Shooting Straight

For master craftsman Abe Rich, making world-class pool cues is more than a job -- it's a way of life.

The first order Miami Beach amateur Greg Hark placed with Abe was an eye-opener. He told Abe that he wanted a fancy cue, colorful and decorative. Abe would have none of it. "'If you want exciting, then you have to go somewhere else,'" Hark recalls Abe telling him. Hark was surprised again when he asked Abe how soon he could pick up his cue, fancy or otherwise. "He said, 'I'll get around to it in two to three months.'" But Hark, who had shopped for cues at pool and billiard dealers in Miami, says he was most surprised by Abe's prices. Hark bought Abe's top-of-the-line goncalo cue for $180; it compared favorably to cues that cost $1000 elsewhere.

"It's not like you're a better player using one of his cues, but you feel like you are because of how it feels, how it sounds. The sound his cues make is unique. It has its own personality," explains Hark. "The [expensive cues] feel nice, but they don't have a personality."

Hark had lived in Miami Beach 36 years before he discovered Abe several months ago. He played with a friend's twenty-year-old Abe Rich cue and was awed. He has since ordered another cue from Abe, a so-called hustler's cue called "Sneaky Pete" because it's made to look like a cheap, seamless, one-piece house cue.

"He's the master," Hark says emphatically. "You're buying real handcraftsmanship and a bit of history when you buy one of his sticks. And his prices are just ridiculous. Imagine buying wood that's been aging for 30 years. He's really a Miami Beach treasure."

There are perhaps a dozen handcrafters of cues in the United States, and most, if not all, charge considerably more than Abe. Yet he hasn't raised his prices in ten years; they range from $140 to $190. The Joss Company in Philadelphia, for example, advertises its cues in glossy brochures and charges up to $4000 for a studded-out cue. The low-end Joss maple cue goes for $285, while the basic redwood model sells for $395. Abe's prices for essentially the same two cues are half that. He can charge less because most other cues are made by companies that use expensive machinery and templates to form wood, aluminum, and graphite cues en masse.

"Why shouldn't there be a guy like me on the Beach," Abe asks earnestly, "somebody people can come to to buy a reasonably priced cue? Why should [Hark] have to pay three times more for a cue? I want to work for the public."

Hark interjects that he would be willing to pay much more for an Abe Rich cue. Abe quickly objects: "But that's part of it. I wouldn't sell for more because I enjoy it. This is my satisfaction. I do a good job and charge a reasonable price. Some people don't know a good cue. They say so-and-so charges $400, must be a good cue. The way the public thinks: 'You get what you pay for,' and 'The customer is always right.' A lot of sayings in this country, God bless America, I don't agree with."

To be a good woodturner, Abe explains, one must be mechanically inclined and have a yearning to build. To make it a career, one needs the utmost patience and a precise eye for detail. "And it's not enough to make a beautiful cue," he adds, "you have to have the right materials."

He hasn't bought wood for about seven or eight years, and has an inventory of several hundred "squares," as the raw wood pieces are called. The squares are kiln dried, but Abe has continued to cure them for many years, with the workshop's tarpaper roof creating a broiler effect. "The wood must be perfectly dry," he notes. "The harder the wood, the better the cue."

Miami suppliers never offered top-quality cue material, he says, so he'd order from hardwood dealers in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. The special woods for the butt of the cue come mainly from Africa and Latin America: ziricote, purpleheart, ebony black, bubinga, zebrawood, and rosewood. The shaft of the cue (the portion that narrows to a tip) is made from only one wood: hardrock white Canadian maple. The white maple is least likely to warp or break on the impact of hitting cue balls because it is the densest, least grainy hardwood available.

The first cut in the square is called "roughing a round." Abe takes a square and rotates it on the lathe, chiseling it into a crude-looking butt or shaft. The roughed-out round is then returned to the shelf for more drying. A couple of years later the piece is ready for its second and final turning. Spinning the wood on the lathe, Abe shapes it with a chisel and sandpaper, then rubs a conditioner into the grain until it is straight and smooth.

Into the butt-end of the shaft he hand-drills a threaded hole, then he does the same at the shaft-end of the butt, into which he glues a brass or stainless-steel threaded piece. The glue, a secret epoxy concoction, gives his cues special strength at the joint (where the shaft and butt are screwed together), and keeps his shaft tips from snapping. Attached to the butt-end of the cue is Delrin, an unbreakable plastic into which a rubber bumper is inserted. Abe's decorative work is a simple design consisting of inch-thick ring inlays of exotic wood and mother-of-pearl. To seal the finished product, he dips the cue in a clear lacquer finish.

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