A pool cue is a stick used to strike a cue ball in billiards, pool, and similar games.
There are many different brands of pool cues available. Some are mass-produced by the truckload, and others are painstakingly hand-crafted with an attention to detail that would put a violin maker to shame. In this writeup, I will list the parts of a cue and explain the different styles that are available. With this information, you should be able to understand how a cue's different features and options will affect your game.
This is a rubber piece at the butt-end of the cue that cushions the cue as it rests on the floor. The best design includes a small screw to hold the bumper in place. Bumpers on lower quality cues will use a press fit. If your bumper presses in place and you drag your cue around on carpeting, sooner or later, the bumper will pop out. A rubber bumper can be difficult to find in a dark poolroom.
Most cues have some mechanism whereby you can alter their weight. The most common design uses a metal bolt screwed into a nut that is embedded within the butt of the cue. By changing to a longer or shorter bolt, you can increase or decrease the weight of the cue. Most cue-makers will supply cues ranging from eighteen to twenty one ounces, in half-ounce intervals. This design allows a cue-maker to vary the weight of the cue easily and cheaply, but it has a couple of drawbacks. These weight bolts tend to loosen and cause an annoying rattle or buzz when you take a shot. Some people claim that a loose bolt has the potential to throw your shot off slightly as the cue's center of gravity shifts with the rattling bolt.
The best cuemakers will alter the weight of their cues naturally, without resorting to weight bolts, by using varying amounts of dense wood in their designs. The classic cue design that consists of a dark butt, joined using a complicated, multi-pointed joint to a lighter shaft is not done for asthetic reasons. It is done in that way to tune the balance of the cue. The darker wood is generally a dense mahogany, and the lighter wood is generally maple. The mahogany is chosen for its weight, and the maple for its straight grain, resistance to humidity-induced warping, and its ability to hold a satin finish. The complicated joint not only gives a large surface area for the glue, resulting in an extremely strong joint, but it gradually shifts the density of the cue from the heavy mahogany to the lighter maple. By slightly altering this joint to favor the mahogany, the cue-maker can increase the weight of his cue. Altering it to include more of the maple will decrease the overall weight.
Most two-piece cues will simulate the joint that was discussed in the section on weight with marquetry points that can be quite attractive. These points add a lot to the price of a cue, but don't add any functionality. A good cue will have four points, an exceptional cue will have six. Points that have a rounded tip are mass-produced by routing with a milling machine. Points that are actually pointy are generally cut by hand, and may vary in length.
While some cues have a plain butt, most have a wrap to increase comfort. Cheap cues will have a nylon wrap. While nylon is better than nothing, if you happen to have a rough spot on one of your fingernails, you'll inevitably catch it on this nylon and pull out a thread. A better choice is the classic Irish linen wrap, impregnated with beeswax. This material feels the same no matter the level of humidity, and your hand will never feel clammy or wet when you grip your cue. Some cue-makers will supply a leather wrap which may offer some cushioning to the hand, but will cause your palm to perspire since it won't allow your hand to breathe. There are also cues with a rubber or vinyl grip. These are useless.
Many different styles of joint are available and most have their good points and bad points.
Wood joints are actually machined out of the wood of the shaft and butt and are the closest thing to a one-piece cue available. Purists insist on a joint of this type. Some problems with a wood joint are that it is easy to cross the soft wooden threads and damage the joint, the joint will loosen up over the years as you wear the wood away with repeated tightening and loosening, and occasionally the joint will swell and be virtually impossible to loosen.
Some cue-makers will insist that plastic joints have a softer feel to them, and transmit vibrations more naturally than all-metal joints. Plastic joints are certainly cheaper than metal joints.
All-metal joints are durable and attractive. They are heavy, however, and will shift the balance of a cue forward appreciably. The farther forward the balance point is, the quicker your rear forearm will get fatigued. This is definitely noticeable if you are the type of pool shooter who will spend hours in the poolroom. A competent cue-maker will know how to compensate for the added weight of an all-metal joint. Some all-metal joints include a quick-release feature that enables you to assemble or disassemble the cue with only a turn or two, as opposed to ten or more turns for a normal joint. This is a wonderful development, but some people insist that the quick-release threading will shorten the life of the joint.
All top-quality cue shafts are crafted from maple that has been stored for several years. A shaft blank is turned on a lathe to a rough shape, then stored for a while longer. This process is repeated several times. The cue-maker employs this painstaking and time-consuming process to insure that the shaft ends up with no excess moisture in the wood. This is the only way to reduce the chance that the shaft will warp with changes in humidity. A well-aged, straight-grain maple shaft is your best insurance against warping.
You will find low-priced cues with shafts of less-desireable wood, and even shafts made from fiberglass or aluminum. Woods other than maple will not polish to as fine a finish, and will have either too little, or too much flexibility. Aliminum shafts will end up being bent. Fiberglass shafts are uncomfortable and will force you to use a pool-shooting glove.
There is some technology available which laminates a shaft out of many slivers of maple cut in a radial pattern. Viewed in cross-section, such a shaft looks like a sliced pizza pie. Each slice is a separate piece of wood. This is supposed to prevent warping, and reduce shaft deflection when shooting with english. These shafts are several times the price of a traditional shaft.
All cue shafts are not shaped the same. There are two main types of tapers available from most cue-makers. The straight taper varies in diameter from the tip to the joint at a constant angle. A pro taper will hold a constant diameter from the tip up the shaft a ways, then increase in diameter to the joint. Some people claim that you can apply more english to the cue ball with a pro tapered shaft. Detractors point out that the pro taper results in too much shaft deflection. The truth of the matter is that you will get used to anything if you shoot with it long enough. If you have extra-small fingers, you may find a pro taper more comfortable than a straight taper. If the day is particularly humid, or your hands are dirty, a pro taper may allow you to shoot with a longer stroke before your skin starts to catch on the shaft and cause discomfort. A straight taper can always be turned into a pro taper by a cue technician with a lathe. If you have a pro taper, you're basically stuck with it.
The length of the ferrule will vary among makers, and the wall-thickness and material will vary as well. Fiber ferrules adhere to glue better, but can pick up chalk and become discolored. Ivory-colored plastic ferrules will look beautiful, but will not provide a good gluing surface. Ferrules with thinner walls will tend to crack over time, but this drawback is offset by the fact that thin-walled ferrules will interfere less with the connection between the shaft and the cue tip. If you plan to break with your cue, get a ferrule with thicker walls.
Tips are manufactured with many different materials and consistencies. Softer tips may allow you to move farther out towards the edge of the cue ball and apply more english. They will, however, lose their shape more quickly and deform under pressure when you shoot hard. Some tips are laminated out of many layers of leather. This is a gimmick that doesn't provide any added functionality. Some tips on the cheapest cues screw into the shaft for ease of replacement. Screw-on tips are generally soft and pliable, and feel inconsistent from one shot to the next. Any difference in tips is insignificant compared to the differences that you will notice between a tip that is properly maintained and one that is allowed to deteriorate without proper maintenance. A serious pool player will take a minute or two before playing to work on the tip, and will often compulsively work on the tip throughout the night. There are literally hundreds of small, handy tools for working on tips that can be kept in your pocket.