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CNC vs. Hand-Made Cues

I wrote this a while back after I went to Barringer’s web site and saw what he had posted about CNC vs. Hand-Made Cues:

"Just put it in the CNC and go get a cup of coffee. When you finish the coffee a new cue has been born.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Any Cuemaker who states that his cues are hand made does not know the definition of hand made (which happens to be made by hand without the use of machines). The truth is that every cue I have ever seen was made on a lathe (a machine). To state that their cues are hand made implies that cues that are machine made are inferior when they are ALL made by machine.

How the wood is processed, the assembly technique, and the precision of the work is far more important than a handful of empty words. It is plain and simple – nobody in this world (in their right mind) would try to build a cue by hand (without the use of machines). The amount of hand work that is necessary does NOT change from one cue maker to another – it is the same regardless of who makes the cue.

There is a lot of hand work involved in every cue; deburring, sanding and wrapping and polishing are a few of the operations that are accomplished by hand. Whether a couple of inlays were cut out with a CNC milling machine or a pantograph mill makes no difference whatsoever. Inlays are NOT cut out with a Dremmel tool, chisels or Exacto Knives because it is too primitive. If they say that is the way the work was accomplished – then I do not believe it. The level of cuemaking has reached the point that the inlay work must stand up to examination by a 10 power jeweler’s loupe. I see cues scrutinized closer than diamond rings that cost a lot more money. Welcome to the real world.

There is also a large misconception about CNC machines and their relationship to cuemaking: “all you do is lay the cue into the CNC machine and flip a switch, go have a cup of coffee, come back and it's done -- it's done. This rumor was started by a cuemaker who did not have a CNC machine, did not possess the intelligence to learn the various computer assisted drawing (CAD) programs, the computer assisted machining programs (CAM) and computer numeric control (CNC) programs, or just did not have the money to make the investment in new technology. Rather than join this century they would rather justify their own existence by demeaning those of us who have made this enormous financial investment and sacrifice in time and effort to bring you a more beautiful cue at a better price. CNC is precision at a level that cannot be repeated by the human hand. My CNC machine will repeat the same function within .0001 of an inch. I cannot even measure anything that precise with a standard micrometer.

A fine cue is more than a couple of inlays. Whether the pockets were cut by pantograph or CNC machine makes absolutely no difference in the cue whatsoever. Precision work can be accomplished with a pantograph but it takes more time to do the actual cutting and mistakes are more easily made. It certainly has nothing to do with how the cue was assembled or the amount of effort that went into the cue. However; CNC machines represent extreme accuracy in the inlay work and once the programs are written and proven and some experience is gained it saves some time.

A few years ago I was under the misconception that CNC machines did all the work. The phrase I heard over and over was something to the effect “walk away and have a cup of coffee – come back to a finished cue”. Well there is nothing I know of that is further from the truth. The CNC Milling Machine cuts the pocket for the piece that is going to be inlayed. It also cuts the piece to inlay into the pocket. These pieces and pockets must be deburred by hand fitted whether made by pantograph or CNC milling machine.

The cuemaking process starts many years before any given cue is actually assembled. The cuemaking art must be learned which takes many years of hands on experience. Learning, trial and error, frustration, joy, and failure and if one is determined enough success finally arrives.

We start with a piece of seasoned wood (for us that takes 3 to 5 years). It is cut to 1' by 1' X 18” and allowed to rest for at lease 1 year. The edges are trimmed off and it becomes an octagon. After another year it is turned round and allowed to rest another year. It is finally reduced in size to 1 5/16 and allowed to rest at least another year or until it is used in a cue.

Each cue consists of handle wood, butt sleeve and forearm, and shaft. These four pieces must be joined together so perfectly that it hits like a single piece of solid wood. This process is accomplished by the cuemaker one cut at a time and CNC is not involved.

Our basic cue butt consist of at least 21 facings (a facing is to machine the end of a piece of wood or other material perfectly flat), 3 holes bored to within 2 thousandths of an inch accuracy, the handle wood tapped (threaded) and the forearm tapped, and five pieces glued and clamped together. Two black linen based fiber (LBF)collars are made and installed, a silver ring, and rings before and after the wrap. The butt cap and butt sleeve must be made and installed (hole bored and faced and glued and clamped with epoxy glue). After all this (remember this is the most basic cue) it must be tapered, hand sanded, sprayed at least 4 coats (hand sanding in between). Next it is wrapped and the final touches are made prior to shipment. CNC machines have nothing to do with this process.

