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Aluminum vs Carbon Fiber in Flow Props

Momo Bonobo

Carbon fiber tubing in different sizes

With some minor exceptions (some LED props especially), almost all stick based flow props use a shaft made of either aluminum or carbon fiber. Although carbon fiber is generally seen as the superior choice for flow props, aluminum comes in many different alloys that can be strong enough for many applications where carbon fiber could be overkill.

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Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber starts with thin strands of carbon atoms that lock together in a crystal-like structure. This unique arrangement gives carbon fiber an unbeatable combination of incredible strength and surprising lightness. Making carbon fiber involves a complex process, but the end result – spools of these super-strong, featherweight fibers – is used in countless applications.

Carbon fiber tubing used in flow arts is generally 3K twill weave 2×2 roll-wrapped tubing with a 1.5mm or 2mm wall thickness. It would not be recommended to use thinner walls than that. Thicker walls are used in some specialty props such as acro staffs, but this is a very specific use case.

Because of the way carbon fiber is made, it handles different types of stress in many different directions while retaining it’s strength. Compared to aluminum, carbon fiber is much more rigid and can’t be bent. This makes props feel more responsive. If it were to break from extreme force, it would crack or shatter rather then bend. This is not very common, but if you source lower quality carbon fiber tubing than it is a possibility.

It is an ideal material for any props where the straightness of tubing is quintessential to the flow of the prop. If you were to bend a contact staff for instance, it would be unusable. If props have tubing thinner than 19mm (3/4″), as with 16mm contact staffs or 12mm double staffs, then it is highly recommended that carbon fiber be used as it is much more rigid than aluminum at these thicknesses.

Carbon fiber is also lighter than aluminum tubing assuming the tube length and wall thickness is the same between the two. If you are comparing a 19mm aluminum tubing with 1.5mm wall and a 19mm carbon fiber tubing with 2mm wall, the weight difference will be negligible.

Carbon fiber is not fire proof, so fire props will require an aluminum heat shield. This is usually an aluminum tubing that is put on the ends of the carbon fiber and screwed, riveted, or pinned in place. In some props, this aluminum heat shield requirement balances out the weight you might’ve saved by using carbon fiber (or even makes it slightly heavier than it’s aluminum counterpart). This setup will be way more rigid and unbendable than it’s aluminum counterpart though, which is why it’s still used. It also shifts the weight towards the ends of the staff rather than along the length of the staff, which is ideal for contact weighting.

Dragon staffs that use hubs where spokes can be inserted generally don’t need heat shield as the fire doesn’t come in direct contact with the tubing. Generally, you would want to use end caps or plugs of some sort to keep the hubs from crushing the tubing (V3 hubs or Gora hubs). Some hubs are inserted into the carbon fiber tubing though so the need for end caps isn’t as necessary (Ultra or F3 hubs).

Collapsible props have shorter pieces of tubing which make each individual piece harder to bend. This means that collapsible props made of aluminum generally won’t have a bending issue. In this specific instance, the biggest difference between collapsible carbon fiber props and collapsible aluminum props is that the carbon fiber one will be slightly lighter.

In conclusion:

  • Carbon fiber is pound for pound stronger and lighter than aluminum
  • It is rigid and can’t be bent
  • If it were to break from excessive force, it would crack or shatter (uncommon)
  • Make sure you source quality carbon fiber tubing
  • Aluminum heat shields need to be used for fire props
  • Some dragons don’t need heat shields, but would need end caps or plugs to keep hubs from shattering tubes.

Aluminum

Aluminum is a widely available tubing material globally and comes in many different alloys. The different alloys are very different in strength though, so the type used is important when it comes to flow props. Alloys also come in different pre-tempered grades (O, T6, T651) but in flow arts we generally use the T6 grade.

The 2 main alloys seen in flow props are:

  • 6061
  • 7075

6061

This is one of the most common alloy for general purpose use, second in popularity only to 6063 which is mostly used for architectural applications. It is the most budget friendly material used for stick props in the flow arts world. In many countries, sourcing affordable 7075 or carbon fiber is not easy so this material is widely used worldwide.

Because it isn’t as strong as 7075, you will generally need to have thicker walled tubing in order for it to not easily bend. This means it’s the heaviest option for stick props. For some props where weighting, straightness, or bending isn’t a huge issue 6061 can still be a good option. Smaller/shorter props with thinner tubings that aren’t used for contact would fall into this category (fire eating torches, fire breathing torches, tech-specific doubles etc).

Although 6061 is more affordable and easily found, I wouldn’t generally recommend it for any kinds of staffs used for contact or long props in general. The longer a prop is, the easier it is to bend.

7075

This alloy is about twice as strong as 6061, which makes it only slightly weaker than titanium. The first manufacturer to use this alloy was Gora, but now Dark Monk, Threeworlds, and many other companies also use it.

Because it’s twice as strong, you can generally use it at the same wall thickness as carbon fiber. It’s still slightly more affordable than carbon fiber, and can be used in most props. For contact staffs (or longer staffs in general) with an OD smaller than 19mm (3/4″), it’s still recommended to use carbon fiber. Aluminum can be bouncy in long lengths when the staff OD is smaller than that.

Note: Aluminum should be used over carbon fiber in fire eating torches because carbon fiber epoxy is not safe to inhale.

Conclusion

Carbon fiber and aluminum alloys can both be great options for stick props depending on the application. If you have the option to pick between the two (ideally CF vs AL 7075), here’s a quick reference guide as to the differences:

Carbon Fiber

  • Doesn’t bend
  • Can take more of a beating
  • Better weighted for contact props
  • Props are more responsive
  • Makes some props lighter unless heat shields need to be used
  • More expensive

Aluminum

  • 6061 is more readily available
  • 7075 is twice as strong as 6061
  • 7075 can be safely used in most props
  • Should not be used in long staffs if you want an OD smaller than 19mm (7/8″)
  • Aluminum should be used for fire eating torches
  • More affordable