Although some of what I say will be in
the context of the Manor House range of mallets, the general advice is
applicable to any make. At present, the several ‘cottage’ makers in the
UK provide a very adequate choice and all will engage in some degree of
custom building, so there should be no difficulty in meeting your requirements,
whether they be rational or intuitive in origin. This article attempts
to address the area of rational choice, but it does not deny the importance
of intuition: if you feel proud and at ease with your mallet, it will almost
certainly perform better for you. Accordingly, nowadays, all but the cheapest
mallets have excellent appearance and finish as well as sound construction.
The first thing to say about choosing a first mallet is that it is NOT difficult to alight on the right parameters - the two principal considerations are simply the overall length of the mallet and its cost. If you are to play Association Croquet, the mallet must perform both stop shots and full rolls and this dictates an overall mallet weight of around 3 lbs. Also, if you are at an early stage of playing croquet, you will find it easier to make the wide range of strokes with a relatively short headed mallet. I recommend a 10" head except when the overall length of the mallet is less than about 34", when a 9" head may be preferred. Go for 10" unless you feel you could not cope well with it. The only exception to this advice would be for someone who is already advancing very quickly in the game, having say either youth or sports experience on his or her side. Then, and preferably only after trial with a borrowed mallet, a longer head, normally 11", might come into consideration.
The reliable way to determine the correct overall length of the mallet is to measure one that suits you, or to measure up to the top of your hands holding a longer mallet - AND then to add an extra inch! Early on, few players trust the mallet head to do their bidding, so there is a tendency to play from a more crouched stance or with one hand well down the shaft. So, as confidence develops, beginners tend to stand straighter and to bring the lower hand further up the shaft. The first mallet should allow a little for this development - hence the extra inch. The safeguard is, of course, that should the extra inch prove to be a nuisance in the longer term, in most models the handle can easily be shortened; lengthening a handle is difficult!
Unless cost is a major issue or the level of commitment to the game is low, the price for a first mallet is normally about £125. From any of the UK makers this will be sufficient to provide a fully finished mallet with a reliable two-layer striking face system, sight line and grips, and it will be capable of keeping its looks and good performance for several years. Our T-series mallet is of this kind and it has a carbon-fibre tube shaft in a wooden handle and in common with all our mallets (and uniquely in the UK), the head is made from sustainably managed timber (curunai, from Paraguay), certificated by the Forest Stewardship Council. Our heads are now given an oiled finish which does not chip and can be easily maintained, and the outer striking plates are designed to be replaceable locally if eventually they become worn.
There the advice might terminate were it not for the fact that the extra cost of more advanced mallets is small, especially when their expected length of service is taken into account. One ‘advanced feature’ in our range merits careful consideration even for a first mallet. In the ‘2000’ mallet (£142.50 including head wrap) the shaft comprises a full-length carbon fibre tube and the handle, grip and roll grip are fashioned from a very lightweight, firm, closed-cell foam which has proved to be ideal for croquet. It enables the overall weight of a mallet to be reduced to about 2 lbs 12-13 oz, which is a special boon to lady players, many of whom have been first time buyers. The shaft also produces a change in balance which reduces jarring to negligible levels for normal shots, so it is strongly recommended (and well-received) when wrists or elbows have begun to give problems. Further features are that the foam, being a good insulator, is warm in cold weather and, having a low thermal capacity, is cool in hot weather. It is non-absorbent, so it easily wipes dry, and it will also accept a normal wound grip should more bulk or a different ‘feel’ be preferred.
First time buyers are mildly cautioned against immediate further steps up the market because players often want to change their mallet after a few years’ play, typically going for a longer head as they approach or become involved with the Advanced Rules game. However, I am not about to resist the opportunity to explain the purpose of the further refinements! Last year we introduced a new head which placed more of the weight as close as possible to the ends (£17.50 extra). This was achieved by hollowing out the wood behind the faces and replacing the weight of that wood and that of the normal lead slugs by 3/8" thick solid brass plates immediately behind the outer composite striking faces. Extreme end-weighting is designed to resist twisting of the head both in the swing and, perhaps more importantly, during an off-centre impact with a ball. The latter tends to cause rotation of the head about the point of impact, throwing the shot off-line. Extreme end-weighting reduces the extent of head rotation for a given twisting impulse.
This year the residual academic in me has led us to take this end-weighting principle to its theoretical limit. In an experimental design, tried out in a prototype at the end of last season, the wood of the head is entirely replaced by an ultra-lightweight carbon tube, so that virtually all the weight of the head can be in the form of brass plates at the extremities. At present, the tube can be obtained at reasonable cost only with circular cross section, so the advertising slogan might well be “The Roundheads are Back”. Since the carbon tube has an attractive weave-effect and the brass plates are partly exposed behind the black striking plates, the mallet’s appearance is rather ‘space age’, so ‘2001 model’ seems particularly appropriate, especially as we are expecting to supply our 2001st mallet this year. Available only to special order - price on enquiry!
Final advice:- When your new mallet arrives, do not expect too much immediately; its natural swing speed will differ from those of conventional club mallets and it will take a couple of weeks to adjust. With a carbon-fibre shafted mallet, however, it does not take long to notice an increase in power for a given effort, easier rushing and a smoother swing. Take special care with storage of the mallet by avoiding hot or very dry conditions. The mallet should stabilise to your environment after a few months and we and other makers will be glad to advise on maintenance. Also, if we meet in play, please try not to beat me by too great a margin!
(Alan Pidcock can be contacted on 01772 743859 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)