2015 Guide to Stringing Machines: A Brief History of Stringing Machines
With the computerized machines of today, it’s hard to imagine how stringing was done in days gone by.
My first machine was a Tremont Research model 145 that I clamped onto the seat of the bleachers at the city park tennis courts in my hometown. Compact and fairly easy to operate, it certainly got the job done. But it is a far cry from the computerized models, or even the lock-out machines, available today.
That was 1975 and my TR 145 was an engineering marvel compared to the equipment available 30 or 40 years earlier. Over the years, I have collected stringing machines and tools from various eras. With a bit of research, I’ve pieced together an unofficial timeline of the evolution of our industry.
Although the game of tennis had been around since the 1870s, it appears that the earliest patent on record at the U.S. Patent office for a stringing machine was in 1932, for a “Racket Stringing Apparatus” awarded to W.E. Jaffe of Chelsea, England.
By most accounts, racquets were strung by hand prior to this time, a practice that continued for some time. The late Warren Bosworth wrote an article that appeared in World Tennis magazine in April 1979 showing a step-by-step method of stringing a racquet by hand. Using just a tension dowel and awls, Bosworth is shown installing the strings with the racquet in his lap. In the opening paragraph, he explains, “There are three ways to string a racquet: Completely by hand (as he demonstrates), with a portable racquet vise, or with a stringing machine, as professional stringers do.” Bosworth did explain the benefits of having the frame supported during the process to protect the integrity of the racquet and that hand stringing did not offer that protection.
The racquet vise that Bosworth referred to was the earliest “machine” that I can find record of. It was simply a way of holding the racquet, freeing the stringer to use both hands to tension and “clamp” the strings. In this case, the clamp was actually an awl forced into the hole beside the tensioned string to hold it in place. I am told that stringers would pluck the tensioned strings for the right pitch to ensure their tension was equal and accurate before moving on to the next string. While I cannot imagine stringing a racquet this way, especially with fragile natural gut, Bosworth sums it up eloquently in the article: “The process of stringing a racquet by hand is simple. Done at its best, it is an art.”
Designed for Tennis
The 1936 catalogs of two prominent sporting goods dealers in Chicago, H.E. Wills Co. and W.A. Bickel, both have two-page ads for The Wonder Vise. According to the ads, the Wonder Vise “was designed and manufactured solely for the purpose of stringing rackets, [and] is not a composite of tools better adapted to other kinds of work.” That description conjures up all sorts of visions of inventive minds trying to adapt various tools in the workshop to hold their racquet while they tug away at the strings! The Wonder Vise held the racquet securely but didn’t really add any support to the head during the process.
Those same catalogs also show what I consider to be the first true stringing machine: The Wonder Tension-Tightener. Rather than pulling by hand with a dowel, this apparatus basically ratcheted the string tension similar to a wrench. The catalogs state, “Results with its use are mechanically accurate, uniform and beyond comparison with the hand method.” As an added bonus, “Actual labor is also greatly reduced, permitting a larger output of finished work.” Who wouldn’t want that?
I have an advertisement for a similar device called the Tomgut Tension-Master, from about the same time frame, although I’ve never seen the actual machine.
Another machine in my collection, The Sterns Stringer, incorporates a similar tensioning device built onto the vise. The Roy Sterns Co. in Cincinnati manufactured it, but I have found no other information about it. It also allows the racquet vise to rotate 360 degrees, which is something almost all machines now incorporate.
Bigger and Better
Through the years the devices seemed to get bigger, if not better. When I was growing up, I remember the upright Serrano machine in the pro shop at a local park. The Serrano was patented in 1941 and was a familiar fixture in many shops through the glory days of the tennis boom in the 1970s. The drop-weight machine’s tensioner was activated with a foot pedal. The one I remember remained in use through at least the late 1990s, and may still be going strong somewhere today.
Another beast of a machine from the 1940s was the Pneu-Draulic from the Super Hydraulic Stringer Co. of St. Louis. The International Tennis Hall of Fame has a one in its collection. The machine used a hand-pumped air cylinder that applied the set tension, which was activated with a foot pedal. The tensioner was a rotational one called the “Snubber-Disc.”
A 1949 “Deluxe” upgrade added an automatic setting “so that you can select any desired stringing tension with finger-tip control without the use of a pump,” according to a company brochure. The other added features touted in the brochure were a “tray for necessary handy tools, and a swivel-head fixed anchor stop for tying and finishing string ends,” — better know in modern machines as a turntable brake.
As racquets began the transition from wood to metal and composites, it seems that stringing machines began to transition to electronics, although at a much slower pace. The earliest electronic machine in our collection is a KAPO Accustring, probably introduced in the 1960s or ’70s, but I have not been able to find other information on it. I did run into a stringer who remembered stringing on one in the 1970s at his local shop. He said the rotational tensioner surface had to be replaced often, which may explain the box of replacements that accompanied my eBay purchase!
The first electronic machine I used was a Babolat Star 2, introduced in the 1980s. When I opened my shop in 1991, the Star 3 had just come out, and I had to have one. It served me well for many years and I know of several that are still in use today.
While the electronic machines seem to dominate the professional market today, manual lock-out machines have also continued to improve, with enhanced mounting systems and clamps. Many of today’s models include features that couldn’t have been imagined in 1930, but for the most part today’s machines have the same requirements as those earliest models: 1) Hold the racquet securely. 2) Apply accurate tension. 3) Make sure the tensioned string is held securely. When you get right down to it, all the rest is convenience and added benefits.
Racquet technicians get asked all the time, “What is the best machine?” The answer is simple, and it’s the same as it is for racquets or string (which are the
other two questions we field with regularity). It really depends on what you need. Your volume, your budget and other factors will dictate what features will suit you best.
In this issue we provide a lot of information about the professional models available. It is up to the buyer to decide the best fit. While we have come a long way since having to pull string manually with a dowel, stringing is still a labor-intensive process. Having the right machine that fits your particular needs will go a long way toward making the job easy and profitable.
If you have a collection or information on antique stringing machines or tools, we would love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in the Birmingham, Ala., area, you can see our collection at the USRSA Test Lab.
See all articles by Bob Patterson
About the Author
Bob Patterson , the founder of the RacquetMAXX customization service, is a Master Racquet Technician with more than 20 years of experience. He was RSI's Stringer of the Year in 2005. He is Executive Director for the U.S. Racquet Stringers Association.
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