Choosing material for your Table Tennis racket is not easy

The Table Tennis material market is a jungle. This post shows where to swing the machete.

Most people who have tried agree that it is very difficult to choose the right material to build their own Table Tennis racket.

The reasons why it certainly isn’t easy, are:

  • The product information is unreliable.
  • It is almost impossible to measure and classify your needs.
  • There are no standards to match needs to products. It is trial and error.

This means that it can cost a lot, and take some time of testing before you get it right.

In fact, it could take years, and cost a small fortune.

Yet, your choice is very important for your success.

Does it have to be like this?

We would need some kind of common language, a standard.

Why? Why don’t we have a standard already? What are the problems?

We start with the needs and then continue with the products and the matching.

Your needs

  • You need a racket that you can use to generate, handle, and manipulate massive amounts of spin on the ball.
  • You need a racket that is suitable for your style of play.
  • You need a racket that is appropriate for your technical skill. For example, how well you strike your strokes or how hard you hit.
  • If you are not very strong physically, you might want a lightweight racket.
  • The perceived quality should align with your values.
  • The cost of rackets should fit your yearly budget.

Your unique set of requirements would be based on your needs and preferences. These are in turn are based on true needs, your values and what you are used to.

However, to capture the requirements and describe them in a controlled, correct and standardized way is not easy. There is simply no method for doing this.

The products

We have brands with their many products and their variants and product options.

We have different materials, different constructions, different production processes and rather few factories.

And in between, we have product management and the design. This goes all from marketing to technical developments and research.

However, despite (or thanks to) marketing efforts, making a choice is difficult.

  • There are hundreds of brands.
  • For each brand, there are hundreds of products and their variants.
  • The product properties vary tremendously and the product characteristics are difficult to see and verify.
  • For both blade and rubbers, there are no absolute measures of the more useful characteristics: speed, spin, and control. The only absolute and unambiguous measure is the weight of the blade.
  • Relative measures from manufacturers or retailers are subjective and unreliable.
  • Measures of sponge hardness are also not reliable.
  • Measures of blade hardness are not reliable. The same goes for the elasticity and the “sweet spot” of the blade.
  • Pricing is different. And some products are expensive. Since the user needs and preferences are so different between players, there is no such rule as “the more expensive, the better”.
  • Some blades and rubbers do not fit together, the combination doesn’t work well — and there is no register of this. This can also be within the same brand.
  • Products have large tolerances, even when quality otherwise is good. For example, rubber thickness.
  • Some products are the same (or almost the same), same design (in what matters for the play), same materials, and coming from the same factory and product process, but with different brand names, distributors/retailers and prices.
  • There are fake products on the market. Especially in Asia and online, there exist non-serious retailers selling piracy copies of bad quality.

The matching

  • Shop sales assistants may be product specialists, and also good players themselves, but they haven’t seen you play matches. They can only anticipate your needs, based on your own description of your style and skill — how accurate will that be? And their matching of needs vs. products will not be better than their experience given by the feedback they actually get from customers. Moreover, sales assistants are of course biased to what products they sell and make the most profit from.
  • Web shops may soon have useful product configurators, but they can also not analyze your needs and tell what is — really — the best for you. At least not yet.
  • Club coaches are not product specialists even if they might think they are.
  • User ratings are not reliable. Most users have tested only a few combinations of blade and rubbers, and not in parallel.
  • Comparative tests made by independent media are very few. All bloggers are biased and their “tests” are more or less useless information.
  • You can’t try before you buy, except certain combinations.
  • If you have a sponsor, you might have to use their limited range of products.
  • Both you, your friends, the coaches and the shop assistants only have a small frame of reference and very subjective pictures of reality. Nobody has tried all products and product combinations for all possible needs. You have to trust people, but you know you shouldn’t.
  • Whatever choice you make, you know the probability you’ll get the optimum combination of products for your needs is near zero.

But there is no reason to give up! You need a racket, don’t you?

It always helps to acquire some knowledge of your own.

Disclaimer: I have just started my own knowledge acquisition journey. In the following, I summarize some of my own learning so far. Please take it for what its. The information is not quality secured.

