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Review: Four 7-Ply All-Wood Blades

06 December 2019  | Posted in: Table Tennis Reviews

About the Reviewer

Patrick Hrdlicka is a table tennis enthusiast with a Ph.D. in chemistry who combines his analytical and experimental skills with his love of table tennis in order to test and review a wide range of table tennis equipment. This time, he has put together a "Mega Test" where he takes a look at four separate blades from four different companies.

                                                                         

7-ply all-wood blades – The 2019 Mega Test.  

Introduction: Followers of this blog know that I have tested many 7-ply all-wood blades over the past two years, including Tibhar’s Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition; Nittaku’s Ludeack, Ludeack Power, and Ma Long Seven; and Stiga’s Rosewood NCT VII, Ebenholz NCT VII, Nostalgic VII, and the Clipper CR WRB. In this mega test, I was given the opportunity to try out four additional 7-ply all-wood blades from four different companies, i.e., Stiga Clipper, Neottec Gamma Seven, Nittaku Barwell, and Yasaka Extra Special. Common to all of them is that the three innermost plies are composed of ayous wood, whereas the penultimate and outer ply combinations differ, i.e., ayous/limba (Clipper), limba/limba (Gamma Seven), and limba/walnut (Barwell and Extra Special). Minimizing the number of variables allows me to better link playing characteristics to specific aspects of blade design.   



Testing procedure: I tested the four blades using a fairly new sheet of Hurricane 3 (40-degrees, orange sponge, provincial, black, 2.2 mm) in my FH and a well-worn sheet of Spinlord Waran 2 short pips (red, 2.0 mm) in my BH. As always, I attached rubbers to the blade using a layer of Revolution 3 normal viscosity glue (side-note: the most recent batch of this glue seems runnier than usual, resulting in longer drying times). I tested each of the set-ups over 3-4 sessions, playing drills and matches against my usual practice partners using Nittaku J-Top training balls.

 

Stiga Clipper – The classic 7-ply blade

The Stiga Clipper was first released in 1981 and is the prototypical 7-ply blade. You might think that such an old blade cannot be useful for modern table tennis considering the developments that have occurred in the nearly 40 years since its introduction, such as the speed glue ban and the switch from 38 mm celluloid balls all the way to the 40+ plastic balls. But not so quickly – this used to be a blade of champions from yesteryears, which means that its characteristics just might prove suitable for regular players of the present, since the game has slowed down, allowing us mortals to control it.     

The Clipper comes in a simple but sturdy black box, which lists general marketing information about Stiga blades on its back. The look is classic, with straw-colored outer veneers, a dark brown handle with two vertical red stripes, and an oval lens on the FH side which is kept in red, white and silver color tones. The build quality of the blade appears to be excellent. The blade has a classic 7-ply limba-ayous-ayous-ayous-ayous-ayous-limba construction as follows: the medium-thick core is surrounded by red-dyed plies that are only marginally thinner, which is followed by thin penultimate plies, and very thin outer plies. The blade has the following dimensions (height x width: 158 mm x 151 mm) with a thickness of 6.6 mm and a weight of 86 g. The comfortable RST handle has the following measurements: length: 101 mm; width: 29 mm; thickness: 23 mm. A simple bounce test produced a pitch (~1313 Hz) that is lower than with the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition or Nittaku Ludeack blades (~1380 Hz and ~1345 Hz, respectively), but higher than the Stiga Rosewood NCT VII or Stiga Ebenholz NCT VII (both ~1248 Hz).

