Why would anyone make a wooden badminton racket when from just 50€ you can buy any number of perfectly good and very useable modern rackets? Well it’s true that there may not be that many people out there who would but I am going to attempt to convince you that making and using a wooden badminton racket can be a great experience. I have played badminton now for over 40 years and all things considered, I’m not a bad player despite being nearer to 60 than 50 and being only 1.6 metres short. Being short is not an advantage in badminton and neither is playing with a wooden racket or so everyone would have you believe. However just because everyone uses a modern and lightweight racket does not mean that wood has no place on a badminton court.
It’s true that there wasn’t much technology in the wooden rackets being sold as recently as the late 1970s, they were heavy and stiff and used animal gut for strings. Today’s rackets are much lighter, made of graphite and carbon and use synthetic strings. You can play perfectly well with an old wooden racket but they weigh a lot more than your average modern racket (almost twice as much). String tension was generally lower because the wooden structure could not take the strain and because you could only stretch animal gut so far. Thanks to advances in composites and epoxy resin it is now possible to make a wooden badminton racket which is almost as light as a modern racket and can even play better once you get used to it. Perhaps it is not the ideal racket for fast doubles matches where lightning fast defence requires a super light racket but for a slightly slower game or singles a good wooden racket can be great. Plus, many players deliberately train with a heavier racket to build muscle strength and then revert to a normal racket for tournaments.
For years I had thought about making a wooden badminton racket and finally I got around to doing just that. I wanted to know if it was possible to make a wooden racket which could compete with a typical modern racket, at least at my ‘club’ level. I doubt any pro would ever use a wooden racket but for us amateurs it’s a good choice. I believe I play better with my slightly heavier wooden racket than I ever did with my modern and lighter racket and even if that is only wishful thinking on my behalf if I believe it helps my game then I am already doing better!
So I hunted down a typical wooden racket on Ebay. I wanted one in good condition. One of the problems with old wooden rackets and probably one of the main reasons why they faded in popularity is the need to keep them carefully in a wooden clamp to stop them distorting with the string tension. I found a fairly good Dunlop racket with only minor distortion and proceeded to study it with a view to basically copying it whilst making some improvements along the way to see what happened
The head was constructed of 5 layers of laminated wood. An external piece of beech with two ash layers, one more beech and a layer of ash on the inside. There was added reinforcement around the lower third of the head to presumably strengthen where the head meets the shaft. The shaft is very stiff but there is some flex in the head itself. It’s my understanding that the shaft was stiff to compensate for the flex in the strings and the head. But as there is nothing at all written about making or designing wooden badminton rackets it remains an intelligent guess at best. At the end of the day what is infinitely more important is how the racket plays and I am slowly learning all this through trial and error. I am now on my fifth home made wooden racket.
The first one I made was a basic copy of the Dunlop one albeit with a hollow carbon shaft and using teak instead of beech and ash. Why teak? Because I had some and thought it would be nice. I added two thin layers of carbon tape within the laminates. I used 6 laminates instead of 5. The end result was a racket which played quite well but was still a bit heavy. About 120 grams (with strings and grip) which is already 20 grams lighter than the Dunlop but I was convinced I could do better.
Racket two was made in the same way, with the same dimensions, shape and construction albeit using teak, pine and ash with one thick layer of carbon in the middle of the laminates. Weight was slightly less and it played better despite being more flexible in the head. Despite the light construction I still managed to get 8 kilos of tension on the strings which was surprising. I have been playing with this racket for about three months now and it has been excellent, even surviving a few racket clashes with a partner. I could have continued quite happily playing with this racket but I wanted to know if I could do better still.
The following two rackets were not great. They were light and you could play with them but they did not have much power and I was unable to get enough string tension in them. It was probably because I strayed from the Dunlop design and maybe because I tried to take out too much weight, or use the wrong wood. There are so many variables which can change the characteristics of a racket. But every time I learned something. What I basically learned was that despite the apparent simple design of the Dunlop it was made the way it was for a reason even if I had no clue what that might be. Oh well. No point trying to re-invent the wheel!
Racket five is the latest evolution. It differs in many ways although it still uses the Dunlop’s shape and build design. Firstly it is made solely of larch. Larch wasn’t my first choice but I managed to buy a big roll of edge binding which was 1 mm thick on a roll and perfect for making badminton rackets. However Larch is suitable wood for this application as it is hard and relatively light. It also bends well and is generally knot free and straight grained which always helps when making something like this. The shaft is the same hollow wound 7 mm dia carbon one I have used in all the rackets so far as it has the right dimensions, is very light and has some flexibility.
