Shaft University – Materials 101
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Shaft University – Materials 101

Shaft University – Materials 101

How much do you really know about golf shafts? How much do you want to know?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a segment of the golf equipment industry where there is more confusion and misinformation among consumers. It’s time we start to clear things up.

As we begin our first session of Shaft University, it’s tempting to jump right into the fun stuff. But before we can tackle topics like flex, torque, bend profiles, and the real-world implication each has for how a shaft performs on the golf course, we need to begin with something a bit more basic. First, we need to understand what a shaft is before it becomes a shaft. We need to start at the foundation, and the foundation of every graphite shaft is the material.

With that in mind, by the end of this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What are composite materials, and what role do they play in shaft construction?
  • How are the material properties of shafts measured?
  • Where and how do shaft companies source materials?
  • What are the key benefits of composite graphite shafts?

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MATERIALS OVERVIEW

We don’t expect you to memorize this stuff, but we wanted to provide a quick overview of some of the key terms that will be discussed in this section.

CFRP (Carbon Fiber, Reinforced Plastic) – The specific type of composite material used to produce shafts. CRFP is characterized by high strength to weight ratios.
FRP (Fiber Reinforced Polymer) – Composite material containing a matrix (resin) and reinforcement (carbon fiber).
Composite materials – A combination of materials which are more effective when used in combination
Graphite – Pure carbon with atoms arranged in a hexagonal-ring pattern
Polymer – A connected chain of carbon atoms
Resin/Epoxy – The bonding agent (glue) which holds carbon fibers together
Carbon Fiber – A polymer once it has been stretched and oxidized
Pre-preg – Carbon fiber which has been (previously) impregnated with resin (glue) to form a composite material.

Rolled sheets of carbon fiber composite materials

While graphite shaft is the commonly-used description, every so-called graphite shaft is actually made from a composite – meaning, it’s comprised of two or more materials that are more effective together than when used by themselves. In this case, we’re talking about a mix of carbon fiber and resin/epoxy. The technical term for the finished product is carbon fiber, reinforced plastic (CFRP). Graphite shaft manufactures believe that CFRP is superior to steel in every meaningful way.  I.e., it’s lighter, stiffer, stronger, and offers greater versatility to achieve specific design goals. We should mention that across the industry, some use the term CFRP, while others use FRP. Understand that they’re one and the same and can be used interchangeably.

Back to high school chemistry for a minute; Graphite is pure carbon with atoms that are arranged in a particular hexagonal-ring pattern. A polymer is a connected chain of carbon atoms. Carbon fibers are what the polymer becomes once it is stretched and oxidized. You can think of polymers as a bunch of graphite atoms standing next to each other. Carbon fibers are what those polymers become after a couple of minutes of Pilates and some time in an oxygen chamber.

The next step in building the foundation material is to combine the carbon fiber with a special glue (called resin or epoxy) to create the composite material. The resin/epoxy protects the fibers, and in turn, the fibers provide stiffness and strength that reinforce the resin. It’s textbook symbiosis.

At their most basic level, shafts are made from two elements – carbon fiber and resin.

In that respect, graphite shafts are a lot like a concrete patio in that there are two basic materials which make up the physical structure. In our patio example, rebar is positioned to keep the concrete from crumbling, just as carbon fibers need resin to keep from breaking. This is especially true for players with high swing speeds or a violent transition from backswing to downswing.

The composite materials shaft manufactures receive from suppliers arrive as rolls of pre-preg, meaning the carbon fiber has been previously impregnated with resin to form a single composite.

There are different ratios of carbon fiber to resin content which serve various purposes in shaft design. Carbon fibers are light and strong, whereas resin is heavier and can impact the stiffness of shaft.

In general, low resin content pre-preg is preferable (how’s that for alliteration?), because it allows manufacturers to create shafts which are both stiffer and lighter. It’s more difficult than designing shafts which are both heavy and stiff, which by comparison, is as easy as finding a Starbucks in Manhattan. Most every shaft manufacturer has an acronym; Fujikura uses MCFC (Maximum Carbon Fiber Content), Mitsubishi describes theirs as L.R.C. (Low Resin Content). The point everyone is trying to convey is that it uses pre-preg with some reduced amount of glue/resin.

