by Don Irving, Artisan Golf
In talking with many of my customers, I have realized that there is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to the differences between cast irons and forged irons. In this article, I would like to explore the essential differences as well as the benefits and shortcomings of both.
Firstly, the main difference between cast and forged irons is the actual process of manufacturing. With cast irons, the manufacturing process is called the “investment casting” or “lost wax” process. In this process, a wax model of the club head is made and then this model is coated with a ceramic mixture. Once the ceramic mixture is hard the internal geometry of the ceramic is now exactly like the club head model. The wax is then melted out of the ceramic mold and is replaced by a molten metal. The metal is cooled, the ceramic is broken and what remains is a perfectly shaped golf club head that does not require a lot more labour or attention before it is ready to be assembled to a shaft.
There is no restriction as to what type of metal can be used. In the early days of investment casting, a grade of steel called 17/4 stainless steel was used which when hardened was extremely hard and brittle. This steel is a bit on the harsh side when not hit exactly on the sweet spot, and from a clubmakers point of view, it is not user friendly since it is very difficult to bend more than 1 or 2 degrees. Beyond this, breakage is a possibility. However, in recent years, many stainless steel alloys have been developed along with a soft casting process that yields club heads, which are hard but are bendable with some as much as 5 degrees, making custom fitting of cast clubs for loft and lie much easier.
So, now let us look at the process for forged clubs. Then we will do a comparison of forged versus cast. In the forged process, a solid billet of steel is used. The steel billet is heated to very high temperatures, put in a press and is then hammered into shape with several tons of pressure. This process can be repeated several times before the head is ready for finishing. It is at this point that there is a big difference between cast and forged. With the cast process, at this point the head is virtually ready to be assembled. There is not very much additional work to be performed on it. In the forged process, the head has to go through a grinding, buffing and detailing process before it is ready to be shafted. This part of the process requires very skilled craftsmen and is extremely labor intensive. The cost of labor is the main reason why forged clubs are much more expensive. There are a few smaller foundries in Japan that are still producing totally hand forged heads, and they are the priciest heads available. They produce beautiful heads. They are of top quality but you pay a premium price for them.
So, how do forged clubs and cast clubs compare in quality? Let me first say that when done in top tier foundries both cast and forged are both of high quality. The main difference in the two methods is this: in a cast process, there can be small air bubbles that are created in the process and when cool turn into tiny voids, whereas in forged clubs this does not occur, the metal is solid throughout. If you are a visual person, think of it this way: the molecular structure of a cast head is like a jar of marbles (beads) whereas with a forged head it is like a jar of fine sand, much denser. But does this affect the playability? In a word, “no”. For some players it is all about the feel. For lovers of forged clubs, the impact feels and sounds more solid. For the average golfer, I do not think they would feel any difference at all.
Now let us look at clubhead design. There is still the misconception that forged heads equate with blades. This was so in the past, but today there are many heads available that are considered game improvement irons. These clubs have cavity backs and great perimeter weighting, for those who want the feel of forged but the forgiveness of a cast iron. Many heads are forged first and then go through a milling process to achieve game improvement. These heads are generally referred to as forged/milled and are less expensive than a true hand forged clubhead. The advantage that cast heads have over forged heads is in the level of design possibilities. In the cast process, there is really no limitation on design. In forged clubs, there are limitations. I doubt we will ever see a forged head with a huge undercut cavity and extra wide sole. The cost would be prohibitive as the labor to produce this would be exorbitant.
One instance where forged clubs might be a necessary option is when it is determined in the fitting process that the golfers set up or his general swing characteristics require that the lie angles be markedly upright or flat, more than 2-3 degrees. In these cases, the majority of cast clubs will not bend enough to achieve the correct lie angle. In this case, a forged head would be necessary.
I hope this article has helped clear up some of the confusion around cast/forged heads. The main point I would like people to remember is that forged clubs are not just for the scratch golfer. There are forged or forged-milled clubs that are designed to benefit a 20+ handicapper. So, if you want to play a forged club, you can be sure there is one that will fit your swing. It should also be mentioned that many low handicap players play with cast irons. This is even true on the Tour. They do not all play with forged clubs. Whatever your preference, cast or forged , contact a qualified professional fitter and start benefiting from the best clubs you will ever own.