What differences does tip hardness make?

Here are some relevant factors and effects related to tip hardness:

  • A hard tip lasts longer and holds its shape better over time, in general.
  • Tip hardness (within the typical range) should not have a direct effect on the amount of spin that can be applied, per the info below.
  • The amount of spin is limited by the tip offset that creates a miscue (see miscue limit).
  • A soft tip will give the cue stick a softer “feel” (less impact in grip hand) and have a different sound than a hard tip. Some people prefer some sounds and “feels” more than others. For more info, see cue “hit,” “feel,” and “playability.”
  • Tip hardness (in a typical range) has no practical effect on CB deflection (squirt), per the info below.
  • Soft tips can become harder with use.
  • A softer tip tends to hold chalk better than a harder tip (especially a phenolic tip), so if one does not chalk properly or carefully, a soft tip might offer an advantage.
  • Because a softer tip compresses more during a hit (see cue tip deformation), a softer tip will leave bigger chalk marks on the CB, which can cause more-frequent cling/skid/kick (bad hits).
  • The shorter a tip is cut (or worn down with use and shaping), the harder it will play.
  • If a tip is not scuffed (either with a tool or with frequent chalking with a traditional abrasive chalk), it will not hold chalk very well, and miscues will be more likely. A harder tip might require more attention in this regard. For more info, see cue tip care.
  • A harder tip has a slightly better hit efficiency (energy transfer) than a softer tip. This will result in slightly more CB speed for a given stroke speed. This can provide a slight advantage for draw shots, where, where slightly more CB speed will retain slightly more backspin on the way to the OB.
  • If a soft tip is also dense and heavy, it will definitely create more CB deflection (see the last section below).

BOTTOM LINE: It doesn’t really matter much what tip hardness you choose. If you think your choice is the best for you, and you like the way in sounds or “feels,” you will probably play better with it. The mind is a powerful thing. Although, in general, a hard tip does offer slight advantages per the info above and the videos and info below.

Another factor involved with a softer tip is that it might better absorb glue and adhere to the ferrule more strongly and making it less likely to come off with lots of use and/or abuse; although, this is probably not a very important effect if tips are installed properly.

A comparison of the hardnesses of tips of various brands can be found on the cue tip hardness chart resource page.

Can a softer tip put more spin on the ball?

Short answer: No.

Here’s the long answer:

A softer tip does have less hit efficiency (i.e., more cue speed is required to get the same CB speed) and a different feel/sound (a softer tip typically dampens the impact a little and the force of the hit isn’t felt as strongly), but when the CB is hit with a given tip offset, and the CB is given the desired speed, there is no difference in spin between a soft and hard tip. The quality of spin (i.e., the spin-speed ratio) delivered to the CB depends only on the tip contact-point offset from center. The physics on this is very clear. If anybody doubts this, they should do a careful and objective experiment to compare any tips they think would produce different results (e.g., using tests like shown in the video above or at the 6:34 point in this video). For those who have math and physics backgrounds and are interested, the physics showing how the spin-to-speed ratio depends only on tip offset from center, even when accounting for tip efficiency, can be found in TP A.30 – The effects of cue tip offset, cue weight, and cue speed on cue ball speed and spin. For a given tip offset from center, the force between the tip and CB imparts both speed (translation) and spin (rotation) by the same proportion at all cue speeds and for all tip types (although, both the CB speed and spin will be slightly less at the same proportion for softer tips due to the slightly lower hit efficiency or energy transfer).

For a given stroke, because a softer tip will deliver slightly less speed to the CB, slightly more backspin will wear off on the way to the OB with a draw shot and more sidespin will wear off on the way to the cushion with a sidespin shot (especially on slow and sticky cloth with slower shot speed). These effects might make it seem like a softer tip is applying less spin to the CB. On the other hand, if the CB is struck at or below center, where the CB slides over the cloth, drag action effectively intensifies sidespin, in which case a softer tip might seem to be applying more spin to the CB. But again, when doing tip comparisons with equal CB speeds, there is no difference in the amount of spin that is imparted for a given tip offset.