Playing impressions: The Stiga Clipper generates an interesting feeling upon ball impact. It is quite fast (low end of OFF spectrum) and very stiff, especially in the upper part of the blade. Yet the contact point feels relatively soft for a blade of its speed and stiffness. Accordingly, FH drives played with the relative hard-sponged Hurricane 3 feel solid and are relatively flat, while BH drives with the comparatively soft-sponged Waran 2 are fast, producing a loud and very satisfying cracking sound. In fact, many of my practice partners were convinced we were playing with cracked balls! The feeling on FH loops is medium-soft, but at the same time, the blade’s underlying stiffness is clearly felt. Accordingly, I would characterize the dwell time as a medium and a little shorter than with my regular blade, i.e., the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition. As a result, FH loops against backspin produce an arc that’s middle of the road, generally providing sufficient safety to clear the net, while resulting in reasonably long trajectories. Good spin production is observed. However, FH loops that are too forced (i.e., not sufficiently relaxed) have a tendency of clipping the net and/or going too long as the blade’s stiffness becomes more dominant. I found it necessary to use “soft hands” on spin-oriented shots, while a tighter grip activates the stiffer character of the blade. Loop drives are, accordingly, long, flat, and very powerful. The blade offers plenty of speed to allow engagement in FH loop-to-loop rallies from afar, but a more upward motion is necessary to compensate for the medium-low trajectory. The combination with Waran 2 did not work particularly well for BH loop-to-loop rallies since the throw angle is too low with this combination. As expected, FH blocking is solid, allowing for good redirection of incoming power, but again some care must be taken not to overtighten the grip as the ball otherwise can careen out of control. Similarly, BH blocking is good, although the blade’s stiffness, occasionally causes the shots to go long. BH blocks hit toward the top end of the blade are noticeably faster and crisper than blocks hit closer to the handle. In other words, the sweet-spot is shifted toward the top of the blade, which is great if you can time the shot well. Flat hits and smashes are controlled but not lightning fast – still, easily fast enough to win points though. The Stiga Clipper works well in the short game, especially when using soft hands as pushes can be played low and short. A tightening of the grip allows for quick and deep pushes to be played with excellent control, especially from the FH side. Aggressive serve returns are a pleasure to play as the blade’s stiff character allows for pin-pointed and penetrating shots to be played. Backhand flicks played with my short pips required good timing though in order for the shots not to go long. Serves played with a pronounced wrist snap, resulting in high levels of spin. However, I had to execute care on backspin serves, as the fast/stiff character of the blade made me serve into the net at an above-average frequency. Conversely, topspin-sidespin serves can be played with deadly speed and spin. 

Conclusion: The Stiga Clipper is a fast and stiff blade that likely is best suited for the close-to-the-table attacker, who likes to play off the bounce. Players across a wide range of skill levels can use this blade with proper rubber pairing, ranging from intermediate to professional players. The blade’s inherent stiffness is mellowed by a relatively medium-soft contact point, which allows for decent spin generation. While the Clipper does not win any one category (i.e., loop, smash, serve, short game, etc), it offers a balanced mix of characteristics, rendering it a logical choice for many players. To me, the Stiga Clipper feels like a stiffer version of my regular blade, i.e., the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition, while my other blade of choice, i.e., the Stiga Rosewood NCT VII, is a little slower while offering a slightly harder feeling on ball impact. The regular Clipper is stiffer, faster, and lower-throwing than the Clipper CR WRB version that I tested on an earlier occasion and, therefore, a little harder to control.   

 

Neottec Gamma Seven – A fast blade that offers outstanding value 

Prior to reviewing the Neottec Katana rubber in a blind-test a couple of years ago, I had never heard of this brand before. As a matter of fact, to this day I have not been able to locate an official website for this Swedish company. However, it seems that all Neottec products strive to offer exceptional value. I was, therefore, curious to try out the Gamma Seven blade. 

The Neottec Gamma Seven comes shrink-wrapped inside a simple but fully functional and protective mint-green cardboard box. Generic information about the Neottec brand is provided on the back of the box. A simple sticker on the front lip of the box identifies the blade. 

The blade has a simple but attractive design. The straw-colored playing area is smooth with text on the FH side. The dark grey handle features a thick red vertical stripe, surrounded by two thin white vertical stripes. The handle features an oval lens on the FH side, which is kept in black, red, and white color tones. There is no lens on the BH side, nor a tag on the bottom of the handle. The overall build quality is good although the sharp edges could have used a little more sanding. The wings are sanded and the handle is smooth, rendering the blade quite comfortable to hold during gameplay.  