In addition to the high strength-to-weight ratio, low resin technologies like MCFC tend to feel smoother because the carbon fibers (not resin) are doing more of the work during the swing. Understand that this has absolutely no bearing on performance, just as an 80 proof 15-year old single malt won’t get you any more drunk than a 3-year old version. The only discernable difference is that the latter tastes like lighter fluid.

That being said, there’s a floor to the quantity of resin required to maintain some structural integrity. Shaft manufacturers are inclined to push boundaries to see how far the carbon fiber-to-resin ratio can be taken, but there can be a fine line between maximizing performance and taking it a step too far. That final step can give you a better view of the Grand Canyon, but it can also, well, you get the idea.

There are also instances where companies like Fujikura strategically implement materials with higher resin content. With its HDCC Technology (High-Density Composite Core), a heavier, moderately stiff carbon fiber is paired with higher resin content composite to shove weight towards the tip section of the shaft. The primary benefit in doing so is to give club builders graphite shaft options (e.g., Fujikura PRO and Vista PRO) which can match the traditional swing weights of steel shafts.

PAN vs. PITCH Fibers

Again, let’s start with a couple of key terms that will serve as the foundation for this section.

PAN – Carbon fibers consisting of synthetic polymer resins
Pitch – Carbon fibers made from carbon-based materials (plants, crude oil, coal).

Close-up of Pitch 70 Ton composite material

Hufflepuff and Gryffindor are to Harry Potter what PAN and Pitch are to carbon fiber composites.

In the first house, we have PAN (Polyacrylonitrile) Carbon Fibers, which use synthetic organic polymer resin and are typically classified as standard, intermediate, or high modulus (we will review modulus in the next section).

Residing next door are Pitch Carbon Fibers which are derived from earthy carbon-based materials like plants, crude oil, and coal. Pitch fibers are classified as intermediate, high, or ultra-high tensile modulus.

Pitch carbon fibers can be significantly stiffer than PAN fibers – about two times stiffer than the stiffest PAN carbon fiber available.

In terms of cost, Pitch materials are quite a bit more expensive for two reasons.

  • Pitch fibers require a more intricate production process
  • Pitch fibers are scarcer. As we know from basic market economics, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up.

There are several shafts on the market which use both Pitch and PAN carbon fibers. Fujikura’s Ventus is an example of a product that leverages both Pitch and PAN fibers. By adding Pitch 70 Ton carbon fiber full-length in the bias layer (the portion of the shaft where composite material is oriented at 45°), Fujikura is able to create a shaft with higher resistance to twisting, improving accuracy and tightening dispersion.

A final note and a topic we’ll perhaps dig deeper into later is the orientation (direction) of the materials. Where and how the sheets of material are placed is just as important as the material itself.

The three primary orientations are:

  • 0 degree – along the length of the shaft (affects bending). Picture a hinge.
  • 90 degree – perpendicular to the length of the shaft (provides hoop strength to prevent buckling and ovalization of the cross-section). This is where materials like Triax come in handy.
  • +/- 45 degree (referred to as Bias) – These materials lie across the 0-degree materials at +/- 45-degree angles (affects twisting)

That’s a decent amount of information to digest, so without scanning back through the text, could you explain the differences between PAN and Pitch or list the two primary components of Fiber Reinforced Polymers?

Pitch woven fiber composite material

Unidirectional vs. Woven

TOWS – Bundles of carbon fiber which range from 1,000-15,000 fibers

Unidirectional (One Direction was already taken) carbon fibers run in a single, parallel direction. The fibers lay flat in that direction and do not contain any gaps. Composites made of unidirectional carbon fiber provide maximum strength in the direction of the fiber. This tightly bunched pack of uncooked spaghetti you’re picturing is as accurate and straightforward an analogy as you think it is.

Woven materials can come in a variety of weaves and orientations. A plain weave carbon fiber looks like double-cut greens where “tows” (bundles of carbon fiber that range from 1k to 15k or 1,000 to 15,000 fibers) are woven in an over-under pattern, providing multi-directional stability.

There are two main types of woven materials; Spread Tow and Standard Tow. Standard Tow utilizes a basket-like weave where the advantage is structural stability in several directions. The primary downside is standard tow weaves are heavier which works against the whole “lighter, yet stable” concept.

