By Wayne Dollard
Why did you choose your paddle?
45% Play/Demo Test
15% Manufacturer Brand Name
3% Surface Material
3% Grip Size
2% Player Endorsement
Have you ever wondered how a manufacturer could produce two paddles of identical size, yet one weighs half an ounce more?
The answer is the thickness and the size of each hexagonal honeycomb.
By placing the holes closer together, or by using a thicker honeycomb, the paddle will become heavier, and the sweet spot will generally expand.
2019 marked the 54th anniversary of our beloved sport founded on Bainbridge Island, WA, back in 1965. Pickleball experienced very mild growth until a few years back when everything really took hold. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), pickleball now has close to 3.5 million players... and it’s still rapidly growing. Just eight years ago, that number was 100,000 players.
There are close to 50 “Approved” manufacturers for the sport; however, the paddle makers featured in this issue are responsible for 99% of the tournament paddle market. Of these, nine control 90% of all tournament paddle sales. They are: Pickleball, Inc., Paddletek, Pro‑lite, Head, Selkirk, Engage, Gamma Franklin, and Escalade Sports (Onix). At the same time, there are over a dozen other paddle producers that are rapidly growing due to high quality and technological improvements.
A few months ago, Pickleball Magazine conducted a telephone survey with 1,000 USAPA ambassadors. One of the questions was, “Why did you choose the paddle you currently use?” While the results may not be surprising, they did reveal the obvious trend that people choose paddles for their playability.
Three years ago, we ran a paddle guide article and reported on the major paddle core materials. At that time, roughly one-third of the bestselling paddles had nomex/aramid cores, another one-third were aluminum, and one-third were polypropylene (or polymer based), graphite, wood, or something else. Since this time, the polymer core has been proven to be a reliable product and is now found in 95%+ of all tournament player paddles. The reason for the rise of polymer cores would be the light weight and the durability.
While some paddle cores are solid, the overwhelming majority are made with some sort of honeycomb-style materials; but, not all honeycomb-shaped polymer cores are equal. Have you ever wondered how a manufacturer could produce two paddles of identical size, yet one weighs half an ounce more? The answer is the thickness and the size of each hexagonal honeycomb. By placing the holes closer together, or by using a thicker honeycomb, the paddle will become heavier, and the sweet spot will generally expand.
While polymer is generally a heavier material, contributing to its reputation for power (pop), it has less “natural” pop than aluminum or nomex/aramid cores of the same weight. These cores are combined with a number of different facing materials, primarily polypropylene, but also fiberglass (more pop/power) and more recently graphite (more control/touch). Like other core materials, polymer performance will be most dictated by weight and face material/surface treatment.
Aramid/nomex core paddles have a nice combination of power, control and feel. Nomex is DuPont’s trademark and is an aramid fiber paper coated with phenolic resin (think paper honeycomb coated in liquid fiberglass). This was the first honeycomb material used to build pickleball paddles. Depending on surface face material, these paddles can often be combined with graphite, creating good control paddles, or fiberglass face materials creating great pop.
They feel nice when you hit the ball; however, by the nature of the material, they can eventually break down and develop dead spots.
SURFACE MATERIAL (SKIN OR FACE)
The surface of the paddle is most commonly made of a fiberglass (reinforced plastic polymer)or graphite, although there are many great paddles using carbon, kevlar, or some other combinations. Each will intentionally offer a different feel to complement the characteristics dictated by the core material and weight.
Fiberglass surfaces are highly durable and tend to offer good pop/power.
Graphite surfaces are known for their lightweight and responsive touch. They can be combined with almost any core material to create paddles with good control/soft touch. Graphite surface paddles are generally a little more expensive and difficult to source.
Polypropylene is a common facing material used with polypropylene cores. It is highly durable and heavier in weight.
Aluminum and carbon fiber surface paddles are less common and therefore less tested.
Paddle surfaces are often finished with paint, screen print or vinyl, which can add a small amount of texture (for spin), weight (for power) or hardness (for power). The USAPA has applied very stringent limits to the amount of texture that can be on a paddle surface. To sum it up – if the surface face offers a spin advantage, it will probably not pass USAPA testing.
Let me start by saying that I like heavier paddles! Possibly the #1 most important and easy-to-understand thing that will affect the play of a paddle is the weight. Some people argue that their reflexes are slower with and 8 oz. paddle versus a 7 oz. comparable model; however, if you’re basing your dinking game decisions on reflex play, you’ve probably got this all wrong. Manufacturers and virtually all touring pros agree that the added weight allows for less effort to hit stronger, more accurate shots. They would also agree that heavier paddles have larger sweet-spots and are better for blocking, dinking, driving, serving, and everything else. My advice would be, if you don’t have some debilitating arm injury, then side with a heavier paddle.
FINDING YOUR PADDLE
So which paddle is the best one for you? The answer: The paddle that you play the best with and feel the most confident with. But, if you’re not sure what to look for, first determine what type of player you think you are. Be honest. It’s not who you want to be...it’s who you really are. Type-A individuals may lean toward more of an aggressive type playing paddle having some weight and pop, while a “B” personality may want a lighter, softer paddle for better touch. Your personality does matter.
Our recommendation is to have a process.
- Since weight is so important, I recommend you check the weights of every paddle you demo. You’ll probably see a trend. Lighter paddles offer better control over your dinking and soft game, but will make it tougher to drive the ball hard when needed. Heavier paddles offer more power because of the extra mass behind the ball, but this may cause you to lose control over your soft game. Experiment and find what gives you a well-balanced game.
Make sure your paddle has enough power for you to easily get your serves and returns deep in the court without having to swing too hard. If your balls are landing short too often, try a more powerful paddle. If you are popping up your dinks a lot, try a model made more for control. This power versus control equation is key, but also the one element that’s different for everyone, so find what works best for you and your game.
- Next, make sure to demo at least one graphite and one polymer paddle. You’ll feel a significant difference when dinking and from the baseline. Graphite tends to offer more touch and feel, while composite gives a little more pop.
- Next, it’s time to think about paddle shape. Most paddles have a similar conventional shape that’s usually about 8” wide and 15.75” long. If you play a lot of singles, you want to consider a longer, narrower shape that will help you cover more of the court and reach more volleys at the net. These longer paddles provide more power, with a sweet spot more towards the tip that former tennis players will love. However, a narrow paddle means a narrow sweet spot, which can make doubles play more challenging. When it’s windy, it may be tricky for you to find the center of the paddle.
- Finally, you must consider handle size and length. This is an often overlooked part of the paddle, but it’s probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The handle is your only connection to the paddle and control over the paddle face, so having the right grip is critical to controlling your shots. Hold the paddle like you are shaking hands with it. With your normal relaxed grip, you should have a little space between your finger tips and your thumb pad—about ¼” to ½”. If your fingertips almost touch or touch your thumb pad, your grip is too small. If there is a space larger than ½”, then it’s probably too big.
Too large or small grip circumference can cause discomfort in the form of “tennis elbow” and hinder your play. The length of the grip can also make a difference. If you place your index finger on the back of the paddle or like to slide your hand up the grip for more control, then try a paddle with a shorter grip length. If you like to hit a 2-handed backhand or if you have overly large hands, a longer grip will work better for you.
The point to all this is that every paddle plays different and that it’s your job to find out which one works best for you. The technology has arrived and there are many great paddle manufacturers out there. Go to a demo day at a major tournament or ask your local pro to arrange one. Your game will improve and you’ll enjoy pickleball at a higher level.