This racket plays very well indeed. It is noticeably lighter than No.2 at just 110 grams and that includes the grip and the strings so we are definitely getting towards the weight of a more modern racket. (it weighs 94 grams without strings and grip which isn’t really much more than many modern rackets). There are advantages to a heavier racket and the main one is that is has more power as it has more momentum. The racket does more of the work. Being flexible also adds to the power of the racket. Perhaps it does not swing as quickly as it is surely not as aerodynamic as a modern racket with its V section neck but I cannot notice the difference. Also wood is relaxing to play with and absorbs shock better than graphite of carbon does. this makes it less tiring to play with. A wooden racket is also a beautiful thing to look at and there’s something about making your own racket and then playing well with it which offers huge satisfaction that you just can’t get from a bought one no matter how good it is.
Lets talk about costs. All in all it’s not a very costly thing to do. The amount of materials are few and not too expensive. The carbon shaft costs about 3€ and the carbon tape about 2€ some epoxy, not very much at all, perhaps 1€. Some special sandpaper rope is also needed, say 3€. Some wood is needed. I bought a 50m roll of 24 mm wide 1mm thick larch edge banding on a roll, enough to make at least 8 rackets, so another 3€ for the wood. You’ll also need some 15mm ply or MDF to make a mould. A bit of spray varnish, strings and grips and you’re good. I doubt a racket costs me more than 12€ not including the grip or the strings. The biggest expense is time. I estimate from start to finish, including making the template for the shape of the head and stringing it takes about 10 hours. Not too bad really. Some tools are needed, the most important being the drill with an angled head attachment so the holes for the strings can be drilled from the inside out. A very useful tool is a drum sander and even better if it is fitted to a pillar drill.
So lets look at how certain features of a racket equate to how they play on court. In very basic terms a beginner’s racket will generally have a flexible shaft and what they call a ‘head light’ balance. The string tension will also be less. A racket like this will be easy to use and will produce adequate power even if the player’s technique is not great. Also the ‘sweat spot’ or the area of the strings where it is best to hit the shuttle will be larger, reducing the need for perfect technique. The down side of this kind of racket is that it will not be as accurate as a more pro racket. And although the pro racket will have a stiff shaft and a high string tension which reduce power the player’s greater skill and technique will make up for it and of course the great advantage is accuracy.
All that said, I believe this to all be largely subjective. As far as I can tell, we can all get on and play with any racket. All we need is some time to learn it and so long as we stick with it, our game will improve. I do not believe a racket is as important an issue to be able to play well as many would have you believe. I used to play locally with a Policeman who was a brilliant player. he destroyed me every time. I never ever got close to beating him. Once I took his good racket and he used an old crappy one which had been poorly restrung and was completely distorted in shape and with a bent head. I did not see how anyone could even play with it. It made zero difference to him and he still thrashed me. There is a player at my club who plays very well and you have to laugh when you see his racket. It is a nasty cheap steel one with the most laughably loose strings you have ever seen. he loves it and does not want to change and he can hit some surprisingly powerful shots with it.
So I really believe that the racket you use is not that important. Better to be happy with the one you have and spend time practicing and improving your technique, fitness and footwork. You will improve far more as a player that way than believing a better racket will help you. Despite my short stature, advancing years and home made racket I still manage to win most games I play and although my accuracy isn’t perfect, it’s at least good enough. After all, the first rule of badminton is to get the shuttle over the net which I at least manage to do most of the time.
Having discussed the various merits of racket design we move on to what is even possible with wood. Although it is a fabulous and sustainable material it does not have the same properties as graphite or carbon so we need to use it to the best of its abilities. Thanks to modern technology we can laminate wood with an immensely strong gap filling epoxy glue and strengthen it without much weight penalty by adding carbon fibre to the structure. This seems to me a good compromise and the racket looks nice with a carbon infill too.
The shape of the head is very interesting. A professional’s racket will probably be an oval shape as this appears to give the best in forms of power and accuracy but at the expense of the size of the sweet spot but since a professional’s technique is so much better this doesn’t matter at all. Most modern rackets for us mere mortals have what is called an Isometric head which is slightly squared off with more string area. This supposedly increases the size of the sweet spot without affecting anything else. Perhaps when you are making a modern racket the actual shape is not so important because you can drill holes in it anywhere you want and some rackets have a 96 hole string pattern where each string has its own hole. This is supposed to keep string tension more even across the head but you do not want to drill more holes than necessary in a wooden racket for fear of weakening it too much. A wooden racket needs a stringing pattern with as few as holes as possible. That means many of the strings have to share a hole.