Selecting a racket — choice by choice

Prefab or custom

If you are only going to use the racket to play ping-pong with friends and family and never are going to practice Table Tennis at a club, you can buy a prefabricated racket. Just select the brand with the most attractive looking boxes, decide how much you are willing to spend, and choose the model with as many stars as possible. That’s not a too difficult choice.

However, if you are serious about your Table Tennis, prefabricated rackets are not good enough. You need a custom racket.

Pre-glued or self-glued

This choice is only about who is doing the gluing. Either you let the shop glue the rubber sheets to the blade for you, or you do it yourself.

In my view, it is just as good to do it yourself because it is not too difficult to learn and you’ll probably buy replacement rubbers online later, that you’ll need to glue on your current blade.

I recommend getting some glue and side tape and decide to assemble yourself. Of course, in case I would buy the rubbers and the blade at the same time, and the gluing is free of charge, I’d let them do it.

Prioritizing the blade or the rubbers

Some people say the blade means 75%, and the rubbers only mean 25%. Anyway, it is the combination of the blade and the rubber sheets, the totality of properties and characteristics that are important to you.

No doubt, the blade is an important choice. You need a quality blade that is suitable for you and gives you the feel and consistency to make you competitive. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

The rubbers are also important.

Perhaps around 1/2 of the total is on the blade.

But the blade can be used for a long time, many years, while you will have to replace the rubbers quite often.

So first, I’d make sure I get a good quality blade.

You should see the blade as a longtime investment, selected with great care. Play it in, and stick with it. It is probably more important to get used to a suitable blade you have selected than having made the perfect choice.

Something to know is that blades tend to get a bit slower with time, as the wood dry with age. But that takes decades or at least several years if you take care of your racket.

A quality blade is consistent — it has a near linear curve that for a different stroke rate of speeds provides a proportionally greater spin and speed.

The blade creates the conditions for good spin. Although spin is usually not a listed property for a blade, it is probably the most important characteristic. Spin gives control, which makes you win matches.

The blade — speed or control

What blade is suitable for you depends on your style of play and your technical skills.

Unfortunately speed and the other group of characteristics you experience, such as spin, control, feels and consistency are opposites.

This means, that if you choose a faster blade you also lose control, spin, and feels, given the same stroke. And vice verse, given the same quality level and type of blade.

We can divide Table Tennis blades into three main groups,

  • multi-layer only wood blades
  • multi-layer wood blades with reinforcements
  • lightweight wood blades

Multi-layer blades are available in different hardness, often named DEF, Allround, Allround+, OFF-, OFF, OFF+, and more. The harder the faster. Usually, you’ll also see some grading values that indicate the control and the speed.

Only-wood blades are a good choice for most players. Traditionally, multi-layer blades made by only wood are the best for “loopers” and for most players, attack players, all-around players and defensive players. These blades have a certain elasticity for good spin, control, and feeling.

The layers of the blade are of different numbers, kinds, qualities, and thicknesses of the wood veneer. The layer combinations give different blade properties. And these define the products together with various kind of branding.

Some reinforced blades are for elite level players. Reinforced blades are multi-layer wood blades with thin sheets of fiber fabric inside. The fabric is often made with carbon fibers. These reinforced blades are suitable for advanced players, who have great technique and feeling. These blades might not give particularly good feeling or spin even if the marketing tells otherwise. This kind of blade, however, is very fast and is suitable for players who hit hard with great precision and who expect maximum speed. If you don’t have good enough technique or don’t hit hard enough, you should consider an all wood blade instead. With a reinforced blade you probably would get poor precision because you cannot get enough spin on the ball to get control, which is required for speed. Spin and control always come before speed.

However, lately, there have been market introductions of reinforced blades that are not too fast and that give good control and feeling.

Last year I bought myself a reinforced defensive blade with excellent control and consistency that is also rather fast. I like it a lot. It helps me win matches and I am not a skilled player.

