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The History Of Cues

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Snooker is a sport played by many millions around the globe. But have you ever wondered how cues and tips developed?

Pic: King Louis XIV of France playing billiards in 1694. Thanks to Thurston

Who better than Dominic Dale, one of the world’s leading experts on cue sports history, to describe the evolution of the cue over the past 400 years….

The origins of the snooker cue

Billiards, which preceded snooker by over 200 years, was first played on pocket-less tables in a few places around Europe, during the 17th century. There were various different versions, including a bizarre French one called fortification billiards, where there were little lead huts, bells and hoops on the table which you had to pass the ball through. It is widely believed that billiards derived from croquet, which is why the cloth is green – to represent grass. The earliest cues were called maces, which were derived from croquet mallets; pieces of wood which were curved at one end and often tipped with ivory. The player would trail the top of the mace over his right shoulder, and push the ball along with a sweeping motion.

Gradually, the mace was phased out, as players experimented with hitting the ball with the thin end, which had a similar diameter to today’s cues. They found they could play certain shots more easily, especially when they were up against cushions – which at the time were much higher than those of today. At some point they tried twisting the thin end into the whitewashed walls of the ceiling, which had the same effect as chalk. It’s often the case in sport – the equipment gradually improves over time as players try different methods. By the early 19th century, the mace was barely used, except by women players.

Mixing business with leather

In 1807, a French infantry officer called Captain Fran├žois Mingaud was in prison near Paris. He was a keen player, and while incarcerated he experimented with using a leather tip on the end of his cue, using bits of leather he cut from a horse’s harness. On his release from prison, he amazed all and sundry with the new shots he could play, because he could get so much more purchase on the balls. He was playing all kinds of trick shots which players couldn’t have dreamed of before, and which even today would be fantastic shots.

In 1827, Mingaud published a book called Le Noble Jeu de Billiard, which described in detail all of the incredible shots that he could play. Mingaud then met John Thurston, who was a key figure in the development of billiard tables. Thurston published the book in 1830 in English with the title ‘The Noble Game of Billiards – Extraordinary and surprising strokes which have excited the admiration of most of the Sovereigns of Europe.’ After that, everyone knew about the benefits of the leather tip, and it soon became widely used.

By then the mace was obsolete, and manufacturers were making a kind of transitional cue with leather tips. At first they would have tip sizes of 14 or 15 millimetres, and at the thick end they would be 35 or 36mm. And they would have a flat part at the thick end, six or eight inches long with a leather pad underneath, and some people would still use that to push the cue ball along; a throw-back to the mace. Even today’s cues still have that flat part – the only feature that remains from the old mace. These days it is just a place for the manufacturer to put his badge, although some players use the flat part to line up the shot as the grain in Ash shafts has an arrow configuration and can be an aid to sighting.

Growth Of The Cue Trade

In the second half of the 19th century, the popularity of billiards advanced and it became a much-loved game in Britain. By the 1860s onwards there were some very good players who were making breaks of hundreds, and even thousands. The players were ahead of the rule-makers, inventing strokes and ways of scoring bigger and bigger breaks. The administrators would then have to introduce rules to limit certain shots.

As the players got better and better, the cue manufacturers of the Victorian era like Thurston and Burroughes & Watts were growing in stature, and making refinements to their products. Cues were getting thinner – by the 1870s the thick end was down to around 32mm or 33mm, and the tip might be 11mm or 12mm. Of course in those days the cloths were much thicker and the ivory balls heavier, so a 12mm tip would play similar to a 10mm tip in today’s conditions. The way the cues were tapered began to change. The early billiards cues had a gradual taper, so they were narrow over the ‘bridge’ area and quite springy towards the tip end. That allowed the players to use side and spin, and make cannon shots with the heavy ivory balls.

One of the biggest cue manufacturers was Peradon, founded in 1885 and still going today as part of the Thurston group. They were the first company to mass produce cues – they made thousands in the UK and France. Even today, any British cue which doesn’t have Rileys or Burroughes & Watts written on the name-plate will most likely have been made by Peradon.

