The game of table tennis is fairly straightforward. There is really not that much you will need in terms of equipment.
While some of the professional players really make a meal of their game by buying all kinds of special footwear and clothing, these things are not necessary for the amateur player. The fundamental gear that you will need to start playing table tennis includes a ping pong table, ping pong paddles, and ping pong balls.
Ping Pong or Table Tennis?
First, a bit of terminology. Is there really any difference between ping pong and table tennis? Ping pong and table tennis are almost the same game. Probably the biggest difference is that table tennis is considered more competitive and serious than ping pong. Many people compete in clubs, leagues, and tournaments all over the world.
The two games also have different scoring systems. Learn all about the scoring for both games here.
Table tennis is even recognized in world championships as a competitive game, and it is part of the Olympic Games. It is common to use “table tennis” as the official name to refer to the actual Olympic sport, whereas “ping pong” refers to when the game is played in a social or informal way.
Table tennis began in 1885 when some equipment started being made in London. The game gained popularity in the 1890s and at first, there were lots of different names for it, such as “gossima”. This form of the game used both cork balls and rubber balls.
In 1900, manufacturers found that using celluloid balls as ping pong balls was effective. Using long-handled paddles with sheepskin striking surfaces, the noises of the ball bouncing sounded like “ping” and “pong”, depending on the tightness of the sheepskin. Paddles and balls have really evolved since then, and we’ll take a closer look at that evolution later in this article. But first, we’ll take a look at ping pong tables.
Ping Pong Tables
For ping pong, the biggest piece of equipment you will need is a table. Indoor table tennis tables can be big and cumbersome, so it may not be the best idea to put a large, heavy one in your house if you only have a small living space.
Many people have considered outdoor tables that are resistant to all kinds of weather conditions and environments. This is also important if you set up your playing area in an outdoor area, or in a garage or basement without indoor heating or air conditioning. Another option is to also purchase a table cover, but that means even more expense.
Choosing the right table will be your biggest decision and expense as you get started. All of the other equipment for the game, such as balls and paddles, can easily be found at stores or on Amazon for reasonable prices. Creating a comfortable playing area can be an important first step into the world of ping pong.
One thing to be aware of is that your table should be of a certain size. As with most sports, the official regulatory body called the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) defines all of the rules and standards of the official ping pong game. While the ITTF offers advice on all aspects of the game, they present the following comments about the recommended dimensions for an official table:
“The upper surface of the table, known as the playing surface, shall be rectangular, 2.74m long and 1.525m wide, and it shall lie along a horizontal plane that is 76cm above the floor.”
So, by converting these numbers into North American terms, this means that the official dimensions of a standard ping pong size table are 9 feet long (2.7 meters), 5 feet wide (1.5 meters), and 2 feet and 6 inches high (76 centimeters). For many people, this means selecting an outdoor table tennis table so that they have enough space to move around the table comfortably.
A Good Set of Ping Pong Paddles
The next thing you will surely need is a set of table tennis paddles. Customized table tennis rackets can differ greatly from player to player in terms of the structure, the design, the blade, and the surfaces.
But there are also some common features. One side of the paddle must be red, the other white. The sponge on the paddle must be no thicker than a certain prescribed amount and the rubber also has some thickness limitations. Even the type of glue used to secure the sponge must be of a certain quality and speed glue is no longer allowed. Sometimes, the rubber surface has raised pieces of rubber called “pips.” These pips can vary in length, with longer pips allowing for more control of the ball and better spin.
Ping pong players generally use the same type of paddles, such as the common blue sandpaper bats. These paddles offer slow to medium spin and speed. Because of this, the length of the rallies in ping pong is generally long because each player has more time between shots. Players often choose their paddles according to which ones are better for pen-hold grips and which are better for shake-hand grips.
If you are just starting out, we recommend that you do a basic Amazon search and simply get the paddles that are easiest to find, because they will serve your purposes just fine at this stage. In general, most ESN (European rubber paddles), and Japanese (like Butterfly Tenergy and other variants) are good backhand rubber paddles. Butterfly table tennis accessories use advanced technology for the best products.
Ping Pong Balls: Dimensions and Sizes
A ping pong ball is a lightweight, hollow plastic ball. Many players overlook getting the right balls for their skill level. Playing with cheap table tennis balls is fine for amateurs, but if you want to improve your game then you will need the right type of balls. It is a good place to start with the official ping pong ball regulations. All table tennis balls, as defined by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) handbook, are subject to five very specific regulations:
- The ball shall be spherical, with a diameter of 40mm
- The ball shall weigh 2.7g
- The ball shall be made of celluloid or similar plastic material
- The ball shall be white or orange
- The ball shall have a matte finish
Official tournament table tennis balls are 40 millimeters in diameter (1.57 inches). Many balls will be this standard tournament size, but you can also find 38 millimeter (1.5 inch) balls for sale. These balls are faster and provide more spin. The 40 millimeter ones only became standard after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and some players still prefer 38 millimeter balls. If you intend to play with friends or recreationally, try both types of balls and see which you prefer.
Ping Pong Balls: Weight and Color
ITTF-approved table tennis balls must weigh 2.7 grams with a tolerance of between 2.67 and 2.77 grams. Lighter ping pong balls are slower and more likely to wobble, while heavier balls are faster and more stable. If you are a beginner, we recommend using heavier ping pong balls at the outset.
Table tennis balls can only be white or orange because these colors form the greatest contrast with most backgrounds, which makes them easier to see during games. Some players use orange balls during training and then switch to white balls during tournaments, but you can use white or orange balls at any time.
Before an official tournament, all players must agree on which balls to use, and the ball must be sufficiently different in color from their clothing. The main color of a shirt, skirt, or shorts, other than the sleeves and collar of a shirt has to be clearly different from that of the ball in use.