Laying out the string pattern for a home made racket is the hardest aspect of the whole build. On all of the rackets I have measured, the distance the strings are apart vertically is about 8mm and 9mm horizontally. What I have been unable to discover is why the difference? Is it simply because you want about the same amount of strings up and down as side to side? Most rackets have 22 vertical strings and 22 or 23 horizontal ones. Is the reason the horizontal strings are further apart because the head is taller than it is wide? Or is there some tension reason why? is it important for the string bed to have a difference? What I believe is happening is that trying to fit strings to an oval racket and keep the string spacing perfectly even while sharing holes is impossible. It just can’t be done hence the slight difference.
I experimented with head shapes to see if I could fine one that allowed equal spacing but I did not manage. In the end I had to compromise and move some strings up a bit and some down or in or out. The first two rackets were made to the same oval shape as the Dunlop so all I had to do was copy the holes in it and string up the new racket the same. I tried a couple using what is known as the A string pattern where the gap between the vertical strings narrow towards the top of the racket. It looks nice but i could not see or feel any advantage when playing.
Of course you can only bend wood and shape it so far. I did consider an isometric shape which I think could work but for now I am sticking with a more pure curved shape. maybe in the future I will experiment with this but as I mentioned previously I am not altogether convinced it makes much difference. It certainly makes it harder to create a regular string pattern, so for now I am sticking with the classic Oval shape which I think looks better anyway.
With all the rackets I have made I drilled the holes from the inside out and angled them all so that the exit holes on the outside were staggered. This is a direct copy of the Dunlop. I believe they did this to reduce the chance of the head splitting with too many holes drilled in a line. With a carbon insert I was not convinced that this was necessary anymore so racket five has holes drilled in a line which is easier to do anyway and looks nicer too especially as I like to string with black strings. A small mention about the holes. I drill them out at 2 mm which is a bit big perhaps but it does make it easy to put pairs of strings down shared holes but more importantly it allows me to insert the 1.4 mm dia sandpaper rope I use to round off the holes so as no to leave a sharp radius for the string. A nicely rounded hole exit is important for the strings longevity and also I believe helping to keep the string tension more even as the strings can move over a smooth radius easier than they could over a more acute shape.
Now I should probably talk about the necessity of having a stringing machine. I bought a second hand one online for about 150€ and although it seems like quite a cost, it has proven to be extremely helpful, not just for me stringing my own rackets but for doing them for other club members. Soon the stringing machine will have paid for itself as most weeks I have at least one racket to restring. This is because the surface we play on is quite aggressive but also because I believe most rackets are made to have the strings proud on purpose as most racket makers also sell strings! Call me cynical if you like but I see a lot of rackets and there are brands out there I never have to restring because the groove at the top of the head is deep enough to protect the strings from the inevitable strikes on the court.
If you are thinking of making your own racket I seriously recommend getting your own stringing machine. You do not need anything very elaborate. My own machine is made by Victor and has a rotating clamp for the head and a simple sliding weight on a bar which sets the tension very evenly. It takes about an hour to string a racket. No doubt it can be done faster with a modern racket and machine which is much quicker to use and the racket can be strung before being tensioned. This also speeds things up enormously but i would not recommend this technique for a wooden racket. I much prefer to string and tension as I go working on one string at a time working from one side to the other. It takes longer but keeps the stress and force on the head a lot more even than it would if you strung in one go.
So I think I have covered most aspects of making your own wooden racket. I would highly recommend it. It’s a fun project and small enough to not require a huge investment in time or money with the added satisfaction of actually playing well with it. No doubt everyone at my club thinks I am mad and perhaps they are right. Others have tried my racket but none have liked it but I think that’s simply because they did not use if for long enough, they did not give their eyes and hands enough time to get used to the different feel and timing. I have been using my wooden racket for months now an I really believe I play better with it than I ever did with my expensive yet disappointing Yonex. Plus in the three months I have been playing I have had zero issues with the structure or the strings and it has even survived a few strikes with the ground and a couple of racket clashes.
The next part of this experiment is to try natural gut strings. Until recently Babolat actually made natural gut badminton racket strings and they still make them for tennis rackets. It’s a shame that they no longer make it as reports of those who have used it have raved about the feel and control that it gives although they also say it doesn’t last as long and can be affected by the cold and damp. However I did find a company in the USA who sell natural gut strings and so I have ordered some so I can find out how it works with a wooden racket. In theory being a natural product, it ought to be more compatible with a wooden racket than a more modern one. From what little I can find about it on forums it seems that the feel of the gut strings is fabulous. The main downside is the need for less tension and the fact that the strings soon lose their tension and the strings need to be replaced more often. I confess I do like the idea of natural biodegradable strings and not using plastic is a bonus!
If you fancy making a wooden badminton racket yourself you will find comprehensive step by step plans with over 150 photos and tons of extra info about using epoxy, sharpening tools, varnishing etc at woodenwidget.com selling for the ridiculously low price of just 10€ and that includes the planting of 5 trees!