Snooker Takes Over

By the 1920s, billiards players became so good, that they killed it as public entertainment. Not many people wanted to sit and watch for days as a player made breaks of a thousand or more on a regular basis. The legendary Joe Davis saw the potential for snooker to succeed in its place, and he organised the first World Championship in 1927.

As snooker took over from billiards, the way cues were made changed, with Davis at the forefront of this development. In the instruction books he wrote in the 1940s and 50s, he said that a snooker cue should be shorter than a billiards one, heavier, stronger in the taper and stiffer. Billiards was a much more delicate and subtle game, while snooker required more shots with power, forcing the balls around the table. He told the likes of Rileys and Peradon how a cue should be, and people soon cottoned on to his ideas. More or less any snooker cue made from the 1940s onwards follows those principles. That’s why a few players from today’s era have used cues from that period, such as Steve Davis who uses a Burroughes & Watts ‘Ye Olde Ash’ cue, and Shaun Murphy who used a Tom Newman Champion Cue made by Peradon – both of those were made in the 1930s.

So there’s not much of a disparity between the cues that were made 70 years ago, and those used today. The main difference is that most cues in those days were made from English ash. Our climate is fairly damp which means that the wood is often weaker and whippier than the ash which is used in today’s cues, from North America, Russia, and Denmark. Joe Davis even mentioned in his book that whippy cues are fine for billiards but no good for snooker. Ash was the predominant timber, up until the 1940s when maple became popular. In fact during the war years when they ran out of maple, they used a similar-looking wood called hornbeam instead.

The modern era

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, as snooker became a very successful televised sport, specialist cue makers such as John Parris and Hunt & O’Byrne experimented with all kinds of exotic wood as a selling point. They started making double hand-spliced cues with fancy woods from places like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Africa, often for decorative ornaments on the cue which are pleasing on the eye. But most players still want a simple plain ash cue with a front splice. In fact John Parris’s traditional cue is modelled on the old Burwat Champion cue by Burroughes & Watts.

The big change over the past 40 years has been in tip sizes. In the 1970s, most players would use a 10mm or 10.5mm tip. Today, Shaun Murphy uses one which is just under 9mm, and most players use between 9.25mm and 9.5mm. That’s because the cloths we play on are much thinner, and virtually frictionless. When we play a shot with spin, it’s almost as if the balls are on ice – they can barely grip the surface. If we use tips of 10mm or more, when we play with side, it can push the cue ball in the opposite direction, and there’s not enough friction on the cloth for the ball to grip and spin it back in the right direction.

Chalk

During the 1840s, an English chap called John Carr, who played at Bartley’s Billiards Rooms in Bath, invented the little cubes of chalk that we know today. He called it ‘twisting chalk’ because twist was an old word for side, so he was able to put tremendous amounts of side on the ball, by applying chalk to the tip. He gave people the impression that his product was very special and made a fortune by selling what was, in fact, just ordinary chalk cut into squares. During the Victorian era, chalk came from France. Cues were even polished with French chalk before they were sold, to seal the grain and provide a silky smooth finish. These days, most chalk comes from America. Green Triangle is the most popular brand. There used to be a lot of lead content in chalk, but that has been taken out now. Some players now use a brand called Master Chalk – I haven’t tried it yet but I am willing to. I am using Green Triangle which is nearly 30 years old, and it might adhere to the tip better. There’s a Japanese brand called Kamui which is very expensive, but apparently you only need to chalk the tip every 20 or 30 shots. The problem with that is that you might forget to chalk your cue altogether. And for most players chalking is a habit, every two or three shots.

Cushions

Up until the 1840s, the cushions were very dead, because they were just stuffed and padded with a material called flock or list, so you hardly got any rebound when the ball struck a cushion. Then Charles Goodyear invented a process for vulcanizing rubber, and that made an enormous difference. Using rubber to make the cushions allowed for more bounce and reaction, especially in cold weather. Prior to the vulcanizing process, rubber cushions had to be warmed in the winter months. This was done by placing hot water warming pans, made of zinc, along the length of the cushions to soften the rubber and to make them more elastic and responsive. These warming pans could be purchased from leading Billiards companies of the day.