There is lots to think about when buying a pool cue. Here is a guide.
Intro to Pool Cues
The following is a beginner guide to pool cues meant to give you a feel for pool cue options and to inform you about the variety of pool cues out there.
Pool Cue Size
Most pool cues are either 57" or 58" and that is usually enough for an adult. Come to think about it - you will have an enormous problem locating a stock cue which is longer. There are extensions available for snooker cue, and most monster 12' table come with a very long stick but normally you should be fine with regular size. If you are picking up a cue for a child or someone smaller then average adult, it is a good idea to go to your local pool store and try out some shorter cues before you complete your purchase. Shorter cues are available in 52", 48", 42", 36" and even 24". Why would anyone make shorter cues if 57" is just fine - well, in ideal world your table stands in a middle of a huge hall without any obstructions what so ever. In real life however, your pool table is in the basement with a pillar right next to it, not to mention other architectural features. (I once have assembled a table for one of my customers where the distance between a table and a wall was about 3' - I did tell him that he will have tough time playing the table, but he wanted it anyway) That is why shorter cues might come handy. Stick with 57 or 58" stick and you should be fine.
Wood used in Pool Cues
Many different materials are used to make cues today, but most common is maple. Maple is very durable and yet flexible enough to make excellent cue. You can get ash cue, but from my experience these tend to warp in about a year or two. There are also variety of artificial materials available - graphite, fiberglass, wood coated with fiberglass, etc. These are very durable and tend to stay straight for a long time. In fact it is an excellent idea for someone who just starts with pool. More experienced players will argue that artificial materials make cue less responsive, but if you need a low maintenance cue - fiberglass or graphite is right for you . There are some excellent cues in this category - check out Cuetec and Scorpion (John Archer plays with Scorpion and Earl Strickland plays with Cuetec). I prefer maple, fiberglass / graphite combination feels a bit strange to me. So for extreme durability - get composite materials, for a traditional feel of play - maple is your friend, if you want something that looks distinguished - try ash. Now, I know that there are some economy sticks out there which are made out of what they call "Chinese Maple" - I think "Maple" part is overstatement - it's most likely pine or birch or maybe even crashed cardboard, who knows. Those are never straight and I am not even going to talk about those.
Pool Cue Joint Types
There are many different type of pool cue joints available today. These include wood-to-wood, metal-to-metal, and metal-to-wood. This article on pool cue joint types discusses each in more detail.
Pool Cue Tip
Tip is one of the most important part of your cue. It comes in contact with a cue ball and it is important to care for your tip, but let's talk about different kind of tips. There are some tips that are harder - those last longer, deliver more powerful shots and very difficult to administer any English with. Softer tips allow for greater English but tend to wear out sooner. Most cues come with medium softness tips giving you a taste of both ends of the spectrum. If you don't like the tip you have on your cue, normally any pool hall will have a "tip guy" who can set you up with something different. We do sell whole bunch of different tips as well as tools to replace your tips at home, but honestly, if you never did this before you will not succeed on the first try.
Pool Cue Tip Size
Most pool cues come with either 12 1/2 mm or 13 mm tip size. You can get a cue with either larger or smaller tip, smaller tip gives you better English while larger reduces your English. It could be a good idea to get 12 1/2 mm if you want to learn the strategy of playing.
Pool Cue Ferrule
There are tons of different approaches to ferrules and materials for pool cues. (brass, different kinds of plastic, even ivory) The most important part in my opinion is how much of shaft do you still have inside of that ferrule. More shaft (some have a thin layer of wood from the shaft coming in contact with tip itself) - better energy transfer, if I remember my science classes correctly. Keep in mind, with smaller ferrules you have greater possibility of damaging it when playing.
Pool Cue Wrap
Most cues today come with Irish Linen wrap on the but of the cue which gives you better grip (not to mention absorbing beer and other liquids from your palm). There are some composite wraps out there, but honestly I am not a big fan of those. Leather wraps look nice, but tend to start to peel at the edges after a while. No wrap - well you are going for a classic approach.
Pool Cue Weight
As you probably guessed, weight and force of your shots come hand in hand. One guy's first stick was Cuetec Signature 21 Oz. He figured that since he was a big guy he would need a heavier stick. Well, he learned that he was wrong. Now he plays with a 19 Oz cue stick. He realized that 99.99% of your shots will not be a cannon blast but rather a soft touch which will allow you not only to sink an object ball, but also to bring the cue ball to the spot for your next shot. For a break cue, sure 21 or even 22 Oz is great, but most people who are serious about their game play with a lighter playing cue.
Pool Cue Prices
If you are starting out, you certainly don't need to spend any more then $150 on your first pool cue. Remember - the pool cue is just a tool, you will not be playing better with a stick that you bought for couple of thousand dollars. If you want something for less then $60, then generally you will find junk and most likely will be upset with the cue. If you are an experienced player, then you already know what you like and probably have tried a lot of different pool cues. Different players can judge the same exact pool cue very differently, but that is a subject for another time.