WITH TRAVIS NIKLICH,
FROM BLACKCREEK CUES
©Recollection Cues, 2011
The following is an interview with Travis Niklich of Blackcreek Cues. His cues have a wide following around the country, particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast. During the last few years, they have attracted an international following, especially in Asia. I hope this conversation allows the followers of Recollection Cues to know Travis and learn about his work.
RECOLLECTION CUESRECOLLECTION CUES (RC): Travis, when did you start making cues?
WITH TRAVIS NIKLICH
OF BLACKCREEK CUES
© Recollection Cues, 2011
TRAVIS NIKLICH (TN): About 13 years ago I started doing repairs, and after a year or so starting making my own cues. About ten years ago I was admitted to the American Cuemakers Association as a member.
RC: Was it difficult to get in the ACA?
TN: You have to submit a cue that meets certain criteria, and it’s judged by a committee of their members. You also have to have demonstrated a high level of business ethics and standards, so it’s nice to be recognized by other cuemakers that they accept you into their association.
RC: Where do you live?
TN: In Smithton, Illinois about 25 miles from downtown St. Louis.
RC: Do you make cues fulltime?
TN: No. I work as a pressman for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and have for the last 16 years. I probably average 15-30 hours a week on some aspect of cuemaking. Sometimes a lot of that is doing the business aspects of it – talk to customers, ordering materials, etc. A lot also depends on the time of year. For example, I spend a lot of time in the winter getting ready for the Super Billiards Expo at Valley Forge. In the summer, I do less.
RC: I know that you started as a player. How did that influence your philosophy about making cues?
TN: My Dad got me a cue when I was 18, and I had just started playing. Then I met Mark Wilson, a pool professional and one of the top instructors in the country. I took some lessons and played a lot for awhile. Unfortunately, I don’t get to play as much now. Maybe once every week or so. But I think it helps me to relate to customers better, to be able to explain things, like the feel of a cue, the hit, dimensions, etc. I can tell them what I like, and I can understand what they want.
RC: What’s your preferred game?
TN: Probably one pocket.
RC: I remember you and I played partners at the Midwest Cue Show well into the night last year against Andy Gilbert and Matt Connerly of Cue Addicts. If I recall correctly, we kicked butt. I want to be sure Andy and Matt don’t forget that. Do you like bar boxes or big tables?
TN: Definitely big tables.
RC: What cue makers most influenced you?
TN: Andy Gilbert, number one, because he helped me so much when I started. Also, Ron Haley a lot, and Tim Scruggs and Mike Cochran were really nice to me in the beginning.
RC: How did they influence your work?
TN: They are all traditional cuemakers in the classic style. I like Szambotis and Balabushkas, and a lot of Bill Schick’s work. They’re mostly typical, 4 pointed veneered cues. Full splices have become a big part of my business. Most of the people I talk to in the last few years want those – they’re my most popular construction.
RC: How many cues do you make a year?
TN: It varies a lot, but typically 35-40 a year.
RC: How many high-end versus players?
TN: I guess it depends on where you draw the line, but usually only about 3-5 over $3,000.
RC: Do you take a lot of special custom orders?
TN: I take some, but I try to steer people to cues I already have made, or to ones handled by someone like you. Since my time is limited, it can take a long time to get to my custom orders. I try not to build a “waiting list” because I want to be able to make the cues I want and have things to display at shows and tournaments. I make it clear that it can take a long time to get a special built cue.
RC: Describe your shop.
TN: It’s located in what was a two car garage attached to my house. It has permanent AC and heat, and a high-end dust collection system. My Dad’s a cabinet maker, so I also have access to his shop and a lot of extra machinery when I need it.
RC: I’ve been to your shop, and know you’ve built some of your own equipment.
TN: I’ve built a lot of my own jigs and fixtures. Right now I’m building a new CNC machine. I want something more accurate and precise, and I’ve been experimenting with a new rotary table and spindle that I bought separately, and I’m working with a local machine shop that specializes in high precision work that provides higher quality than you find in most cue machines. I’m also hoping it will be more user friendly and easier to maintain.
RC: Tell me how you select your shaft wood? How long is the process?
