String Saver

by: Jon Levey | July 26, 2014

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Tags: The Pro Shop

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About six or so years ago, Tennis Magazine ran a gear piece on stringing machines. In the process we got several machines sent to our office to test out. Since I didn’t know how to string a racquet at the time, another editor with the necessary skills took the lead and wrote the reviews. Being charged with evaluating frames but not being able to string them made me feel a little inadequate—sort of like a mechanic who doesn’t know how fix an engine. A few of the string machine manufacturers offered to let us keep their demos, so I convinced the other editor to fill in my knowledge gap.

It did not go well.

Learning how to string my particular frame wasn’t overly difficult, but I did it at a glacial pace. I was using the Wilson [K] Blade Tour, which has an 18x20 string pattern in a 93 sq. in. head. Those are some tight quarters for a first-time stringer. That summer I was also playing mostly with a comfort hybrid of natural gut in the mains and Luxilon Alu Rough in the crosses. I should have swapped the configuration; weaving that ultra-stiff, textured co-poly through the frame was murder. I’m not sure the amount of time each job took—I was probably too embarrassed to actually clock it—but it felt like hours. Whenever I decided to do one, which was generally after hours, my wife knew she’d be eating dinner alone that night.

After that summer I hung up my needle nose pliers and awl. I didn’t play nearly as much over the winter, and with the stringing discount one of the better local racquet shops would give me, I went back to having my racquets strung for me. It just didn’t seem worth the effort. The following spring I relinquished my gear editor duties and moved out of Manhattan. Fortunately there was a tennis facility with a USRSA-certified stringer not far from our new house, so I was in good hands.

Fast forward to last spring when I started reviewing equipment again for the magazine and I was already playing in several club and USTA leagues, and now I would be constantly demoing racquets and strings again. The local stringers couldn’t believe how often I was in their shops. My family also moved again that fall, this time to a more secluded suburb, resulting in a 20-minute drive to a respectable stringer.

I found myself getting lazy and not having my racquets strung frequently enough. I’m using a full bed of poly these days, and they can survive for a long time after they go dead. I felt like my play was suffering. I also grew frustrated with the wait times for the string jobs to be completed—so many shops, clubs, and sporting goods stores farm out their stringing—and nothing was more infuriating than showing up on the requested day and the racquet wasn’t finished.

A few months ago I was asked to go through the equipment closet at the magazine headquarters and donate any frames and other gear we no longer needed. In the corner on the floor of the room in a broken down box—the magazine offices had moved a few years prior—sat that same tabletop stringer I learned to string on all those years before. Since nobody had a claim to it, and nobody had clearly used it since I last unplugged it, I brought it home with me.

I set the machine up in my basement and watched several stringing videos on YouTube to refresh my memory. (I found this one from Tennis Warehouse to be particularly helpful). Since I learned to string a hybrid, I thought it best to stick with the two-piece method. My first attempt was pretty laughable. I couldn’t figure out why the string wasn’t holding any tension on the first several pulls until I realized I kept forgetting to lock the clamp to the base. Big-time rookie error. And I’m not sure how I did it, but it didn’t take me long to strip and snap the main. But I stuck with it and eventually completed the frame.

I’ve since strung several more frames and, just like when I first learned the skill, I’m pretty awful at it. I’m thankfully using a 16x18 pattern frame now, but the crosses still seem interminable. I’m also not particularly good at tying knots. I’ve been using a double half-hitch to tie-off and they’re pretty sloppy looking (way too bulbous). My starter knots have worked—I spiral the string over the main and bring it back through the loops—but I’m clearly not consistent in my technique because they all don’t look the same.

So now it’s my turn to ask all you experienced stringers out there for some advice. Are there any tricks of the trade for stringing the crosses that can speed the process, especially with a stiff polyester? Do you have favorite knots that are both clean-looking and reliable? How about a starting clamp: Indispensible or just a nice accessory? Do you raise tension—and by how much—on the tie-off string? Or just about any tip you’re willing to offer—please leave them in the comments section—for making the stringing process more efficient and effective.

I can use all the help I can get.

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