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Clubheads: Material Differences

Golfers have many options available to them regarding club head materials. To a newcomer to the game this can also be confusing on why one would select one material over another. So, let us explain the difference in the materials and why they might be used for the various golf clubs.

The use of titanium for golf clubs came from the technology used in the aerospace industry. The first golf clubs made from titanium date back to the early 1990’s and quickly became the material of choice for driver heads due to the high strength-to-weight ratio. Titanium is lighter than stainless steel and allows the designer to manufacturer a much larger club head that meets the weight specifications of a normal driver. The strength of the material has increased durability for even the strongest golfers in the world.

Acer XS Titanium Fairway WoodThere are many different titanium alloys (materials added to the raw titanium) to change both the weight and strengths requirements. With driver heads reaching the maximum volume of 460 cubic centimeters, the most common alloy is 6/4 Titanium, by which 90% of the material is titanium, 6% is aluminum and 4% is vanadium. There are many other alloys or grades of titanium (sometimes called Beta Titanium) such as 15-3-3-3, SP700, 10-2-3, etc. available to the club designer. If the higher grade of titanium is used, then it is normally for the face material only and not the entire head.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) – the two governing bodies in golf – established rules for how fast a ball can come off of the club face of a driver. Most manufacturers make drivers that go to this limit without exceeding it, so there really is no advantage of one material over another. Typically, smaller drivers (under 400cc) would utilize the higher cost beta titanium to increase how fast the ball comes off the face. But with clubs in the 460cc range, standard 6/4 titanium will be sufficient material for the maximum allowable ball speed.

Titanium can also be used in other clubs, but normally you do not see it much for a couple of reasons. First, titanium is much more expensive than stainless steel used in fairway woods, hybrids and irons. Second, the reason for titanium is for the strength and lightweight nature. If a fairway wood was made with titanium, it would normally be made much larger in size to achieve a normal weight. By doing so the head could become much taller and makes it effectively harder to hit off of the fairway. The alternative is using a dense metal or affixing a heavier weight on the sole..The same can be said for titanium irons. However, you may see some irons with a titanium insert as a way of increasing the ball speed at impact verses an all stainless steel clubhead.

Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is the most used material in golf. The material is generally inexpensive and easy to cast into all the shapes that you see golf clubs made plus durable enough for everyday play.There are two main types of stainless steel used in golf club heads. One is 17-4 stainless steel (comprising of no more than 0.07% carbon, between 15 an 17% chromium, 4% nickel, 2.75% copper, and 75% iron and trace elements). 17-4 used primarily for metal woods, hybrids and some irons. The other type of stainless steel is 431 (comprising of no more than 20% carbon, 15-17% chromium, 1.25 – 2.5% nickel, and the remainder being iron and a few trace elements). This grade of stainless steel is used for irons and putters, but does have sufficient strength for fairway woods and hybrids.

The majority of fairway woods today are manufactured from 17-4 stainless steel. Drivers can also be made of 17-4, but due to the high density of the material, the limit on size is approximately 250cc without the risk of cracking during normal play. Because golfers prefer larger, easier-to-hit drivers, virtually no drivers today are even manufactured from stainless steel.  Investment cast irons can be made from either 431 or 17-4 grades. The 17-4 is slightly harder of the two. This allows the 431 to be adjusted for loft or lie a little more easily, but other than that, there is no one greater advantage of one verses the other.

Specialty Stainless Steel (Maraging Steel)
Another more recent addition to the number of materials used in golf club head manufacturing is maraging steel, which is an alloy or family of steel with unique properties. Typically maraging steels are harder than non-maraging steels like 431 or 17-4 and used primarily for face inserts rather than the whole head. A driver head can be produced wholly from maraging steel, but there is still a limit on the size of the head (roughly in the low-300cc range). Plus the cost of the head would not be that much less expensive than one made from titanium.

Since the maraging steels are harder, the face insert can be made thinner than the normal stainless steel graded used in golf. As a result, the ball coming off the face will have a slightly high ball velocity upon impact. Maraging steels are more expensive to produce, therefore would be more in the premium price range, which is the trade-off for the higher performance.

Aluminum is a much lighter material than stainless steel. Early metal woods made from aluminum back in 1970’s and 80’s were not very strong or durable. This caused these low cost club heads to gain a bad reputation for easily scratching and denting that still carries over today. However, the aluminum alloys today are much better than those used in the past and the head sized can be made to the maximum size for drivers (460cc) under the Rules of Golf.

Heads manufactured from aluminum are much lower in cost than even stainless steel, which makes these clubs more affordable and ideal in woods of starter sets or junior sets. The only downside to the aluminum is that the walls have to be made thicker as not to crack or cave in. Therefore the ball speed coming off the face would be less than a comparable titanium driver.

Carbon Graphite
Carbon graphite is an extremely lightweight material and can be used to create a wood (usually with some sort of metallic soleplate for durability and additional weight). Few clubs today are produced primarily from carbon graphite; however there are a number that incorporate the carbon graphite material in the design.

Carbon graphite is less dense than any other material used in golf and a perfect choice to replace the top shell (or crown or top of the head). The weight savings from incorporating the carbon graphite in the crown, allows additional weight to be repositioned elsewhere in the heads in order to improve the design. Heads made from or partially from carbon graphite demand a premium price and can be found, not only in drivers, but fairway woods and hybrids as well.

Carbon Steel

Used in either irons, wedges and putters, carbon steel has been used in golf clubs for centuries.  Most will associate carbon steel irons and wedges to be forged, as this was the primary method of fabricating these clubs.  However, certain alloys of carbon steel can be cast as well (8620 carbon steel) to produce a club head.  Regardless, carbon steel is a soft, malleable material that will rust without some sort of protective chrome finish.

More skilled golfers tend to gravitate toward models made of carbon steel as some say that can tell a difference in the feel of the material verses the harder stainless steel.  More importantly, head made of softer, carbon steel tend to be less of a game improvement design and are tended more for the lower handicapped golfer.

Some of which are intentionally un-chromed to rust through normal use. The idea behind the unplated carbon steel wedges is softer feel and supposable greater spin. Irons, wedges and putters produced from carbon steel will be more expensive than stainless steel.

Heads produced from zinc are the least expensive of all the materials. Used mostly for irons, wedges and putters in both starter sets and junior sets, zinc heads are less durable than their stainless steel counterparts. Zinc heads can be identified by their non-magnetic properties and their larger-than-normal hosel diameters.

Wooden woods are rarely found as a club head material option anymore as it has lost favor amongst golfers to titanium drivers and stainless fairway woods.