Understanding some of the basics of pickleball paddle construction could save you from buying something you are not going to be happy with.
How the materials are blended gives the paddle a distinctive feel when hitting the ball. I know, I have a box full of paddles that were ok, but never felt quite right.
If you are looking for a paddle to knock around in the backyard how a paddle is made is irrelevant. If you want to play at an organized level I hope the following helps.
Today’s paddles are made from composites, carbon fiber/graphite over top of a honeycomb core of either a resin impregnated paper, aluminum, or polypropylene.
There are millions of articles on materials and how they effect the play of the paddle, so I will try to be as brief as a paddle nerd can be.
Pickleball paddle construction
Most pickleball paddle construction uses a sandwich design. A honeycomb material is “sandwiched” between two surface layers. This essentially creates an I beam and gives the core its strength. The surface layers are usually graphite, carbon fiber, or fiberglass, The honeycomb core will generally be be made of 1/2″ or 3/8″ aluminum, resin impregnated paper or a polymer (plastic).
Nomex is basically a resin coated paper and a very hard material. Developed in the 1960’s one of its big advantages is it is fire resistant. (handy if you are playing in the hot desert). Nomex is a hard material which gives it very good durability however it is also what makes the “Pop” louder. From a playing perspective Nomex is said to provide good power and is quite often the material of choice for singles players.
Polymer cores (polypropylene) are softer and have larger honeycomb cells. These are good materials that hold up well but require a strong surface skin to protect it from impact damage. Look for a polymer paddle that is a little on the heavy side of the medium range (7.6oz – 8.4oz). These core materials are quieter and tend to have good power and control.
Aluminum cores are the softest of the three types. Due to their weight and density they don’t have the kind of power you’ll find with polypropylene or Nomex however some find that this core offers the best control. The downsides are noise from a distinctive pop and the ability to dent the paddle.
The physical properties of composites are fiber dominant. This means that when the resin and fiber are combined, their performance is based primarily on the fiber properties. For this reason, fabric selection is critical when designing composite structures.
Before we look at the different materials a couple of things frame the information.
Strength is the ability of a material to resist a force.
Stiffness is the ability of a material to resist deformation.
Stiffness and strength are not related you can have a very stiff material that is not very strong and vice versa
Elongation is the ability of a material to stretch and bend before it breaks. The more elongation the tougher the material.
Tensile strength ( ability to handle a force over an area) of Fiberglass is greater than that of carbon fiber.
Graphite/Carbon fiber contains up to 95% carbon and yields the highest ultimate tensile strength. That’s the force required to pull both ends of any length until it breaks. Carbon fiber has the greatest compressive strength and stiffness strength of all laminates and that is what separates carbon fiber from fiberglass.
Carbon fiber is roughly 5 times stiffer by weight than fiberglass E type and 4.5 stiffer than S glass by weight.
So what does this mean in the construction of a Pickleball paddle. Well a little less weight by fractions of an ounce but a significantly harder hitting surface. Because it is stiffer the ball bounces off the paddle faster and with more energy helping deliver more power, but less control.
In reality the core has more to do with the paddle feel but it is the paddle surface that transmits the energy to the core.
One thing to note when you are looking at Carbon paddles is it should not have an aluminum core as carbon degrades aluminum. Nomex or Polyethylene cores are fine.
Fiberglass is the most widely used out of any composite material available. This is mainly due to its relative low cost, and good all round physical properties. It also offers some of the highest strength to weight ratios compared to carbon fiber and is a much tougher material as it has a better ability to “give” when impacted. There are 2 basic types of fiberglass available, regular E glass and S glass. S Glass offers just over a 20% strength increase over E glass and from a strength point of view it is very close to carbon fiber.
One of the things that makes fiberglass tough is its ability to flex before failure.
From a playing point of view the fiberglass surface will give you a softer feel as it absorbs a little bit of the balls kinetic energy, keeping the ball on the paddle a little longer resulting in more control and less vibration through the paddle.