As far as I can gather, the Neottec Gamma Seven has a 7-ply all-wooden construction as follows: a medium-thick ayous core is surrounded by a set of ayous plies of approximately half the thickness, which is followed by a set of limba plies that are minimally thinner than the preceding layer, and very thin limba outer layers. The blade has the following dimensions (height x width: 156 mm x 151 mm) with a thickness of 6.5 mm and a weight of 90 g. A simple bounce test produced a rather high-pitched sound (main frequency: ~1464 Hz), which is indicative of considerable stiffness. The pitch is significantly higher than that of reference blades like the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition (~1380 Hz) and the Stiga Clipper (~1313 Hz), and is, in fact, one of the highest that I have recorded for an all-wood blade (in my personal database, only the now discontinued Andro Temper Tech OFF+ and Andro CS7 Tour blades produce higher pitches). The RST handle is comfortable with the following dimensions: length: 100.5 mm; width: ~29.3 mm; thickness: ~22.5 mm.

Playing impressions: The first couple of FH and BH drives revealed the Neottec Gamma Seven as a solidly OFF rated blade. I enjoyed a surprisingly high level of control on these shots considering the high speed of the blade. The blade feels solid and quite stiff, yet the feeling of the ball impact is quite soft, with very few vibrations traveling into the hand. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the blade produces an almost hinoki-like feeling. Surprisingly - and unlike, e.g., the stiffer-feeling Stiga Clipper - the Gamma Seven does not produce a cracking sound on harder hits. Good technique and patience are required to generate high spin levels on FH loops as the blade’s stiffness reduces dwell time. Accordingly, the arc on power-loops is medium-low, which is enough to clear the net when the shots are executed from a proper position, but during match play, a higher-than-normal percentage of FH loops caught the top of the net. Spin levels on loops are generally slightly below normal, rendering them less dangerous unless placed beyond the opponent’s reach, which in turn is easy to accomplish since the blade is fast and controlled. However, once I started to hit the ball a little later and further from the table than usual, I was able to impart more dangerous spin levels on FH loops. In other words, FH loops against backspin benefit from being played when the ball is in the descending phase, as these shot mechanics inherently result in a higher arc for improved net clearance and an increased margin for error. The blade was sufficiently fast to allow me to play BH “loops” from mid-distance with the Waran 2 short pips. FH blocking felt exceptionally solid and controlled. The blade’s solidity and stiffness instilled a feeling of being able to absorb the power of incoming loops. Interestingly, tightening of the grip allowed me to effectively redirect the incoming power and make lightning-fast, yet surprisingly controllable counter-loops, which more often than not ended up being out of reach for my opponents. BH blocks with the short pips felt a little “glassy”, but I was still able to play these shots in a controlled fashion during practice play. In match play, however, an above-average proportion of BH blocks clipped the top of the net, similar to my observations with FH loops. Flat hits and smashes are very fast and easily produce outright winners, even when using the only moderately fast Hurricane 3 rubber. The blade felt great on aggressive FH/BH service returns, which were facilitated by the relatively stiff feeling. Given the blade’s fast speed, I was surprised to note how well-behaved it felt on pushes and in touch play. For the most part, pushes against backspin were fast, flat, deep and loaded with spin, although one cannot overdo it, as the ball otherwise goes long. The blade provided a good crisp contact point on serves, which enabled me to utilize my entire repertoire of serves with confidence and loading them up with spin levels.   

Conclusion: The Neottec Gamma Seven is a fast and relatively stiff blade that produces a soft feeling on ball impact, and which offers exceptional value. I really enjoyed the blade in practice play but found it to exhibit a smaller margin for error during match play when shots invariably are played slightly out of perfect position. I expect that this can be mitigated by using rubbers that are softer than Hurricane 3. The blade is well-suited for intermediate to advanced players with aggressive game plans, operating close-to-the table or at mid-distance.   

 

Nittaku Barwell – An exceptionally well-made blade for a mix of close-to-the-table offensive strategies.

Approximately 18 months ago, I thoroughly enjoyed testing the Donic Ovtcharov Senso V1, which has five central ayous plies and outer walnut plies. In the present test, I was given the opportunity to evaluate the Nittaku Barwell blade, which – to the best of my knowledge – is constructed using three central ayous plies, intermediate limba layers, and outer walnut plies. As someone who is curious to evaluate the impact of different ply designs, I was therefore excited to try out the Barwell. 