Spread Tow is unique in that the tows are first spread flat before weaving. This reduces the “crimp” (where the fibers meet perpendicularly) of the fiber. Spread tow fabrics have increased material stiffness and are significantly lighter than standard tow weaves, which make it a more viable material across a broad spectrum of shaft weights. For example, in 2010, Fujikura developed the Blur line of shafts that utilized Textreme’s Spread Tow carbon fabric to deliver a lightweight profile with ample stiffness in an effort to generate faster swing speeds.

Textreme Spread Tow

MATERIAL MEASUREMENTS

Even if you weren’t entirely sure what it meant, you’ve definitely seen modulus numbers before. When you glossed over references to 40-ton, 50T, 110 MSI, 130 MSI, etc. what the shaft company is trying to tell you is it’s using high-modulus materials.

It’s also the type of content marketing departments love to leverage because it takes very little to claim the use of high-modulus materials because consumers generally don’t have the first clue of what the company is referencing, and without a clear picture, it’s tough to differentiate between companies which use legitimately high-quality materials and those which use just enough to justify the “high-modulus” claim. The other reality is because it seems to be preferable (higher is better than intermediate or lower, right?) once one shaft company started down that road, others followed creating the “High-Modulus” bandwagon we see today. It’s a bit like the organic food movement of the early 1990s.

Tensile Modulus

There are many different measurements of composite materials, but they are most commonly measured for stiffness and strength. Tensile Modulus or “Young’s Modulus” measures stiffness by examining the elongation of a material under stress, when the deformation is elastic. Picture two people pulling on opposite sides of a 24” x 36” towel. The more resistant the towel is to separation (and its ability to return to the original 24” x 36” template), the higher the tensile modulus.

In simple terms, Tensile Modulus is a measurement of a material’s ability to withstand changes in length when tension or compression is applied. Materials with higher tensile modulus provide greater stability and strength.

Tensile Strength

The second primary measurement is referred to as Tensile Strength. This is the maximum stress a material can withstand before it breaks under tension. This time, picture two teams in a game of tug-o-war. Tensile strength indicates how much stress the rope can stand while being stretched from opposite ends without breaking. Higher Tensile Strength materials can be used to provide strength against ovalization, maintaining the structure, uniformity, and consistency of the shaft during the golf swing.

Pitch Woven Fiber

MATERIAL SOURCING

Shaft manufacturers utilize a variety of composite material suppliers. Nippon Graphite (NGF), Oxeon, Toray, SK Chemical, Mitsubishi Chemical, and Toho are some of the most popular suppliers to the shaft industry.

These suppliers also provide materials to other industries. Aerospace is the one advertised most often (perhaps because it sounds like the most cutting-edge), but composites are also heavily used in the biomedical, bridges and tunnel, automotive, and electronic packaging fields. Fujikura has often been first to market with certain technologies because of its long-standing relationships with suppliers. Think of it as friends with composite benefits. (e.g., Triax, Spread Woven). For example, Triax was originally developed for use in Department of Defense satellites. Fujikura found it offered structural benefit in its Speeder series of shafts (launched in 1995), which is the same year Amazon sold its first book. Other shaft companies would soon follow Fujikura’s lead using Triax and similar constructions to keep shafts from losing shape during the swing. Amazon would go on to make Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world. You can argue which one had a more significant impact. We’re sticking with Triax.

BENEFITS OF COMPOSITES IN GOLF SHAFTS

ISOMETRIC – Of or having equal dimensions

Since its debut in the mid-twentieth century, carbon fiber/composite shaft use continue to spread throughout the bag. It wasn’t that long ago that professionals used steel shafts in their drivers and e-woods. Some may recall that three of Tiger’s first four Masters victors came with steel-shafted woods. While the use of graphite shafts in irons and wedges has been slow, to say the least, the day may come when composites are used in every club in the bag.

As a point of reference, Fujikura started with graphite composites in 1974 when graphite first began replacing steel shafts in drivers primarily because graphite was lighter and more versatile. Since then, there have been quantum leaps in materials, construction, and cost which have created massive opportunities for everyone involved in the graphite golf shaft industry as well as golfers who continue to lie about how far we hit the ball.

