Custom Wood Pool Cues Made Easy With CNC

Posted: 02/21/2013 9:41AM

 

Paul Drexler of PFD Studios learned woodworking from his grandfather, a master cabinet maker, and he has applied that knowledge to making high-end custom pool cues since 1989.

These cues typically have many inlays, which results in the challenge of cutting out up to 100 pockets for inlays as well as the same number of pieces to fit into each pocket. In the past, Drexler drew male and female patterns for each inlay and cut them out by hand on a manual pantograph machine. “This approach was so time-consuming that it was not cost-effective to make the more elaborate cues,” Drexler said. “I found machines designed for metalcutting that could handle the complex task of cutting out a pattern around a cone but their cost was out of sight. Then I discovered that the Techno CNC router could do the same task at about one-fifth the price.” Drexler has used the Techno machine to produce many notable cues, including one for Paul Newman that was auctioned off for over $30,000 to benefit The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp that Newman founded.

“My typical customers are established players and collectors who desire a product that represents something significant in their personal or professional life,” Drexler said. “By creating a cue designed specially for their playing style I can help them elevate their game to the next level. The key to a good-hitting cue is solid construction, high-grade materials and attention to detail. When you are playing with a cue that has been designed specially for you, you tend to focus more and practicing becomes fun. At the same time, pool cues are an undiscovered art form and a significant number of my cues have sold for tens of thousands of dollars.”

Drexler’s cues are made from many rare and exotic woods such as Arizona Desert Ironwood. This particular wood is typically harvested from government-owned land where regulations forbid taking a living tree and motor vehicles cannot be used. So it’s necessary to backpack into the desert, look for a tree that has died, dig up the buried root section, check it to be sure it is free of cracks, cut out a piece that can weigh up to 90 pounds, and carry it out. A typical 1/3 of a board foot piece of this wood is worth about $300 compared to about $4 for the same amount of maple. The greater the burl – the pattern, grain structure and contrast – the more the piece is worth. This species of wood is also used for knife handles and gun grips. Drexler typically buys pieces that are 1.5 inches square by 16 to 18 inches long and turns it into the butt section of a cue. The very top or shaft section of the cue is made from maple.

The hallmark of a fine custom cue is the inlays, which are made from a variety of materials including silver, gold, ivory, turquoise, coral and exotic woods. The biggest challenge of producing these inlays is their complex geometry. The inlays are typically designed in 2D but this 2D design must be wrapped around the conical surface of the pool cue when they are cut. In this case, both the male and female shapes have complex contoured surfaces that match the conical shape of the cue. In the past, Drexler made drawings and produced two pattern plates for each inlay, one for each male inlay piece and one for each female pocket. Then he used the pattern plates to make the actual inlay’s piece and pocket on a pantograph. “We reached the limits of the manual approach and found it was no longer cost effective as our business grew,” Drexler said. “We needed to find an automated method to produce inlays in order to take our business to the next level.”

“I talked to a couple of companies about using CNC machines to produce inlays,” Drexler said. A common and simple approach is called “axis substitution” in which the female cut is made ignoring the conical shape of the cue so the bottom of the pocket is a flat surface and the male piece has a flat bottom. One limitation of this approach is that the top surface of the inlay does not match the curvature of the cue. Also, the width of the inlay is limited by the curvature of the cue’s outer diameter. Drexler decided this approach was not sufficient to achieve the level of quality that his customers expect.

“I talked to a manufacturer of a four-axis machine that worked with software that wrapped the inlay design around a cone prior to cutting,” Drexler continued. “But their machine weighed about 6000 pounds, took up an entire garage bay and cost $125,000. It was outside my budget and too big to fit comfortably in my shop. So I was very interested when a vendor told me they could provide software that would accomplish the same thing on a Techno CNC router with an optional rotary table serving as the fourth axis, which cost only about one fifth as much while weighing much less and taking up significantly less space. The seller provided a custom postprocessor for the Mastercam CNC software that projects the flat inlays onto a conical surface, with an additional feature known as trapezoidal scaling.”

Drexler now designs the inlays using the computer-aided design capabilities of Mastercam software. He then enters the dimensions of the cue including the length, large diameter and small diameter. The software then automatically overlays the inlay design onto the conical cue and generates programs for producing the pocket in the cue and the pieces that fit into the pockets. Drexler said that there are less than half a dozen people in the world constructing pool cues using this true 4th axis method to produce the male and female inlay with matching contoured surfaces.

Techno’s LC router offers smooth motion, a high level of accuracy and repeatability and minimal maintenance. A closed loop servo control system provides constant position feedback, higher power, and smooth continuous motion, eliminating the possibility of losing position in the middle of a part. The machine is available in five sizes, with work envelopes of 30 by 24 inches, 50 by 48 inches, 50 by 96 inches, 59 by 120, and 78 by 120. Each of these models provides a repeatability of 0.001 inches, a resolution of 0.0002 inches and a maximum speed of 250 inches per minutes. The machine comes fully assembled and includes Techno’s Windows-based CNC G-code interface with free lifetime software upgrades. Techno offers four different models of rotary tables with different levels of precision and load capacity.

Drexler has used the Techno gantry CNC router to build many notable custom cues. One of the best known is the cue he built for Paul Newman to commemorate the movie “The Hustler,” which was auctioned off to benefit The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. The cue, autographed by Paul Newman, contains ivory inlays shaped like frames in a film strip with actual scenes from “The Hustler” movie rendered by scrimshander Sandra Brady. The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was founded by Newman in 1988 and named for the secret outlaw hiding place in his film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The camp serves children with serious illnesses such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, HIV/AIDS, hemophilia and other serious conditions who, at this special camping facility, can enjoy more activities than they or their parents ever thought possible. The activities, including archery, mini golf, swimming, boating, fishing, horseback riding, arts and crafts, sports, theatre and camping, are all designed to include every child and ensure that no child will fail.

Drexler also designed and constructed several notable cues for both the Sultan of Brunei and his brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah. Bolkiah’s personal holdings have included the British jeweler Asprey, the New York Palace Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the Plaza Athénée in Paris. One cue has four inlaid polo players and polo ponies. Prince Jefri also commissioned Drexler to make a cue to celebrate the Ferrari manufacturer’s Formula One championship team cup victory. The cue features the Ferrari stallion, the Italian flag’s tri-colors, the black and white checkered finish flag and the helmets of drivers Michael Shoemaker and teammate Eddie Irvine, inlaid in gold.

“As a professional craftsman, my greatest satisfaction is achieved by combining beauty and function to create cues that will excite everyone from casual players to world champions,” Drexler said. “Techno routers make it practical and affordable for me to provide my customers with a level of quality and detail that would otherwise require a machine that cost five times as much.”


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