of the cue on the lathe? I, for one, find these pictures to be both fascinating and revealing of early cue making. If you have other ideas as to what is happening in these pictures, please let me know.

 

2Cue Manufacturing in England 4-001

 

3 Cure Manufacturing in Enland 2-001

 

 4 Cue Manufacturing in England 3-001

 

5 Cue Manufacturing in Endland 1-001

 

In 1914 when Billiard/pool play was at its peak, Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. without a doubt was the largest manufacturer of billiard cues in the United States and perhaps the world. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co.'s 1914 supply catalog included a six page discussion of cue manufacturing on a very large scale. I find it very insightful.

 

"Cues"(1)

 

"SAY! Did you ever stop to consider what it requires in capital, brains and experience to build up a business such as that of our company and keep it in the front ranks throughout the entire world for more than sixty years. Probably not. Well, let us show a few of the necessities of a first-class product in the billiard line. We will begin with what you might think a very simple item. i.e., the Billiard Cue.

First of all we must have maple cue shafts, straight grained, well seasoned and of medium hardness, but not too brittle and we must have them in quantities that would be beyond the capacity of the average wholesaler of lumber.

With an average output of 400,000 cues per year, we must keep a reserve stock of 600,000 pieces of maple piled in the yards under cover of atmospheric seasoning. The quantity would overtax the capacity of all the maple dealers in the open market and the supply, by reason of coming from various parts of the country, would be of different growths, some hard and some soft. Uniformity in the first essential. This has compelled us to take up the manufacture of maple lumber in large quantities.

Maple timber of the variety best suited to billiard cue shafts is scarce and is growing more so every year. To insure ourselves an ample supply for the future, we were compelled to buy a 15,000-acre tract of hardwood timber in the Lake Superior district.

Then followed the purchase of a Saw Mill and Lumber Camp, consisting of a little City of 40 Dwelling Houses, General Store, Boarding Houses for the Single Men and a hotel for the Superintendents and Traveling Public; Repair Shop, a Standard Locomotive, Freight Cars for logging, some fifteen to twenty miles of Standard Gauge Railroad Track, Steam Lifting Derricks and innumerable incidentals, such as Horses, Oxen, Log-Trucks and Steam Launch for towing logs on the lake.

From the time the maple tree is selected and felled in the woods until it is delivered to the saw mill where it is converted into cue shaft lumber, it is constantly on the move. The first process in the mill consists of slicing the log into strips a little less than two inches thick. Later on these are ripped into squares and cut to the requisite length for the plain all maple cue or for the shaft on the cue which has a butt of imported fancy wood.

The dry-out process requires some ten months' time in the piles at the mill and during that time must have constant attention to prevent warping and checking. After they are thoroughly seasoned they are loaded on the steam barge which we operate between Big Bay and our factories at Muskegon, where, after they have been put through a kiln drying course, they are ready for the turning machines which do the rough cutting. From the machine department they go to the cue makers.

After the various stages of manufacture, through which each cue goes before the final polishing and finishing, they are turned over to the inspectors. When one of these cues reaches you it is as nearly perfect as modern ingenuity can make it. The hand work done on these cues is the most important of all, no machine having been invented which will shape and taper them perfectly. For this purpose we employ only the highest grade mechanics, who have been in our service for many years. This has made them past masters in cue work. Every cue, from the plain to the most elaborate, is shaped and tapered entirely by hand in our factories. The essential steps are perfect machine work; the fine points are reserved for the skilled hand of the trained mechanic. The cue is then ready for the player." (1)

(1) Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. Supply Catalog; 1914; page 45-51

 

As indicated, Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. was producing billiard cues on a very large scale. With annual output of 400,00 cues and only 600,000 pieces of maple being air dried, one must wonder how many cues were in work-in-progress. If the turning of cues was not done in phases with time for the cue to dry and normalize between steps is there any wonder that many of these cues may have warped later when in the hands of the player or as we find these antique cues today. This is particularly true if the cues were shipped to faraway places like the developing southwest United States where the air was much drier then Muskegon, Michigan.

We can, for the most part, only speculate as to how Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. manufactured billiard cues. We do know that these cues were all made by hand and not turned on an automatic taper lathe as cues are today. I have been fortunate to have been given two pictures taken in Brunswick's Muskegon Michigan plant. The date of the pictures is in question but I would guess early 1900's based on the clothes being worn. These pictures are the first two shown below. Notice the cues standing in bundles waiting to be worked on. Check the man in the background in the first picture. He is sighting down a cue for straightness. I am not sure what the man in the foreground is doing. In this first picture there are cues with ebony, four point and spliced shafts. In the second picture the cue maker is making the final cut for the points in the butt of the cue. Isn't it interesting to think that this hand work could produce the great old cues that we all seek today, particularly cues with ebony spliced shafts.

 

6 Cue Maker BBC Plant

 

7 Cue Maker Cutting Points

 

Below are three pictures of two blank cue shafts from the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Muskegon, Michigan plant for a time certain to be close to when the above pictures were taken. The blanks came to me because of my interest in antique billiard cue manufacturing. These blanks look like they were rejects from a cue tapering machine of some sort. Note, the teeth marks of the machine that did the tapering.

 

8 BBC cue Blank 1910

9 BBC Blank

10 BBC Blank

 

Most believe that when they find a billiard cue with an ebony spliced shaft it is a very special original cue. The price of these cues when they come up for sale on eBay is usually quite high because people think these cue are originals from the factory. Did you know a good number of the ebony spliced shafts with butterfly splices are actually repaired shafts from a previously manufactured cue? Below are a couple of interesting excerpts from Brunswick-Balke-Collender catalogs showing that the company actually sold ebony cue extensions with ivory ferrules so that a local dealer could repair a player's broken cue. These repairs may explain why some of the these cues are not straight at the tip when found today. Keeping a cue straight while making the splice would be a challenge and the cue would not be turned to any extent after the repair. Although some may think repairing an antique cue reduces its value, in fact if you have a cue with a butterfly, ebony spliced shaft it has already been repaired.

 

11 cue extension 1928 BBC

Cue Extension 1932

 

I wish I had more to offer with regard to antique cue manufacturing. If you have additional documentation and would like to share, I will add your information to this site.

PHP Warning: PHP Startup: Unable to load dynamic library 'C:\PHP\ext\php_curl.dll' - The operating system cannot run %1. in Unknown on line 0 PHP Warning: PHP Startup: Unable to load dynamic library 'C:\PHP\ext\php_mssql.dll' - The specified procedure could not be found. in Unknown on line 0 PHP Warning: PHP Startup: Unable to load dynamic library 'C:\PHP\ext\php_msql.dll' - The specified module could not be found. in Unknown on line 0 PHP Warning: PHP Startup: Unable to load dynamic library 'C:\PHP\ext\php_openssl.dll' - The operating system cannot run %1. in Unknown on line 0