The argument for using composite material throughout the bag is that it allows for more tailored designs than steel. Simply, carbon fiber composites are more versatile and enable designers to fine-tune the twisting and bending of the shaft independently (and in different sections of the shaft) in a way that steel doesn’t. With steel, it’s a choice between chocolate ice cream or vanilla. Composite materials are Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors, Dairy Queen, Cold Stone, Max and Mina’s and Sebastian Joe’s all under a single roof.

A steel shaft, for example, can only be made stiffer by increasing the weight. The same is true when it comes to adjusting the twisting and bending properties of the shaft. Steel is strong in all directions, but high strength isn’t always necessary or even beneficial over the full length of a shaft, just as not every room in your house requires a deadbolt.

Composite materials allow manufacturers like Fujikura to localize the strength in finite areas within a design, creating shafts that are strong in specific areas but are also lighter in weight.

Spinach doesn’t always taste good, but it’s packed with valuable nutrients. So too can be discussions where the primary purpose is to build capacity and a basic understanding of important vocabulary. We know you’re eager to dive into the applications of shafts and soon enough we’ll be debating the role of flex and bend profiles while explaining why lower torque doesn’t always equal a straighter ball flight.

In its completed version, a golf shaft is akin to a well-cooked meal. Hopefully, you now have a reasonable handle on the list of ingredients and preferred grocery stores. If it’s not committed to memory, at a minimum, you’ve likely bookmarked this article for future reference.

Who is doing the cooking, and how are they coming up with the recipes? That’s the topic of our next segment, Design 101. We’ll tackle topics such as the history of design, the process of shaft design, and the role of different materials and shaft geometries.

Pop Quiz

  1. 1. At the most basic level, graphite shafts are made from __________ & ___________.
  2. 2. True or False: Pitch fibers can be twice as stiff as the stiffest PAN fibers.
  3. 3. True or False: Every shaft designated as “high-modulus” contains the same type and quality of materials.

How much of this information was new to you?

What do you wish we might have included but didn’t? As always, we appreciate your comments and feedback.

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Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris is a self-diagnosed equipment and golf junkie with a penchant for top-shelf ice cream. When he's not coaching the local high school team, he's probably on the range or trying to keep up with his wife and seven beautiful daughters. Chris is based out of Fort Collins, CO and his neighbors believe long brown boxes are simply part of his porch decor. "Isn't it funny? The truth just sounds different."

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel

Chris Nickel





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      Amature Shaft

      3 years ago

      The main advantage is that it provides club builders with graphite shaft alternatives that can match standard steel shaft swing weights. Thank you so much.

      Reply

      scott

      5 years ago

      A lot of information but at 92 mpg driver swing speed what is the best shaft for me ?Reg, Senior, or stiff I know go to your local pro shop and have them guess Its only money. Why don’t shaft company’s have there a stander that all them go by ( flex ) or is that’s the reason they don’t have one, just to keep you guessing

      Reply

      Jim Thomson

      5 years ago

      I enjoy the “tech” side of golf and golf equipment. This is one of the best articles I have read on the “tech” aspects of golf equipment. Too often the major publications publish so-called “tech” articles that are so simple and generic they are useless to the avid golfer. This article struck the perfect balance between technical detail and ease of comprehension. I learned quite a bit from it. Nice work!

      Reply

      daviddvm

      5 years ago

      Thanks for the introduction Chris, will look forward to up coming issues of Shaft U

      Reply

      Rob McGregor

      5 years ago

      Is there a big difference in performance between top range clubs with good shafts etc as opposed to the a middle of the road set of clubs?

      Reply

      Joe Golfer

      5 years ago

      I hope there will be future golf shaft articles.
      I often hear that a stiff tip shaft is for faster swing tempos or harder swingers or “late release” golfers, and that softer tip shafts are for those who want help getting the ball into the air. That said, I never seem to see articles discussing the rest of the shaft, the mid-shaft stiffness and the butt stiffness. I never hear about what type of golfer would seem to fit a particular profile with regards to mid-shaft or butt stiffness.

      Reply

      BodineJCS

      5 years ago

      Very Interesting and one of the better articles here … Thank You

      Reply

      NH Golfer

      5 years ago

      I’m really not sure how helpful knowing all the materials are to most golfers. It’s far more important for them to know the numbers they need to reach an optimal ball flight. If you combined the material mumbo jumbo with how it affects numbers and ball flight…then you would have an awesome post. That aside it’s still good to have you trying to inform us.

