King Pong

The science behind ping pong paddles. Explained.

Ok, so you need a ping pong paddle. You probably think: “Yeah, it’s just a piece of wood with some rubber on it, nothing special, right?” Wrong! If you don’t read the tips we give you below, you risk spending extra money on something you don’t need and won’t enjoy playing.

When you’re looking for a ping pong paddle, you basically have two options: buy a complete pre-assembled one, or assemble it on your own from separate components – rubber/sponge and blade (you will also need some special glue).

If you’re a beginner, we strongly recommend buying a complete paddle and not to mess around with DIY option. If you’re a pro, what are you doing here?! Skip reading this article, you already know what kind of paddle you need, if you don’t, ask your coach. So, beginners or mid-level players who are still here, let’s continue. Why buy a complete paddle? This approach has several advantages:

It’s cost-effective. You can buy a decent paddle for about $30-35. If you through the do-it-yourself route, you can easily spend a hundred or two and get a paddle you won’t be able to play.

You spend no time on research, and get an (almost) perfectly balanced racket. It’s features are even and allow you to develop your table tennis skills gradually.

There are thousands of rubber/sponge combinations (each of them can be different thickness, tackiness, etc.), hundreds of blades (plies of wood are placed in different order, ). Add to that a number of glues - there are fast and slow glues, water and water-less. All these factors make a huge difference on the way the paddle plays. It all makes endless amount of unique paddles, and each of them plays differently.

The pro players know exactly what components they need to compliment their specific style. If you’re a beginner, and Ma Ling kindly offers you to play with his paddle, you will not be able to handle it, so the whole experience will look somewhere close to this:

... and you friend will beat you even if he will use Campbell Biology 11th Edition as a paddle (well, that’s probably a heavy one, but you get the idea).

There are lots of amazing paddles for less than $40. Anyone trying to convince you to pay more for your first racket is probably going to sell you something you don’t need. It’s like going to a car dealership and telling a salesman that you need a vehicle to commute your three kids to soccer class. And instead of offering you a Dodge Grand Caravan, he will say that Camaro is the best car for your needs. Same here:

Now you may think: wait, so I can buy a paddle for $5 from my local Walmart and still play table tennis, right? Wrong! The rackets you will see in the table below offer optimum performance for lowest price possible. A five or ten-bucks paddle will usually look like this, or very close:

Cheap ping pong paddle

perform like this:

instead of this:

As you can see, a slightly better paddle will give much more control and allow you to master more advanced shots like topspin.

As mentioned above, a ping pong paddle consists of three main elements - rubber, sponge and blade. There’s also glue that holds them all together, but we won’t cover it now as it’s a topic for more detailed discussion.

When choosing a racket you will often see a numeric value for three of the following specs: Speed, Spin and Control. Rubber, sponge and blade all have direct or indirect control on each of these specs. Let’s talk about rubbers and sponges first.

Ping Pong Rubbers and Sponges

Quality of rubber and a sponge attached to it is the main factor that determines the quality of the racket you play and more importantly, HOW it plays. We’re not saying blade is not important, it’s just that as a beginner, you will notice bigger difference in two rackets with different rubbers, rather than blades.

When the ball hits the rubber surface, it causes the underlying sponge to compress. At this moment of time, the following happens: the ball is ‘embraced’ by the rubber and sponge. The thicker the sponge, the bigger is contact surface, therefore, the higher is spin. Also, thicker sponge means higher ball speed, as it bounces back. 

You might now think: hey, more speed and spin, isn’t that great? Well, it is, but don’t forget about control. You see, specs of ping pong paddle are always a compromise. Here’s what we mean: in the case described above, higher speed and spin are achieved through increased sponge thickness, and it gives you less control over the ball, since it’s much easier to handle the ball with less thick sponge/rubber combination.

It’s good for experienced players leaning towards offensive, attacking style in their play, but not beginners.

That is why, again, we stress the importance of choosing a well-balanced paddle as your first one.

Here’s a short summary of rubber specs and what each of them means:

Speed

This a force created by density of rubber and thickness (and therefore, bouncing force) of underlying sponge. Optimal speed rating is about 7-8. Speeds of 9 and 10 (not very popular) are created mainly by thicker sponges (2.5mm), and lack control.

Spin

A force created due to two factors - tackiness of rubber and sponge thickness. Cheap paddles have either non-tacky surface that can’t create any spin at all, or too tacky rubber that will lose it’s quality within first days of use. Recommended spin for beginners is again 7-8. It will allow you to learn such skills as topspin without sacrificing other parameters of your racket.

Thickness of rubber and sponge, combined

1.0mm, 1.5mm (very seldom - 0.8mm) Either used in very cheap paddles (you can hear a hollow wooden sound from a paddle with thin sponge), because of it’s price, or defensive-style experienced players. Of course, the latter use rubbers and sponges of totally different quality and with a clear purpose - they give more control.


1.8mm, and 2.0mm - Most common. That’s what we recommend for beginners and mid-level players. It has both speed and a decent amount of control that you need when you’re just starting. But, many professionals who like to play closer to the table with fast spinning attacks prefer this thickness, too.


2.5mm - Maximum thickness allowed by current ITTF rules on competition level. Maximum amount of speed and spin, less control. Usually used by offensive attacking players who play pretty far from the table. Not recommended for beginners, since this style of play is not for everyone and requires years of experience.


It’s important to understand that sponges differ not only in thickness, but the quality of the foam used in sponge is also different (types of rubber, amount of ‘bubbles’, etc.). Manufacturers usually use a separate colour for different sponges, but there’s no unified standard and it differs from brand to brand.

There also are two different way the rubber sheet can be attached to the sponge - pimple-in and pimple-out.

We recommend going with pimple-in option that you will see on most paddles. Pimple-out is not used that often nowadays. Still, people who exactly know the benefits of these rubbers don’t want to change them for anything else.