AN INTERVIEW WITH
MASTER CUEMAKER PETE TONKIN
EXCLUSIVE TO RECOLLECTION CUES
Note: Pete Tonkin raged onto the cuemaking scene three years ago when he first exhibited at the Super Expo at Valley Forge. His cues instantly grabbed everyone's attention. He quickly became known for the precison of his work and the intricacy of his designs. Collectors started lining up to place orders. I think a lot of cue enthusiasts will find the following interview informative.
RECOLLECTION CUES: When did you start making cues?
PETE TONKIN: I started in 1999. Most of my business was local until 3-4 years ago, and my first real exposure to the national market was the Super Billiard Expo at Valley Forge three years ago.
RC: Are you a member of the American Cuemakers Association?
RC: Where do you live?
PT: In Willow Creek, California. It’s in northern California, about six hours north of San Francisco.
RC: So do you make cues fulltime?
PT: Yes. I also own a bar and pool room and my shop is in the back.
RC: Are you a player?
PT: I played my whole life. I was never very good, though, and hardly ever get to play now. I plan to move my shop to my home this year so I’ll have more room. I want to add some more lathes.
RC: How does being a player affect your philosophy about building cues?
PT: A lot of my feedback originally came from a local road payer who I started building cues for. I’d build him a cue, he’d play with it, and we’d discuss what improvements I could make. We worked back and forth a lot, perfecting the hit.
RC: What cuemakers most influenced you and your work, and how?
PT: All of them. I don’t have an absolute favorite. I like Ernie Gutierrez’ work a lot, especially his work in silver and his execution. I love the extraordinary work Thomas Wayne does. Bob Manzino and Tony from Black Boar are really pushing the envelope. I like shiny things. (Laughing.) Silver to me is really easy to work with. It machines well, and fits in my skill set well. I started doing machine work when I was 13 and have a strong background in working with metals.
RC: How many cues do you usually make a year?
PT: Probably 35, tops, but that’s mostly in recent years And the last couple of years I’ve been making less because I’ve been making bigger cues. Recently my son has started working with me fulltime, and again I’m building more player cues. But I’m sure I haven’t made a total of more than 200, tops.
RC: Do you take special orders?
PT: Yes. Most of my cues are custom orders. All cues are one-of-a-kinds. I just finished a pair of snakewood and ivory cues that were made as a set, with the materials reversed in each. They were sold to a collector.
RC: Do you work with dealers?
PT: I only have two. I work with Chaddy Lu in Taiwan, and he has exclusive rights to Taiwan and China for my cues. They are all players’ level cues. In the U.S., Recollection Cues is my exclusive dealer.
RC: Describe your shop. I know that you have some machinery other cuemakers don’t have.
PT: I’m set up more like a machine shop than a cue shop. I’m scared of small machinery, like a lot of the dedicated cue equipment. It won’t hold the tolerances that I want.
RC: Knowing your work the way I do, I know that the precision of your work is phenomenal, so that doesn’t surprise me.
PT: Well, the Haas (lathe) was $40,000 and I’m about to get a second. It’s a simultaneous four axis, CNC, tool room mill. I use it for threading shafts, handles, ferrules, joints, and also inlay work. I have a couple of 13X40 lathes, and a Bridgeport mill that I use for mitering veneers.
RC: How big is your shop?
PT: It’s relatively small now, that’s why I’m looking forward to moving it to the house.
RC: Tell me about your process of selecting shaft wood and making shafts.
PT: We start by sorting the wood according to grain runoff for the big and little ends. We sort them out several times, and usually end up getting about a 50% yield at best. The whole process takes about a year.
RC: What is your favorite wood for use in cues?
PT: Ivory (laughing). Actually, I like any of the exotic burls - desert ironwood burl, Honduran rosewood burl, amboyna burl, and so on.
RC: What pin and joint combinations do you use? Which is your favorite?
PT: I use a 3/8 X 10 modified, exclusively. And all are flat faced. I like to keep things consistent, and like the hit the cues get.
RC: What kind of tips do you normally use?
PT: Kamui black softs.
RC: Are there particular areas or regions where your cues sell best?
PT: Mostly the midwest and east coast.
RC: Really? It seems like you’d be better known on the west coast.
PT: Calfornia is really a tough cue market.
RC: What is your preferred taper?
PT: It drops three-thousandths in the first twelve inches, then expands into a parabolic taper back to the joint.
RC: How would you describe the hit of your cues?
PT: Very solid and quiet. They’re fairly stiff. Everything is cored.
RC: Most cue enthusiasts are looking for a combination of playability, design and execution. How would you rank the importance of each?
PT: Playability first, execution second and design third. The have to play good first.
RC: Is there anything you think is unique about your cues or your cuemaking?
PT: I hold really tight tolerances on everything. I want all my cues to play identical. And everything gets threaded.
RC: Anything else unusual about your cues?
PT: We’re really proud of our veneer work.
RC: Why is that?
PT: There are no seams visible in the wood veneers, and only slightly sometimes in silver, but not much. We're really happy with the way they're coming out.
RC: Are you using black paper in your veneers?
PT: More and more, but not all the time.
RC: Are there one or two cues that you believe are the best you’ve made?
PT: The two I won the People’s Choice Award with at Valley Forge the last two years have to be up near the top of the list, but I don’t have any real favorites. I like parts of a lot of them, but there’s not one in particular that I think has the best of everything. I always think they could have been better, and I always think of things I could have done different to make them better.
RC: The "Mountain Cue" you made for me was an outstanding cue, in my opinion - of course, I'm biased. But the precision and design is incredible.
PT: At the time I made it, it was the "biggest cue" I had made, based on the work and number of inlays. It's one of my favorites.
RC: Any surprises we should be looking forward to this year at Valley Forge?
PT: We have the biggest cue we’ve ever built coming. It’ll be entered in the competition, so we’ll see how it does. I'm building it for a collector. The ivory points have been machined out of a solid ivory block, then slid over the back of forearm in one piece. This eliminates the glue line at the base of the bridges where the points and bridge meet. It’s going to be a super cue.
RC: Well, good luck at the Expo. Three years in a row would be a monster win. And I'm really anxious to see the cues you'll be bringing. We’ll see you there!