Forged Irons from Japan vs US or China – The Facts

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If you’re into golf clubs or spend time reading the various golf equipment internet forums, there are occasional discussions from which you could get the impression that forged carbon steel iron heads made in Japan are superior to those made anywhere else in the world.

As a veteran of clubhead design and production with more than 35 yrs of clubhead design experience including many forged ironhead designs, I’m here to tell you the buzz about Japanese made forgings is simply not true.  But first, a brief time out – as an American with some sense of sadness have to tell you that since the late 90s, the USA forging companies have either gone out of business or no longer play a significant role in the forging of clubheads.  Cornell Forge of Chicago and Hoffman of Memphis, the two forging factories that ruled the golf industry for most of the 20th century are sadly gone.  I can’t tell you if Wilson’s forging factory in Tennessee is still in business, but as of 1998 when I last worked with them on a project related to my work helping Golfsmith purchase the Snake Eyes name, their business was pretty much gone.

I also had a brief experience with Smith & Wesson, the US firearms manufacturer who had a short lived stint in the golf business when Snake Eyes contracted with them to make a forged carbon steel iron in the late 90s.  While the man who supervised the project for S & W very definitely wanted to continue the project, he insisted they would not do so unless S & W re-made the forging dies. 

Snake Eyes had contracted with a separate company to make the forging dies for this project for a lower cost and then shipped the dies to S & W to forge the heads.  According to the S & W supervisor, the poor quality of the forging dies caused all sorts of problems, to the point that S & W admitted the heads were not even close to showing what they could do.  Long story short, I did not re-up the project because the cost for S & W to remake the forging dies was far more expensive than we were willing to pay to continue that project.

So that leaves China as a competitor to the Japanese forging factories.  It was 1994 when I became aware of the first serious attempt by a Chinese based company to do forged clubhead production.  By 1998 this company (Virage Tech Industrial) was a serious contender in the production of forged clubheads in the golf industry.

Just before I founded Wishon Golf I served as a design and production consultant for Virage Tech Industrial.  Based in western China, Virage Tech began business in 1994 and now counts a number of the well known US and Japanese golf companies as customers for their forged iron head production.  During the time between 1994 and 2002, I had the chance to live, eat and breathe every possible part of clubhead forging design and production. 

With my experience in clubhead design and specifically in forged clubhead design, I know nothing of any other China based forging companies, but I can tell you that Virage Tech most definitely knows what they are doing and does produce forged ironheads which are every bit as good as and better than any of the Japan forging companies.  The sheer fact Virage Tech produces more forged iron heads for some of the largest golf companies than do any of the Japanese forging companies is itself a strong testimony to their skills.

But let’s take one more brief time out before we get into any specifics about the actual forging process.  First and foremost, with ANY clubhead design, whether forged, formed or cast, the ultimate outcome of the quality and performance of the design lies far more with the designer or the clubhead product manager of the golf company than it does with the production factory.  This is just as the software people like to say, “garbage in means garbage out.”

Design wise, if the creator of the head model doesn’t do his job to design each head in the set so all the dimensions and mass properties are perfect, doesn’t verify this on the tooling masters/3D models/CAD file, doesn’t check it on the initial raw forging runs, and doesn’t ensure it on the first production runs of the finished heads,  it isn’t going to matter how much skill and experience the production factory has – the head model will not perform as well as one that has been managed perfectly through all its pre-production development.   Period.

Now let’s talk specifics of the forging process itself.

Carbon Steel Quality.  Tons of the mavens on the golf forums like to say that the steel used by the Japan forging factories is better.  Malarkey.  Any metallurgist will tell you that the typical carbon steel alloys used to forge ironheads are the easiest to formulate of any metal – meaning getting the right percentages of the Carbon, Manganese, Phosphorus, and Sulfur to mix in with the base metal of Iron are very easy to achieve.  What’s more, any decent steel supplier will always ship specification documents with each mill run of the steel that verifies the +/- tolerances for every chemical and mechanical property of the steel based on international standards.  In short, if you buy carbon steel for iron head forging from a Japanese mill or a Chinese mill which possesses the proper certifications from the various international metal standards organizations, you get the same exact steel.  Period.  Having seen the shipments of carbon steel at the Virage Tech factory with their mill spec certification paperwork, I can testify that in no way is the carbon steel used by the Japan forging companies any better or any different.

Forging Die Quality.  Both the Japan forging companies as well as Virage Tech routinely make their forging dies from a very hard tool steel called SKD-61 alloy, which has a Rockwell hardness of HRC55-57.  Here again, the chemical and mechanical properties of SKD-61 steel are verified by international certifications.  As to the quality of each forging die with respect to making each head correctly, this again is a dual responsibility between the head model designer/manager of the golf club company in combination with the forging company’s tooling supervisor.  If the raw forgings come out of the die at the correct weight, loft, lie, face progression, shape requirements and are within the required +/- tolerances for each, the quality of the dies is assured. 

