Hey there, Court Crew! We're releasing our first performance paddle line soon and we want to give context of where pickleball performance paddle technology is currently at and how we decided on our edgeless thermoformed paddle design.
Let's start by explaining raw carbon fiber (RCF) paddles, a game-changer in the performance realm. These bad boys have been spinning and powering up our games like never before, and they're getting more popular by the day. We’re going to unwrap the tech evolution of these RCF paddles, so buckle up for a fun ride through paddle tech history!
First off, a shoutout to Chris Olson from Pickleball Studio for coining the terms for the performance paddle generations we’re talking about. We'll be sticking to the USAP's official approval dates for all the gear we mention.
Gen 1 RCF
The Electrum Model E was the first paddle to use RCF tech, officially hitting the scene on June 5, 2021. Since then, we’ve seen many more paddle manufacturers jumping on the RCF bandwagon. Here’s a peek at what makes Generation 1 RCF paddles tick.
The RCF Face Sheet
Ever noticed that gritty texture on RCF paddles? This part of the paddle is where the magic happens, giving players that extra spin in their game. The RCF face sheet is all about creating the perfect surface for maximum spin. Here's how this RCF texture is crafted by most paddle manufacturers:
Imagine three thin, rectangular sheets of carbon fiber, each pre-pre-soaked with a sticky epoxy resin. These sheets are stacked on top of each other in alternating (typically 90 degree) angles.
Adding the Peel Ply
Now, here's the unique part - the peel ply. This is an additional layer that goes on the very top of the stacked carbon fiber sheets. Think of it as a temporary cover. Its job is to absorb some of the epoxy resin and uniformly remove that resin in step 4.
The Hot Press Magic
These layered sheets, along with the peel ply, are then placed into a hot press molding machine. Imagine a giant waffle iron, but instead of waffles, it’s pressing and heating these layers into a solid, unified piece. The molds in the machine ensure everything aligns perfectly and the epoxy resin flows and disperses evenly, fully saturating the carbon fibers.
Peeling for Perfection
After the heating and pressing, the peel-ply layer is peeled off. This is a crucial step. When the peel ply is peeled away, it leaves behind a rough, uniform, textured surface on the carbon fiber. This is the secret behind most "raw" carbon fiber that other paddle manufacturers don't want you to know. It isn't carbon fiber weaved together but instead, an embossed texture. While calling Gen 1 paddle calling the surface "raw" carbon fiber is a little misleading, this texture isn’t just for looks; it’s the key to the incredible spin that players can get on the ball.
Gen 1 paddles are also known as "cold mold" paddles. Why? Because except for the hot-pressed face sheet, the rest of the paddle is made without heat. Think of a sandwich – two face sheets with a polypropylene honeycomb core in the middle. They’re glued together and then factory machines shape them into paddles. The sides are left exposed, so an edge guard is wrapped around for a neat finish.
Due to the popularity of Gen 1 paddles, they inspired some nifty innovations, leading to what we now call Generation 1.5. The JOOLA Ben Johns Hyperion CFS paddle, approved on April 1, 2022, was the first of this kind. These paddles are a bit of a hybrid, using thermoforming in a limited way.
The big deal in Gen 1.5 is the foamed edge. Uncured foam is injected along the edge of a cut-out Gen 1 paddle blank, and then it’s off to the hot press. This foam expands, fills up the gaps in the honeycomb core, and voila – you’ve got a more stable paddle with an enlarged sweet spot. Physics fans, this means a higher moment of inertia, meaning less wobble on those off-center hits. It’s like putting lead tape around the edge, but built into the paddle itself.
Now, let’s talk about the big leap to Generation 2, where thermoforming is used throughout the entire process of the paddle creation. The Legacy Pro paddle is the first fully thermoformed paddle and got its stamp of approval on September 20, 2022.
Thermoforming is the buzzword in the pickleball paddle industry and is the heart of what sets Gen 2 paddles apart. Here's a step-by-step breakdown of this process:
Unlike earlier generations, in Gen 2 paddles, each component (the face sheets and the polypropylene honeycomb core) is pre-cut into the shape of a paddle. This is a departure from the old method where large sheets were first laminated together and then cut into paddle shapes.
Once the components are cut, they're assembled in a layered structure. This typically involves a face sheet, the honeycomb core, and another face sheet. Imagine a sandwich where the bread is the face sheets and the honeycomb core is the filling.
Adding the Edge
Around the edges of this sandwich, a special foam – the carbon seam foam edge – is placed. This foam is critical as it will expand during the thermoforming process to fill any gaps, providing a seamless edge and increasing the paddle's durability.
The Thermoforming Process
The entire setup is then placed into the hot press molding machine. Here's where the term thermoforming truly comes into play. The machine heats up the assembly while applying pressure. Under this heat and pressure, the epoxy resin within the face sheets starts to flow, becoming more malleable and spreading throughout the structure.
Creating a Unibody Paddle
As the resin flows and fills every nook and cranny, it starts bonding all the layers together. The expanding foam at the edges also gets into action, filling up the gaps and binding to the honeycomb core and the face sheets. This entire process results in a paddle that's essentially one solid piece – a unibody construction. This is a big deal because it makes the paddle much more rigid, stronger, and durable than those where the components are simply glued together.
Cooling and Finalizing
After the heating cycle, the assembly is allowed to cool while still under pressure. This cooling phase solidifies the resin, locking everything in place. Once cooled, the paddle is removed from the mold and voila – you have a Gen 2 paddle.
And that is the evolution of RCF paddles. Gen 2 paddles are still using raw carbon fiber for the paddle surface and because of the thermoforming process, are able to generate a lot more power than a non-thermoformed paddle because of the rigidity of the unibody frame.
Our performance paddle utilizes raw carbon fiber and thermoforming for a unibody construction. However, not only do we combine these two cutting edge technologies, we also took it to the next level by using our 3D 18k carbon fiber surface. Our carbon fiber surface is not an embossed surface; it is actual carbon fiber weaved together into an extremely grippy surface. Stay tuned for the next article explaining the differences in carbon fiber and what 3D 18k fiber means for pickleball paddles!