Don't Bust a Gut!
Worried about your first natural gut string job? Two stringing experts take the mystery out of it for you.
By Richard Parnell and Tim Strawn, www.grandslamstringers.com
Working with natural gut string can be a bit daunting, especially for stringers who have never done so. There’s an “aura” around natural gut, and of course the higher price can make some stringers hesitant. However, armed with some basic information, anyone can gain the confidence needed to get the job done.
In our years as professional stringers for grandslamstringers.com, we’ve come up with the following tips and techniques for stringing with natural gut.
Check the grommets and replace or repair those that need attention. Damaged grommets can wreak havoc on a new set of natural gut.
You can repair damaged grommets by using a slightly heated awl to reshape and remold the tube of the grommet. If you use this method, follow up by using a piece of heavier gauge nylon string, lubricated with paraffin wax, to burnish any rough edges. You can also replace individual grommets or the entire bumper/grommet set if necessary.
Clean your clamps with denatured alcohol and an old toothbrush. After the alcohol bath, use a can of compressed air to blow out excess alcohol and debris from inside the jaws of your clamps and to thoroughly dry the clamps. Clamp cleanliness cannot be emphasized enough, especially with natural gut.
Adjust your clamps prior to starting to avoid slippage that can damage the string. Take the end of the actual string you’re using and insert it into the clamp and begin to close the jaw. If you feel too much resistance, adjust your clamp slightly and retest. You want the clamp snug but not tight to the point of crushing the string.
Something basic but often overlooked: Measure twice, string once. Verify that the package contains the length of string you’re expecting, and that this much string is sufficient for the job at hand.
Clamping the Frame
Because gut is more susceptible to damage from clamp slippage, you want to make certain it doesn’t happen, especially on the difficult first pull. One safe way is to mount a starting clamp immediately behind the machine clamp to increase the clamping force. Don’t use a starting clamp on the outside of the racquet, as this can stress the string.
You can still use a starting clamp outside the frame when using an around-the-world (ATW) pattern, many of which require such clamping while finishing up the short side. But there is more strain on the first pull, so you have to be extra careful there.
Preparing the String
After removing the gut from the package, carefully cut the band that holds the coil together and slip the coil over your forearm up near your elbow. Release the string and let the coil equalize. After this initial equalization, it is much easier to uncoil the string.
Natural gut kinks easily, so be careful when handling it. Kinking is most likely to occur during the unwinding of the coil, and it creates weak spots in the string. Take your time when uncoiling gut, and give yourself enough room, not only so the string can uncoil, but also so you don’t pinch, crease, or cut the string by stepping on it.
Because of changes in manufacturing techniques, pre-stretching natural gut is no longer mandatory. If your customer wants you to pre-stretch the gut, use two people to stretch the entire length of the string in a straight line, as opposed to wrapping the string around a pole or door handle so one person can pull on both ends.
You can use starting clamps to hold the ends, or cut sections of broom handle or closet rod and drill a small hole in the middle for the string, and then use a starting clamp. If you use starting clamps alone, hold them firmly, but do not squeeze the handles as this opens the jaws and releases the string. Turn your back to the taut portion of the string so that if it does snap, it can’t hit you in the face. Apply about 40 pounds of pull across the entire length of the string, and hold it for 15 to 30 seconds.
Weaving the crosses demands extra care. Your primary focus is to keep friction to a minimum. Waxing the main strings used to be standard procedure, but this process is seldom used these days. Modern coatings and weaving one cross string ahead will adequately reduce friction and allow for a much smoother weave.
If you are using a basic ATW pattern, you will have an exaggerated hard weave on the very last string because at least one bottom cross is already installed. If you attempt to make the last weave in one motion and pull the entire tail of the string through, there’s a good chance of severely damaging that piece of string.
To avoid this, measure off just enough string to weave the last cross and reach the tension head after weaving the next-to-the-last cross. Insert the tip of the string into the grommet hole and pull the entire length of string through that hole. Form a small loop and weave under one main, pulling all the string completely through, as if you were sewing. Repeat this process until the entire cross string is woven. This technique will keep the natural twist of the string in place and will reduce friction, keeping the string intact. The sewing technique also works well when you have a cross string that immediately encounters a main string as the cross exits the frame.
Abandon the traditional practice of holding the loose end of the string while pulling the rest of the cross string over the mains. All strings will twist and curl as they’re being pulled over the mains and holding the end only compounds this problem pull after pull. Once you’ve completed weaving the cross string, insert the end into the exit grommet and let it hang free as you pull the remainder of the string through the hole. Forget about speed; protect the string.
Avoid unraveling your natural gut during installation by paying close attention to the natural twist in the string. Natural gut is made up of several individual strands of beef intestine (or sheep — not cat!) and those strands are then twisted together to form the string. You’ll notice that the string remains firm and intact while installing the mains but can unravel once you begin to weave the crosses. As you move down the face of the racquet the end of the string becomes more and more worn, making it even more susceptible to unraveling or kinking. Be careful not to over-twist the gut in either direction when you handle it.
Use leather power pads at severe turns where the mains first exit to the side of the frame, especially with thinner gauge strings. Manufacturers are now designing grommet strips with raised ridges in these areas, but not every racquet has them.
Some natural gut strings have more slippery coatings than others. If it’s really bad, wipe off the excess residue with a soft cloth prior to installing the string.
In tournament situations where there’s a lot of traffic in the stringing room, it’s a good idea to pre-weave the main strings to get some of the string up off of the floor and out of harm’s way.
Many people are not aware that today quality natural gut strings are coated. Unlike the days of old, there’s no need to be as worried about moisture. Today’s natural gut strings are more durable and modern coatings have played a big role here.
Dirt and grit are natural enemies of gut. It’s a good idea to clean the string after each use with a soft cloth lightly coated with baby oil. Small particles of dirt can cause pits and cracks that degrade the string and eventually result in premature breaking. You can also apply a light coat of pure carnauba wax to protect the string after cleaning.
Use additional reinforcement at high-stress areas. Outer main strings have much sharper angles where the string exits the grommet, so use some Teflon or nylon tubing here. If the fit is tight, just open up the hole with a lubricated blunt-tipped awl prior to installation. Don’t stretch the tubing; you’re weakening the tubing and defeating the purpose of using it in the first place.
String savers can go a long way in extending the life of any string, especially an expensive piece of natural gut. Many people are of the impression that string savers have an adverse affect on the racquet’s performance, but this is open to debate. The slight increase in tension that may result from the use of string savers can certainly be compensated for during the installation process if need be. Many touring professionals use string savers, which might provide some comfort to your customers concerned about their affect on play.
Natural gut responds better at higher tensions because of its superior elasticity, and hard-hitting players will benefit more when using gut. It comes highly recommended for players with elbow or shoulder problems, but be warned when recommending gut to lower NTRP rated players.
Natural gut has lower “knot break” strength (threshold) than standard synthetics. This is the string’s ability to resist angular forces, which is exactly what you have when a player frames a ball. Because this is more likely to occur with a less advanced player, you may find yourself struggling to explain to your 2.5 player with arm problems just why his expensive string only lasted two hours!
Even armed with these pointers, it’s normal to approach your first natural gut string job with some trepidation. However, if you are cautious and pay attention to the basics, you should do just fine. Of course, after you play with natural gut for the first time, you should find it is worth the extra effort.