I remember when I worked briefly with the Wilson forging factory that had been the main supplier of the original Snake Eyes forged irons and wedges, upon measuring the weight of the raw forgings for each like iron or wedge head, I saw a raw forging weight tolerance of +/- 30 grams and more! 

Inspecting raw forging quality at Virage Tech, I saw their weight tolerance for the raw forgings as they come out of the last forging step to be +/-5 grams – which is considered to be extremely tight for a raw forging.  Wide weight tolerances in the raw forgings are a product of poor die construction as well as poor control of the actual forging process itself.

Forging Process.  In touching upon the most important points of the forging process, a quality made raw forging has to achieve the following requirements; 

1) A very tight weight tolerance must be achieved so when the raw forging is processed into a finished head ready to be electroplated, no real variation has to be done in the machining, grinding and finishing processes and the heads can end up with a tight finished head weight tolerance.  The typical finished head weight tolerance of a forged iron head made by a quality forging factory such as Virage Tech will be +/-3g; +/-2g of that is from the production of the raw forging into the finished head ready for plating and +/-1g of that is in the plating operation itself.  While +/-2g weight tolerance is capable with an investment cast head made by a quality foundry, +/-3g for a forged clubhead is as good as can be achieved.   

2) The surface condition of the raw forging has to be of very high quality so that the minimum amount of material has to be removed in the machining, grinding and finishing processes to again achieve a very tight finished head quality. Consistent control of the surface of the raw forging is a matter of several things including die quality, psi force of the forging press operations, and temperature control of the raw heads during each forging step.  In addition the number of dies made to forge each head in the set plays a critical role in creating raw forgings that require a minimum amount of material removal during production.  The more dies, the more times the head can be compressed with each die and eventually the less excess metal (called flashing) is left on the raw forging to be removed.  

3) The internal grain structure must be as uniform and isotropic as possible with the least number of “tiny holes” which are called internal voids. To achieve this, Virage Tech and the Japan forging companies chiefly use both an 800 ton and 1000 ton forging press in the production of the forged carbon steel ironheads they produce.  Using a higher level of forging pressure does not ensure quality in the raw forging.  Using the RIGHT forging pressure with the forging dies made precisely to match with the specific forging pressure for each forging step is what ensures the raw forgings come out with a more uniform grain structure and with a minimum of voids.

One thing I might add – to my knowledge Virage Tech was the first forging company to increase the number of forging dies and forging steps to be able to improve the outcome of all three forging requirements I listed above.  The Japan forging companies followed suit after Virage Tech inaugurated this change in their forging production.  I am proud to say that I had a hand in this decision when I was serving as a production consultant to Virage Tech in 2002.

The first consulting project I was handed by Virage Tech was to figure out how to improve the head to head shape consistency for a forged iron model they were making for one of the larger OEM golf companies.  This particular golf company had been trying to get tour players to use this forged iron model and was hearing a few complaints from a handful of the pros that there were variations in the leading edge and toe profile shape of the same head number model in one set vs another.

In studying the model through production, I could see that after the completion of the usual 4th and final forging step to make the raw forgings, the excess flashing material squeezed to the outer edges of each head was large enough that the Virage Tech workers could make a mistake and grind too much steel off the outer edges of the toe and sole and change the profile slightly.  The workers had tried using face profile templates to guide their final grinding of these surfaces, but this was not solving the problem.

I suggested that if they added on one more forging step, this would reduce the excess flashing on the outer edges of the head to a much smaller amount of excess metal that could more easily be ground off by the workers without touching the actual profile edges of each head.  A 5th forging die was made for each head and the result was far less material to grind off the edges of the heads, which in turn meant all heads of the same number came out of production looking the same.

Not only did this 5th forging step improve the density consistency of the raw forgings, which in turn tightened the +/- weight tolerance of the raw forgings, but this additional forging step further reduced the number of internal voids and improved the consistency of the grain structure of the carbon steel.

Add it all up and I tend to think the one thing that the Japan forging companies actually do which leads many technically uninformed people to have the opinion the Japanese forgings are better is the simple fact the forging companies in Japan charge a much higher price than does Virage Tech for its forgings.  Marketing wise, it’s a simple but often inaccurate conclusion to assume the more you pay the better the quality.  Plain and simple, the price difference comes chiefly because of the labor cost differences between Japan and China. 

Those are a few of the high points in this ongoing discussion of China vs Japan forgings.  As always, if you have comments, that’s what our comments section for each topic is for.

Tom