The Barwell comes in Nittaku’s standard box, which is kept in silver and blue color tones with key blade characteristics listed on the front. The Barwell is a beautiful blade with brown walnut surface veneers and a dark brown handle with additional black color tones. The name of the blade is printed on the FH side of the playing surface, whereas the BH side is devoid of text. The handle features a simple but classy triangular metal lens which is black with a silver font. There is no lens on the BH side of the handle, but there is a golden “Nittaku Made in Japan” tag on the bottom of the handle.  

The Nittaku Barwell has the following construction: the medium-thick ayous core is surrounded by a red-dyed ayous ply of similar thickness, which is followed by a thin penultimate ply of limba, and a very thin walnut outer ply. The blade has the following dimensions (height x width: 158 mm x 151 mm) with a thickness of 6.6 mm and a weight of 86 g. A simple bounce test produced a relative low-pitched sound (main frequency: ~1313 Hz), which sits between the Stiga Rosewood NCT VII (1248 Hz) and Donic Ovtcharov Senso V1 (1281 Hz), and the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition (~1380 Hz). The comfortable RST handle is smooth and has the following measurements: length: 101 mm; width: 28.5-29.0 mm; thickness: 23 mm.

Like all Nittaku blades, the build quality of the Barwell is exceptional. The playing surfaces, the handle, and the blade edges are silky smooth and an absolute delight to behold. Even though the wings do not appear to have been sanded, the blade is very comfortable to hold.   

Playing impressions: I went into the test anticipating that the seven plies of the Barwell would render the blade stiff and that the outer walnut plies of the Barwell would create a rather hard feeling on ball impact. To my surprise, these characteristics were less pronounced than I expected. The feeling on FH and BH drives is solid, with relatively few vibrations traveling into the hand. The speed of the blade is in the high OFF- / low OFF range and it exhibits predictable linear behavior. FH and BH drives can be played competently as the lack of a catapult bestows good control on these shots. FH loops against backspin can be played with high levels of power, i.e., high speed combined with solid amounts of spin. The ball arc is medium-long, yet high enough to comfortably clear the net. Balls hit in the descending phase can be loaded with spin, although blades like the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition produce a tad more spin. The Barwell also worked well on ‘fishing shots’ from mid-distance and carefully played BH short pip chops, in part aided by its moderate OFF pace. However, I struggled to get a good feeling in FH loop-to-loop rallies and BH short pips ‘loops” far from the table. Too often, I could not get the trajectory right, as the inherent arc seemed too flat and the blade not quite fast enough to carry the ball over the net. This led me to force these shots, resulting in reduced consistency. In contrast, the Barwell worked well on fifth ball attacks and when counter-looping/counter-driving closer to the table, as the blade absorbed the incoming power and enabled me to redistribute it in a fast and controlled manner. Along similar lines, the Barwell worked well in passive FH blocking. Conversely, passive BH blocks with the Waran 2 short pips felt glassy and resulted in noticeable spin reversal and knuckleball effect. I found it particularly important to get the timing right as the ball otherwise tended to be flying off the end of the table. In my hands, a more active BH blocking style was better suited for the Barwell/Waran 2 combination. Flat hits and power drives are fast and deadly, yet very controlled. Aggressive service returns worked well as the blade provides just the right mix between stiffness, feeling on ball impact, and moderation in speed to enable deep, relative fast, and controlled returns. I also enjoyed surprisingly good control on pushes and touch shots, and was able to execute flat, fast and spinny pushes, as well as unreachable drop shots. I felt the Barwell/H3 combo worked very well on serves, as I was able to make the ball “bite” strongly into the rubber allowing me to generate ultra-short serves, spinny one-and-a-half-bounce serves, and very fast and spinny topspin-sidespin serves.    