Some people think that because a soft tip stays in contact with the CB slightly longer (see contact time), a soft tip can apply more spin. However, it is actually more likely that a hard tip has a better chance to impart more spin (for a given CB speed). During contact, the tip stays on the CB as the ball rotates some, so the final tip offset as the tip leaves the ball is slightly larger than when the tip first hits the ball. A softer tip, with the longer contact time, will be farther off center at the end than a harder tip with the same starting offset. If both tips can only hold to a certain point of offset (at the miscue limit), and you start your shot so the miscue point is barely reached at the end of contact, the average offset and resulting amount of spin will be larger for the harder tip; although, the difference is too small to be important over a typical tip hardness range. A “late” or “partial” miscue when the tip makes contact with the CB inside the miscue limit but goes outside the miscue limit during the ride on the ball during contact. An example of this occurred during the testing of the soft tip at the 9:35 point in the video above.

Contact time is still extremely small with both a soft and hard tip: close to a thousandth of a second (0.001 s). Assuming the CB speed is the same in all comparisons, even though the peak force will be different (more with the shorter contact time), the amount of momentum (linear and angular) transferred to the CB will still be the same (because the “impulse” or integral of force over contact time is the same in both cases). For more information, see the pertinent explanations on the cue weight resource page. Because the CB doesn’t move much (translation or spin) during the extremely small contact time, the only significant factor is the tip contact point at impact.

It is possible that a hard tip, especially if it is not holding chalk very well, will have a miscue limit closer to the center than a soft tip that is holding chalk well. However, if you chalk properly before every shot, and keep the tip properly maintained (see cue tip maintenance), there should be no difference in the miscue limit for soft vs. hard tips. A soft tip does compress more on the CB, creating a larger contact patch on the ball, but this would provide a benefit only if the tip is not chalked well. In other words, if a harder tip is not holding chalk well or is not chalked properly, the smaller contact patch could increase the chances for the contact patch to slip during the hit. See also: “Why is there no difference in the miscue limit among different chalk brands?” on the chalk comparison resource page. For a given shot, a smaller contact patch will result in larger contact pressure (force per area) over the smaller area, which could help the chalk particles dig into the tip and CB surfaces better.

Psychology also plays an important role. If one thinks a hard tip can’t hit as far out on the ball (even if it can), one might tend to hit with less tip offset from center, which will result in less spin. The mind is a powerful thing. Also, people tend to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts or logical reasoning (see confirmation bias); so if somebody really wants to believe that a softer tip applies more spin, that is what they will believe.

Does tip hardness have an effect on CB deflection?

There are many factors related to tip hardness that could influence squirt (CB deflection), including: tip density/weight, tip efficiency, contact time, and effective endmass. “Return of the squirt robot” (BD, August, 2008) documents an experiment related to the effects of tip hardness on squirt. A softer tip did seem to create slightly more squirt, but the experiment was not very well controlled (see the article for more info). In general, if the contact time is longer (as is the case with a softer tip), the effective endmass and resulting squirt should be larger. Another set of more careful experiments documented in the Cue and Tip Testing for Cue Ball Deflection (Squirt) video and “Cue Tip Squirt Testing” (BD, June, 2014) seem to imply that tip type, hardness, and height have very little effect on shaft squirt. Among the wide range of tips tested in the video, the harder tips did result in slightly more squirt. This makes sense because the harder tips are generally denser and heavier, creating more “endmass.” The shorter contact time seems to be less of a factor than the added weight. Although, a soft tip that is dense and heavy would definitely create more CB deflection. But a soft tip also deforms more sideways during the hit, possibly resulting in less shaft motion sideways, which would reduce CB deflection. Regardless, tip hardness does not seem to affect CB deflection very much.

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