White balls are usually used during televised tournaments because they provide better contrast for viewers. While color cannot affect the performance of any ping pong ball, having color contrast with the background of the room you are playing in and the clothing of your opponent will help you see the ball better and react more quickly.
Celluloid or Plastic Balls?
Table tennis balls have traditionally been made from celluloid, a type of transparent flammable plastic made from camphor and nitrocellulose. Modern table tennis balls are made out of plastic. But there are many different types of plastic, and ping pong ball construction has changed a lot in the last few years.
In 2014, the ITTF expanded its range of accepted materials to include other plastics and allowed manufacturers to develop new table tennis balls. Officially, both celluloid and non-celluloid ping pong balls were allowed by the ITTF, but celluloid balls are more expensive to produce. Also, new products like plastic balls can be made with a seam or they can be completely seamless.
There are a few differences between celluloid and plastic balls, and plastic balls with a seam and seamless balls. According to USA Table Tennis, plastic balls are slower than celluloid balls, due to their slightly bigger size. Plastic balls also provide less spin, as plastic is a stiffer material than celluloid. The best way to decide if you prefer celluloid or plastic ping pong balls is to try both types.
Best Celluloid Ping Pong Balls
It’s getting harder to find celluloid table tennis balls on the market, but there are still some premium manufacturers like Japanese specialist Nittaku making them. Celluloid balls are marked with a “40” and plastic balls are also called “poly” or marked “40+”.
It is important to understand the difference between seamless and seamed table tennis balls. Seamless balls are more durable because they don’t have a weak point at the seam. Seamless balls are harder to find, but some players think they offer a similar playing experience to cellulose balls.
Among plastic balls, the XuShaoFa (XSF) ITTF approved ball is a superior product. This is because, unlike other seamed balls, the bounce is as high as celluloid. They provide consistent playing quality. Their roundness is also superior. They are very durable and last much longer than any other plastic ball.
- Best seamless ping pong balls: XuShaoFa (XFS) 40+ Seamless Poly Table Tennis Balls
- Best seamed ping pong balls: Butterfly A40+ 3 Star Table Tennis Balls
- Best beginner ping pong balls: KEVENZ 3-star Orange (60 pack)
- Best celluloid ping pong balls: Nittaku Premium 3-Star White
- Best tournament ping pong balls: Butterfly A40+ 3 Star
Seamed table tennis balls can be made from celluloid or plastic. Many of the cheaper balls you’ll find online are plastic balls. While plastic seamed balls are not always perfect, they are widely used and they are used in some tournaments and table tennis clubs.
If you’re serious about ping pong, it’s a good idea to practice with the type of ball you will be using against opponents, and plastic seamed balls tend to be the most popular. Also, seamed plastic balls are consistently chosen as the official balls of the World Table Tennis Championships.
Ping Pong Ball Star Ratings
Stars on ping pong balls indicate quality. 3 stars are the maximum rating for the highest quality balls. 1-star or no-star table tennis balls will be of lower quality. As long as the balls match the required regulations (size, weight, etc.), the star rating does not matter in tournament play. However, 1-star and 2-star ping pong balls are less durable than 3-star balls and so they are better for training or casual play.
However, manufacturers set their own star-rating guidelines and there are still some cheap 3-star table tennis balls that are not as good as other options. Even in the 3-star ball market, there is plenty of variation in quality and you often get what you pay for so take the brand reputation into account when making your decision.
Best Ping Pong Ball Brands
Most of the best-sellers are from China and Japan because the sport and industry are so popular in those countries. You can find the full list of ITTF-approved ping pong balls on the ITTF website. In 2021, the official list includes 112 different balls, but here is a more manageable selection of table tennis products that you can easily find for sale online:
- Butterfly A40+ 3-star (Plastic with seam) (White)
- Joola Super 3-star (Celluloid) (White)
- Nittaku Nexcel 40+ 3-star (Plastic with seam) (Orange)
- Nittaku Premium 40+ 3-star (Plastic with seam) (White)
- Stiga Optimum 40+ 3-star (Plastic with seam)
- Xushaofa G40+ 3-star (Plastic seamless) (White)
Choosing the right ping pong balls might seem a little complicated, but ultimately, there are only a few decisions to be made: orange or white, plastic or celluloid, seamed or seamless. Try them all and you will discover your favorite type of ball in no time.
More Advanced Equipment
An advanced piece of equipment would be a ping pong robot. If you start taking the game more seriously and want to practice more, you can get a table tennis robot that will throw balls at you and allow you to practice your shots. If you have never seen one of these in action, they are machines that shoot ping pong balls at you on a set timer that you can program to go off every few seconds.
Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most expensive ways to practice table tennis alone. To get one of the best practice robots, you can expect to spend well over $2,000. However, you’ll also find a lot of slightly less fancy models for just a few hundred dollars, which will allow you to buy a practice robot without going bankrupt.
You may also consider a table tennis return board, a special board that you hit the ball against. This is another helpful way to improve your skills. A real return board can cost several hundred dollars, but you can also make your own by using cheaper materials from a table tennis store or directly off Amazon. You can go online to learn how to make your own return board, which is great if you are on a budget and don’t want to spend a lot of money.
Learning More About Ping Pong and Table Tennis
Several styles of table tennis games can be found all across the world like team events, doubles games, and special exhibition events. There are many professional ping pong leagues for men and women of all ages. Table tennis is a serious sport in some countries, requiring a wide range of ping pong equipment to rise to the top. Everyone can learn how to play at a reasonably high level if they practice enough and get in good enough shape.
Professional table tennis players have excellent hand-eye coordination and a natural quickness that can only be appreciated in person because television cannot always capture the close-to-the-table interchange that often dominates many of the points in fast, professional games.