Our most basic shaft requires 12 different facings, two tenons, 2 holes bored to within 2 thousandths of an inch accuracy and five pieces glued and clamped together. The shaft must be tapered and hand sanded. CNC mills have absolutely nothing to do with any aspect of this process.

In a nutshell; the most basic cue requires hundreds of separate machining and hand operations that must be accomplished by a human being. Fine cuemaking is very labor intensive.

As to the CNC aspect of cuemaking. First of all I had to decide on which CNC milling machine to purchase. I talked to lots of different people; some cuemakers and some machinists. I spoke to salesman, software manufacturers and tooling people. I spent a couple of years researching CNC machines before I actually made the purchase. Now I wish I had not bought the machine I bought. Nothing like experience.

After I received the new CNC Machine it did not work – it would not run. I spent some time asking for technical support and he would not answer my calls. Of course he had already been paid. I had to find someone locally to help me get the machine running and that took a couple of months and about $2,000.00 more. By the time I got it running I had pretty much forgotten all I had learned. The software I was provided turned out to be demo’s only and I had to buy all the software over again. That was only a couple of thousand more. Talk about learning curve and I still haven’t run a single part or cut the first pocket. Thanks Chester.

I get the software I needed and then I could not make it work – I buy books, tutorials, videos and ask all the questions I know to ask and still don’t know what to do correctly. Buy more software, pay for private tutoring, more software, more tutoring, more tutoring. That is only about three thousand dollars more.

It is now three years later and I have finally run my first part and cut my first pocket. I have now spent over $15,000 for my first Ivory inlay and spent 3 years of every spare moment studying and learning. Now remember – just put it into the machine and go get a cup of coffee.

At this point it is time to write programs for each inlay design. Not only do I get to design the inlay, I get to make a program for the pocket. Now I need a program for 4 pockets, one for 6 pockets and one for 8 pockets. I also need a program for cutting out the pieces. Before I can cut the pieces I need to acquire the Ivory stock, cut it into slabs, mount it on a board and clamp the whole piece on the table of the CNC milling machine. You mean that the clamps, t-slot nuts don’t come with the machine? Order more tooling. I can’t wait to throw it into the machine and go drink a cup of coffee.

Now I am ready - Where are the end mills (that is the part that does the cutting)? Order more tooling – Its How Much? Now I am ready – Wow, these little end mills break easy. Feeding too fast – go back and rewrite the programs.

Now I am ready – Wow, these little end mills break easy. Overlapping too much – go back and rewrite the programs.

Now I am ready – Wow, these little end mills break easy. Plunging too deep – go back and rewrite the programs.

Now I am ready - What’s wrong now – nothing fits? Had a slight power outage and it messed up the program. Go buy battery backups for the computer and the CNC machine. Heck this is only another $400.00.

Now I am ready: Wow, these little end mills break easy- Should have paid more attention setting my Z Axis.

Now I am ready: Wow, these little end mills break easy – Bumped it with my hand – broke the end mill and cut myself to the bone – It is only a few stitches.

How much is that per stitch? I should have gone to Medical School.

Now I am ready goes on and on and on and on and on and on until one day I realize that I would have been far ahead if I had continued to use my pantograph.

Now I am ready: It works great – It cuts the pieces and pockets perfectly. All this sacrifice to put in 4 little ivory diamonds. Lets see: $15,000.00 divided by $20.00 per inlay = 750 inlays. If the average cue gets 8 inlays I only have to inlay the first 93.75 cues to pay for the machine and training. Forget the time it took to learn the entire process, the cost of ivory or pay for the labor of the actual inlay work. A cuemaker friend of mine was asked what he would do if he hit the lottery? He replied: Heck, that’s easy – I would just keep on building cues until it was all gone.

I still have to assemble the cue to start with – just like I always did. I have to make all the parts just like I always did. I have to taper everything just like I always did. I have to sand everything just like I always did. I have to spray and polish everything just like I always did. I have to wrap the cue just like I always did.

Cindy – Please bring me a cup of coffee so I can keep working.

Arnot Wadsworth



Arnot Q Custom Pool Cues
3717 Jeanne Avenue
Lake Worth, FL 33461
(561) 433-2885
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