Lightweight blades, usually made from balsa, are suitable either for “blockers”, “smashers”, or long pimples players that play close to the table. All balsa blades are not really suitable for “loopers” or for topspin play.

To sum up, your style of play and your skill level gives you the blade. Select a blade that is not too fast for your style and technique, but instead has good control and feels. You should be able to get good spin. The more the spin, the higher speed you can make with control. Conversely, too, the faster you can hit with precision the more you spin you generate. If you get too little speed, work on your strokes before you consider replacing the blade.

The blade — straight or flared or anatomic handle

When you buy a new blade you can usually choose between different handle types or shaft shapes.

There are straight handles that can be round or more or less square seen from the end. There are flared or concave handles, and there are anatomic handles.

Unless you have special reasons, consider the flared handle. The flared handle is easier to keep in exactly the same position in the hand than using a straight handle, especially when you get sweaty. It is also good when it is not too round, seen from the end of the shaft. An anatomic shaft may invite you to a too tight grip. Besides, some services may become harder to do with an anatomic shaft. For certain services you should hold the racket with only two fingers — it is simply easier to swing the shaft passing by the three fingers if nothing stands out. Try, and judge yourself.

The rubbers — pips-out or pips-in

Rubbers are very much dependent on your game style.

If you play offensive or attacking table tennis you most probably want a pips-in rubber. Pips-in rubbers are also called backside or inverted rubbers, having a flat top sheet surface. Only few players play offensive with pips-out rubbers, and then usually with “soft” or short pips (Men: ~4 %, Women: ~10 %), and they are usually “smashers”. Pips-out rubbers have the pimples outward, and this type was the original standard rubber.

Basically, the two main rubber parameters are spin sensitivity/capacity and speed, depending on your style of play.

If you play offensive either with speed close to the table or with an attacking topspin game at the middle or far distance from the table, you’d probably want a backside rubber with a thick sponge. The more dependent you are on heavy spin (a “looper”) the more spin sensitivity you demand from the rubber, and you might also want a softer sponge. The more dependent you are on speed (a “smasher”) the harder sponge and less spin sensitivity you demand or want from the rubber. But these differences in spin sensitivity are small.

Pips-out rubbers enable you to play with spin in a not so expected manner. The trajectory of pimple rubbers is also lower and more straight, compared to backside rubbers. This because the spin sensitivity is lower.

The longer the pips, the less sensitivity for the incoming spin and the less possibility to create spin. However, the longer the pips, the easier to reinforce the spin that is already on the ball. For instance, to chop the ball sending an incoming topspin ball back as heavy backspin.

Many defenders that play far from the table use long pimples. Others use short or medium pips, or backside. If you play defensive with a chopper style of play you’d probably want a pips-out rubber with a thin sponge, at least on one side of the racket. There are of course exceptions. Some defensive players successfully use backside on both sides. Some play pips-out with no sponge (ox) — with the feels more of a go-cart than of a Citroën.

Pips-out rubbers are for you who have done your strategy work. You’d get the label “material player”.

You need to try yourself to see if pips-out rubbers would suit you. Count on a long learning period.

The standard of today is backside or inverted rubbers, because most people have an all-around or offensive style of play.

The rubbers — black or red

Of course, you select the sheet color as well, red or black rubber — one color for each side. This particular choice is not important. All the others are.

The rubbers — “China” or “Japanese” or “German”

So called “China” rubbers are harder for higher speeds and relies more on the tacky surface of the top sheet to generate heavy spin also at low speeds. “Japanese” rubbers are softer and rely more on the sponge effect for both spin and speed. “German” rubbers are similar to the “Japanese”.

If you ask me I’d say this choice is more a matter of taste and what you have got used to. I prefer “China” rubbers on my backhand, and this is contrary to most others. But I always seem to act in weird ways. People also tell me that “China” rubbers require technically good strokes, so they could be good to use when you learn the strokes as these rubbers force you to do it right. I listened to that, and now I don’t want to change. I tried the best Japanese rubbers but didn’t like them and changed back.

The plastic ball has less spin than the old celluloid ball had. This is a good reason to choose the tackier “China” rubbers. Also some of the newest “German” rubbers are more tacky or sticky on the topsheet.

