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 Polypropylene 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 has just over a 20% strength increase compared to 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.
Wood playing surfaces
A hybrid wood composite paddle should not be confused with a traditional or cheap wooden paddle.
A hybrid paddle uses a thin wood veneer over a fibreglass or carbon fibre laminate. Wood veneer though not commonly used in high performance paddles but offers several advantages when properly integrated into a hybrid composite design. Wood has natural properties that make it an excellent choice for a paddle surface.
The grain of the wood adds a unidirectional strength to the paddle. So aligning the grain to the length of the paddle provides rigidity where you need it.
Wood has a natural dampening effect for both noise and vibration. Wood is comprised of millions of tiny cells and is considered a viscoelastic material. Meaning it has properties from both viscous and elastic materials. When a viscous material is stretched, it resists flow because of internal friction (think of pouring honey). When an elastic material has an applied stress, it stretches, but immediately springs back to it’s original state after the stress is removed. Woods elastic properties are what make it stiff. Because of the elastic properties, wood will react quicker to an applied stress, and because of its viscous component, it dissipates and dampens energy transferred to the paddle at ball contact, helping to mitigate vibration and sound.
So why doesn’t everyone use a wooden playing surface? The truth is it’s expensive and time consuming to laminate and finish so it is not generally suited to high production environments where low cost is the main concern. Further if you are just going to cover the paddle with paint and graphics why bother with the expense and trouble of using a wood surface.
From a playing point of view the properties of the wood grain adds strength along the length of the paddle where you need it. This keeps paddle flex to a minimum to deliver more power. The viscoelastic properties of the wood, help make the paddle more comfortable especially when playing hours at a time. The viscoelastic properties also help make the paddles more neighbourhood friendly by dampening the “pop” sound associated with a pickleball paddle. Finally, wood just looks great and the natural wood grain patterns are as individual as the player.
Over the past couple of years more and more manufacturers are adding a texture to the paddle surface. The theory is that the rougher surface will provide more grip on contact with the ball providing, more spin and keeping the ball from sliding on the paddle when playing in the rain or with a harder ball.
The textured on the playing surface can be molded into the surface or added to the finish. There are pros and cons to adding a texture as well as each texture type.
A molded texture will be more consistent over time as it generally doesn’t ware off.
With a non molded surface, small partials of a sand like material are added to the finish to create a nonslip, sandpaper like surface. The problem is that the partials are small and have very little surface area to bind properly in the finish and eventually ware off to some degree.
Do you need a textured paddle surface to spin the ball? The answer is no. Can you put more spin on a ball with a surface texture, probably yes.
With a non textured finish it is the paddle surface it’s self that is all important. If the finish or the actual playing surface of the paddle is too hard it will make the paddle less efficient at spinning the ball. A softer playing surface matched with softer finish can still provide huge amounts of spin without having a texture. For those of us in colder climates think of it the same as the stopping power of snow tires on ice. Snow tires are a softer compound than summer tires. That being said temperature will have an effect on the hardness of the paddle surface. If you play outdoors in very low temperatures a softer playing surface will become harder, decreasing the ability to create spin.
In our opinion, there are a couple of down sides to a textured surface. The theory is that unless you are an advanced player you should be more focused on developing your technique rather than looking for an advertised quick advantage. You will be tempted to spin when you shouldn’t and you will ultimately end up with an abundance of unforced errors, which are more detrimental to the outcome of your game than not having enough spin on the ball.
Another disadvantage with some o textured surfaces is they can shorten ball life by cutting into the surface. Further the damaged ball surface exacerbates the problem of debris being picked up by the ball and transferred to the paddle, ultimately damaging the paddle surface.
So is a textured surface better than a non textured surface? In this authors opinion, not unless you are above a 4.0 to 4.5 player, someone else is supplying the balls, and you continuously play outdoors in the pouring rain or sub zero temperatures. Then, maybe.