      Reply

      Gregory Santilli

      5 years ago

      In the 90’s I worked in a golf shop.
      I really wanted to like graphite. Reality was the shafts were so inconsistent, it wasn’t worth the effort. They had various frequencies between shafts in an iron set, much less to wood shafts.I got them at cost, but the bottom line was the increase in torque caused a lack of accuracy compared to steel. In Hawaii, at the time, you had to be very straight, since hitting into trade winds can be very difficult.
      The shafts that were worth the metal, and straighter then steel, were Titanium.
      Didn’t True Temper by Sandvick, the maker of Titanium shafts, and then stop making them? Graphite is a great way to part a fool from his money, when steel shafts do pretty much everything they do, but at a fraction of the cost.

      John Pritchard took a 50″ Titanium shaft, put a little steel head on it. Drilled the head, pulled the foam out, and used that to win the long drive contest in Hawaii.
      362, IIRC, INTO the trades. Try that.

      Reply

      shortside

      5 years ago

      Swing a stock Callaway shaft from the 90’s. Then swing one from today. It’s like they’re from different centuries not decades.

      Reply

      Richie Hunt

      5 years ago

      Today’s graphite shafts are world’s better than they were in the 90’s and much better than they were just 10 years ago. In fact, if graphite shafts with carbon fiber are the same weight as a steel shaft, they are actually *stronger* than steel shafts.

      The problem with steel shafts is they weigh too much for drivers and it slows down club speed considerably. And it’s to the point now that there’s not much in the way of bend profiles for steel driver and fairway wood shafts. Whereas with graphite driver shafts there’s countless different bend profiles and torques to fit a golfer.

      Conversely, with iron shafts there’s just not a lot of different bend profiles in graphite compared to steel. And most of that is due to irons usually being 7 or 8 clubs and with graphite that gets expensive. But there are graphite iron shafts out there that are every bit as consistent as steel and some graphite iron shafts that weigh up to 125 grams and have better vibration dampening to help people that have issues with their wrists and elbows.

      I used to have a Titanium shaft. I had one in a TaylorMade Raylor and another one in a Founders Club driver. They weren’t bad, but they were far from great. The one in my Raylor started to bow after about 6 months and the driver bowed at about 12 months of use.

      I don’t see much use for titanium shafts these days because even if you could prevent the bowing and create a quality shaft, they’ll likely cost more than the top graphite shafts on the market.

      As far as steel goes, the only reason to play them these days is in your irons and wedges and that’s because of the plethora of bend profiles and the cheaper cost.

      Reply

      Dean Dodge

      5 years ago

      Did you test steel fiber? Aerotech? Same, similar or different category?

      Reply

      Joe Gidvilas

      5 years ago

      There is no standard in the shaft industry, one companies A-Flex could be another companies R-Flex. To truly know the flex of a shaft you need to get the shaft on a Frequency Analyzer.

      Reply

      Richie Hunt

      5 years ago

      Frequency analyzers really don’t tell the story. You could have two shafts of the same frequency and they could play completely different. The bend profile and torque profile give a better idea of how the shaft behaves and then an experienced fitter can use that information along with the golfer’s data to fit them towards a shaft that works best for them.

      Golf shafts could probably do a lot of good by getting rid of identifying flex all together and come up with some other identifiers to get how a shaft behaves.

      Reply

      Bob Notter

      5 years ago

      Years ago someone sent my club pro bright green woven shaft we put in a
      3 wood head I had boy did it go long and very straight
      One day it started to come apart the weaving was breaking out of the coating
      No way to stop it had to stop using it never found any thing like it must have
      Been a one off
      Sure wish it would have held up

      Reply

      Stuart Anderson

      5 years ago

      I remember years ago I bought Arnold Palmer persimmon woods with green graphite shafts. They were stupid long. The shafts were made by Shakespeare.

      Reply

      Bob Pegram

      5 years ago

      Shafts from Shakespeare were probably fiberglass, not graphite. They would have looked the same. Shakespeare made fishing rods so it wasn’t difficult to start making golf shafts out of the same material.

      Dan Janyja

      5 years ago

      What about filament wound shafts?

      Reply

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