Conclusion: The Nittaku Barwell is an interesting 7-ply all-wood blade. In my opinion, it is best suited for close-to-the-table and mid-distance players. The Barwell reminds me of a minimally slower and harder-feeling version of the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition, and a slightly faster and more massive feeling version of the Donic Ovtcharov Senso V1. Spin aficionados and loopers will likely prefer the Force Pro due to the slightly longer dwell time and higher arc, whereas players who enjoy blades that provide a more massive feeling that produces flatter trajectories, will prefer the Barwell.  Personally, I prefer the Force Pro by a hair due to the more controlled feeling on BH blocks. The Barwell is well-balanced and can be used by players by a wide range of skill levels. 



Yasaka Extra Special – A fast, hard and stiff blade for a powerful mid-distance game style. 

While I have tried out and played with a couple of Yasaka rubbers before – including Mattias Falck’s Rakza PO short pips and the legendary Yasaka Mark V rubber - I’ve never had the opportunity to try out any Yasaka blades. Following my evaluation of the Nittaku Barwell blade, it made sense to review the Yasaka Extra Special blade, which, supposedly, has a similar 7-ply all-wood composition, i.e., three central ayous plies, penultimate layers of limba, and outer walnut layers.   

The “Made in Sweden” Yasaka Extra Special blade comes in a sturdy, transparent, plastic clamshell package. General information about Ma Lin (who was sponsored by Yasaka throughout most of his professional career) and Yasaka blades is provided on the back of the box. The inside cover has some promotional pictures of the Yasaka Rakza rubbers. 

The Yasaka Extra Special is a visually appealing blade with brown walnut outer plies. A fair amount of informational text is printed on the playing surface of the FH side, whereas there is no text on the BH side. The handle is kept in light grey and very dark grey color tones with red vertical stripes and additional yellow and red graphical elements. Oval lenses, which are kept in black and golden color tones, are present on both sides of the handle and. There is a small black and golden rectangular tag at the end of the handle. 

The Yasaka Extra Special’s 7-ply all-wood composition is as follows: the medium-thick ayous core is surrounded by a red-dyed ayous plies of similar thickness, which is followed by a thin penultimate limba ply, and a very thin outer walnut ply, thus closely resembling the ply design of the Nittaku Barwell. The blade has the following dimensions (height x width: 158 mm x 151 mm) with a thickness of 6.3 mm and a weight of 92 g (resulting in a slight head-heaviness in the test set-up). A simple bounce test produced a pitch in the average end of the spectrum (main frequency: ~1356 Hz), right between the Nittaku Barwell (~1313 Hz) and the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition (~1380 Hz). The RST handle feels bulkier and rougher than the Nittaku Barwell handle and has the following measurements: length: 100.5 mm; width: ~29.3 mm; thickness: ~22.5 mm.

The overall build quality of the Extra Special is adequate but not exceptional. The playing surfaces, the handle, and the edges are quite rough to the touch and I imagine they will absorb considerable amounts of humidity from sweat and water-based glue. The blade wings are not sanded and I found it necessary to sand them slightly for an optimal grip. 

Playing impressions: The Yasaka Extra Special is an OFF rated blade that produces a hard and somewhat stiff feeling upon ball impact, but without the cracking sound that some other 7-ply all-wood blades produce. FH drives are fast and feel solid and controlled. BH drives played with the Waran 2 short pips also feel solid and fast but were a little less consistent than usual. FH loops against backspin produce medium to a medium-low trajectory, enough to clear the net and travel deep on my opponent’s side. The spin levels on opening loops are lower than equivalent set-ups with other 7-ply blades such as the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition, which features softer limba wood as the outer ply. The Extra Special shines in mid-distance play as the speed reserves and medium to medium-low trajectory allow for hugely effective power-drives and counter-loops. For similar reasons, the blade also works well in FH loop-to-loop rallies and fishing shots from long-distance. The blade is also plenty fast to enable BH short pips ‘mini-loops’ to be played safely from mid-distance, albeit perfect timing is needed to make truly dangerous shots. Much to my surprise, the combination of the Extra Special and Waran 2 short pips worked brilliantly for BH chopping from long-distance, provided I used soft hands. The hard nature of the blade enabled me to use different spin variations including dead float balls as well as highly spin-reversed backspins. The harder nature of the blade also worked great on passive FH blocks, which were fast, solid, and consistent. When I tightened my grip, lightning-fast active blocks ensued. Unfortunately, I struggled quite a bit with my passive BH blocks. The short dwell time and hard nature of the blade resulted in considerable wobble effect and spin reversal, which made BH blocks tricky to return for my opponents, but they also significantly decreased my consistency. Active BH blocks have to be timed well as they otherwise have a tendency of going long due to the fast and hard nature of the blade. Needless to say that flat hits played with the Extra Special are absolutely deadly. I also encountered some difficulties in the short game, which I attribute to the blade’s short dwell time. I made an above-average number of inexplicable errors when trying to place short pushes close to the table edges, often with the ball going wide by quite a distance. Short pushes played to the safer middle of the table were fine - short and low as expected. Long pushes against short backspin serves had a lot of bite to them, being flat and fast, often catching my opponents off-guard. Aggressive serve returns worked well provided I contacted the ball at the top of the bounce. If mistimed, the short dwell time rendered it more difficult to bring the ball over the net in an empowering manner. My serves were less spinny than usual, giving my practice partners opportunities to put me under pressure on the third ball. The lower-than-usual spin production is again something that I attribute to the harder nature and concomitantly shorter dwell time of the blade.    