The rubbers — low or high price

There are not that many factories in the world, that produce good quality rubbers. Just a few actually (4–5 off). Many brands use the same factory, and the rubbers from the same factory are usually very much alike despite the brand. But prices vary depending on the market image. It is like this also with blades and balls.

The choice depends on your budget and your values. For myself, I have no need to brag and I hate to waste money, so I go for the inexpensive low-profile brands. They have about the same properties and last the same time period, or about some hundred hours of play.

The rubbers — thick or thin sponge

A common mistake is to buy too fast rubbers for your technical skills. Start with care. That is, not too thick rubbers.

For long pimpled rubbers, when you play defensive, the choice is different. ox = no sponge. ox gives the best control for backspin strokes, but it is difficult to get any control for topspin strokes. The thicker sponge you have, the less control you get for backspin strokes, but you get better control for topspin strokes. This is valid, at least for the number of various rubbers I’ve tested, when the opponent shoots a topspin or no spin ball towards you, which is the most common situation.

About upgrading

When you feel that you can make the strokes perfectly but you do not get enough speed, then it is time to upgrade the rubber, to a thicker and/or harder sponge.

When you have reached the fastest rubber, and yet must have a faster racket, then it is time to upgrade the blade, for example, from Allround to Allround+ or from OFF- to OFF.

It takes at least half a year to really play-in a certain combination of blade and rubber sheets, especially if you changed the blade, so you should not change frequently. Many professionals use the blade for many, many years, they do not want to change because they’ve found a blade that fits their style of play and that gives them perfect sense and feels.

You should not even consider upgrading the blade or rubbers if you can not manage to put fast strokes on the table in match situations. If you miss smashes and loop smashes, let’s say, more than 12–30%, then you should instead of upgrading revise and practice your technique.

Before you upgrade, you should feel that you have full control of your racket and blade. If you do not achieve the feeling of total control or do not get proper spin on the ball, you should downgrade to a slower blade that gives you a better feels, control, and spin. More spin provides more control and thus more speed. Poor spin gives poor control and poor precision and you lose a lot and it’s not so fun to play table tennis then.

As long as you have a blade that fits your style, most important is that you have played it in and got used to it. While you can get some advantages by replacing rubbers and thus adjust the properties of the racket, it takes the time to get used to the new combination, to play it in, so each change requires reflection.

Suggested upgrade plan for kids

Start with an inexpensive prefab beginners racket, with good control and really good spin capacity. If the kid likes table tennis and has got the hang of it, that is, understands how to strike and return both topspin and backspin, and has quite good control in fast rallies involving a mix of all or most kinds of spin, then it is time to upgrade to a customs racket.

For the first custom racket, start with a good allround blade and good inexpensive but good backside rubbers with a not too thick sponge. When the kid wins the tournament after tournament it is time for the next upgrade to a near elite level racket. Then the sponsor will pay for the expensive blade and the rubbers. When the kid doesn’t win every tournament but improves well and fast and likes to compete, then the question is whether to go for a fast reinforced blade right away and get well used to that, or to make it a two-stage rocket instead. Let the coach decide or throw the coin.

About how to keep the racket

Wood is a “living” material. Store your racket with a relative humidity of 40–70% and a temperature of 10–35 degrees centigrade. Keep your racket in a box or bag, protected from light, dirt, and damage. If humidity and temperature varies or is high, don’t put the racket in a plastic bag as it can hurt the blade then. Don’t put the racket under the car windshield.

Rubbers should be cleaned with the sponge kind of cloth and water after each training. You can also use sweat, it makes the surface better for longer. When dry after cleaning, you may protect the rubbers with special plastic sheets to protect from dust. The best is to buy a hard case (box).

Be careful with your blade. Don’t hit it. It breaks rather easily if you hit it with the flat side. It could break just by throwing it up to land on top of the table or by hitting it at your thigh when you get disappointed for losing a rally. On the other side, the edge side, it is far less fragile. All this might sound strange to you, but it’s a fact.