TN: I normally order 100-300 shafts at a time,. When I get them I grade them first for appearance. I try to eliminate any with dark marks or imperfections, and I look for straightness of grain. I cull out quite a few, and they become the coring dowels for future forearms. Then, I typically make seven cuts. I try for every 4-6 weeks, but now that I have a stock pile, I can go 4-6 months. Most of the shafts I’m turning out with cues now are two to three years old.
RC: Do you have a favorite wood for use in butts?
TN: I like quite a few, but from a sales standpoint, ebony and birdseye or curly maple forearms are the bestsellers. Rosewoods are good, I like them a lot.
RC: What kinds of pin & joint combinations do you use? What's your favorite?
TN: I offer a flat faced joint with a radial pin. It’s the most common and popular. I also offer a piloted 5/16 X14 joint, in SS, or in ivory. My favorite is ivory with a radial pin. It hits good and looks good. All my ivory is from the pre-ban period and from legal sources.
RC: Are there certain areas or regions where your cues sell best?
TN: They seem to move well up east, like at Valley Forge. They seem to like traditional style cues more. I think the west coast enthusiasts seem to like the more artistic cues like the McWorters, Chudys – the ones with more CNC work and designs.
RC: I know you’ve been selling quite a few cues in Taiwan.
TN: They’re going to Taiwan, but from there they’re going into China. I see that as the future growth area, like Japan was ten or fifteen years ago.
RC: What kinds of tips do you use?
TN: I’ve used a lot of different ones, but I typically use Triumphs. They seem to be more consistent than LePros or Triangles. But I have most kinds, and offer whatever the customer wants on custom cues.
RC: What is your preferred taper?
TN: My own custom starts at the ferrule and for the first 10-12 inches it goes up .015 inch, then it continues with a parabolic curve from there down to the joint.
RC: I’ve seen your shaft cutting machine. Isn’t it different than the ones a lot of cuemakers use.
TN: I use a Kersenbrock style machine, a 10” table saw modified to use a linear bearing and rail setup instead of a wood router. It’s not totally unique, but not everybody has it. I’ve got mine set up with a toggle switch that’s triggered to turn it off when the cut’s complete, so I can start it and go do something else.
RC: How would you describe the “hit” of your cues?
TN: It’s a medium, stiff hit.
RC: How about your full splices?
TN: They’re just different, not better or worse, but a different feel. A lot of the “hit” of a cue depends on other variables – the hardness of tip, the material and wood in the butt, etc. The coring of the forearm makes them more consistent. An uncored cocobolo cue would hit super hard, for example, compared to an uncored maple cue. But when they're cored, they tend to hit more alike. The cocobolo is like a musical instrument made from a higher pitched wood. “Hit” comes more the sound than anything else. If you put in earplugs and couldn’t hear your cue, the way it “hits” wouldn’t really matter.
RC: Most knowledgeable buyers are looking for three things - playability, design and execution. How would you rank the importance of those three factors?
TN: All three have to come together to keep the customer happy and to make a top cue. Playability should be paramount, but if the cue’s not aesthetically pleasing, the customer won’t be happy.
RC: Is there anything that you feel is unique to your cues?
TN: The full splice construction is number one. Not many people make them consistently. There are also some who make completed cues from full splice blanks they buy from other cuemakers. However, there are only three or four people that make full splices blanks who sell to other cuemakers. Then there are a few, like myself, Joel Hercek and Mark Baer who have them as their staple product. I try to make other types, but 75% or more or my cues are full splice. The only other I can think of that may be unique about my cues is my clear coat finish. I'm always pleased how many people comment on it. There’s nothing unique about the finish I use, but I’m happy with the application, and the sanding and buffing. It tends to look deep and glossy.
RC: Is there one cue that you can single out as the best cue you’ve made? I know I’ve owned two of your finest cues, but I’ve seen a couple of others in the same category.
TN: A couple I’ve made that were my favorites were not necessarily the most expensive. But I’ve made four or five that have been the fanciest. One ended up with a collector in Florida, another in Michigan, and one is in Steve Piesner’s collection (aka “Tikkler”).
RC: One last question – what is the origin of the name “Blackcreek”?
TN: My Dad has a cabinet and custom wood work business named Blackcreek Woodwright, named after a stream that runs through his land. It seemed like a natural name for my cue business.
RC: This has been great, Travis. You're making great cues, and I think people will enjoy learning more about them. Thanks for your time.