Conclusion: The Yasaka Extra Special is an especially interesting blade for intermediate to high-level players who prefer to operate from mid-distance and beyond. It is a fast blade, hard and relatively stiff blade, which can put opponents under pressure with long-trajectory power drives, counter loops, and active blocks. Good timing and feel are necessary for a high-quality short game. If combined with fast European/Japanese rubbers, players will be treated to an absolute rocket of a setup. If used with pips, it will create wobbly shots that can be made difficult for both the opponent and the user. Compared to the Nittaku Barwell, the Extra Special is a little bit less refined, both in terms of quality of the craftsmanship and playing qualities, being faster, harder and less predictable. However, the Yasaka Extra Special offers excellent value for money.

Comparison of the four test blades: It never ceases to amaze me how different blades with very similar – or as in the case of Barwell and Extra Special, identical – ply compositions feel. Below, I have – to the best of my abilities – attempted to compare the four blades. I found the Nittaku Barwell to be the best built and most versatile blade, which allows for a wide range of playing strategies to be employed, be it an emphasis on looping, blocking, or touch game. The Stiga Clipper follows closely thereafter, primarily distinguishing itself by being the easiest blade to use for BH blocking with short pips. The Neottec Gamma Seven and the Yasaka Extra Special blades offer exceptional value for players who operate a little further away from the table and emphasize speed over spin in their game.    



  

Blade

Penultimate/outer ply

Blade dimensions

HxWxT

Weight 

Resonance

frequency 

Handle dimensions

LxWxT

Stiga Clipper

Ayous/limba

158 mm

151 mm

6.6 mm

86 g

1313 Hz

101 mm

29 mm

23 mm

Neottec Gamma Seven

Limba/limba

156 mm

151 mm

6.5 mm

90 g

1464 Hz

100.5 mm

29.3 mm

22.5 mm

Nittaku Barwell

Limba/walnut

158 mm

151 mm

6.6 mm

86 g

1313 Hz

101 mm

28.5-29.0 mm

23 mm

Yasaka Extra Special

Limba/walnut 

158 mm

151 mm

6.3 mm

92 g

1356 Hz

100.5 mm

29.3 mm

22.5 mm

 

Build quality: Barwell > Clipper > Gamma Seven > Extra Special

Speed: Gamma Seven = Extra Special > Clipper > Barwell 

Ability to generate spin on loops, arc and dwell time: Clipper > Barwell = Gamma Seven > Extra Special

Suitability in short game: Barwell > Clipper > Gamma Seven > Extra Special

Spin reversal with short pips: Extra Special > Barwell > Gamma Seven > Clipper

Feeling upon ball impact (from softest to hardest): Gamma Seven > Clipper > Barwell > Extra Special

Feeling when executing strokes (from most flexible to stiffest): Barwell > Gamma Seven > Extra Special > Clipper 

Best suited distance (closest to furthest): Barwell > Clipper > Gamma Seven > Extra Special