How Does An Air Hockey Table Work?

friends playing air hockey

If you have ever played a game of air hockey, you already know just how incredibly fast-paced the game truly is.  But have you ever wondered how an air hockey table actually works—the mechanical functions of the table and the physics behind game play?

If so, this next section should be very illuminating.  Here we will describe the air hockey table in some detail, and explain the inner workings of the game and all of its pieces that allow for such rapid game play when the table is in use.

How It Works?

Your typical air hockey table consists of a sizeable and lightning-smooth playing surface.  This playing surface is typically constructed from plastic composite materials that have been treated to the proper smoothness.

This playing surface is then surrounded by walls or railings.  These apparatuses help to prevent the air hockey puck from flying off the table, and they also allow for players to make bank shots off the rails, which is a very important feature of air hockey.

At each of the far ends of the table there is a slot in the railing that serves as the goal, much like a standard hockey rink with nets at either end of the ice.

Finally, on the ends of table and below the goals there are usually puck returns—a mechanical device that retrieves any made goals and sends them back up to the table so that the game can continue.

The Air Hockey Table Fan

Although the smooth surface of an air hockey table would probably be sufficient for rapid game play, the inventors of this game went a step further.  On the entire playing surface of most traditional air hockey tables there are a series of tiny, symmetrically-drilled holes that are barely visible to the eye.

These holes are used to reduce the friction that would otherwise exist between the air hockey puck and the surface of the table.

Underneath the table is a mechanical fan that is activated once the game is switched to the “on” position.  This fan blows a consistent stream of air upwards and through the tiny holes on the table.

It is this constant air pressure, being filtered and thus magnified as it flows through the table’s holes, that keeps the puck essentially floating over the surface of the table.  Although the puck is still making contact with the playing surface, it appears—and feels—like the puck is actually levitating above the playing surface.

This air pressure system is the same principle that allows for hovercraft technology.

Although the smooth surface of an air hockey table would probably be sufficient for rapid game play, the inventors of this game went a step further.  On the entire playing surface of most traditional air hockey tables there are a series of tiny, symmetrically-drilled holes that are barely visible to the eye.

These holes are used to reduce the friction that would otherwise exist between the air hockey puck and the surface of the table.  Underneath the table is a mechanical fan that is activated once the game is switched to the “on” position.

This fan blows a consistent stream of air upwards and through the tiny holes on the table.  It is this constant air pressure, being filtered and thus magnified as it flows through the table’s holes, that keeps the puck essentially floating over the surface of the table.

Although the puck is still making contact with the playing surface, it appears—and feels—like the puck is actually levitating above the playing surface.  This air pressure system is the same principle that allows for hovercraft technology.

The purpose of the fan, blowing through the tiny holes in the table, is to reduce friction and speed up the overall pace of the game.  However, there are some non-regulation air hockey tables, usually designed for children, in which the air pressure fan and its related machinery is absent.

Instead, these tables simply rely on a very slick table surface for game speed—but this game speed does not come close to rivaling the real thing.

The manufacturers of these non-regulation, children’s air hockey tables leave out the fan and machinery to save on both manufacturing and maintenance costs.  Simply put, the fewer moving parts an air hockey table has, the less likely it is to break down, and the more affordable it will be.

Important to note is that the manufacturers of these non-air tables cannot legally call them air hockey tables.  As such, they rely on names like “Speed Hockey” and the like.

The Air Powered Puck

A third type of air hockey table are those that use a “powered” air hockey puck.  These tables also have a smooth, airless playing surface, but the air hockey puck itself has a battery powered fan that allows it to create its own air cushion to increase the speed of the game.

Most air hockey enthusiasts, however, tend to shy away from these particular non-traditional air hockey setups, as the pucks are very prone to breakage.  This makes perfect sense if you think about it.

If players are constantly smashing the only piece of the air hockey setup that is generating air, it won’t be long until that puck sustains some non-repairable damage.

The only air hockey tables that are totally sanctioned and approved, both by the United States Air Hockey Association (USAA) and the Air Hockey Players Association (AHPA), are the first type we described—tables with symmetrically-drilled holes and a below-mounted mechanical fan that pushes air through the holes to reduce friction.

Also, to be sanctioned by these two Air Hockey bodies, the air hockey table must adhere to certain measurements, in this case 8 feet in length.

Some of the more popular and widely-used fully-sanctioned air hockey table models include the original 8-foot commercial table by Brunswick; all Gold Standard air hockey tables; and the 8-foot tables made by the Dynamo Corporation.

Although only 8-foot tables are sanctioned by the USAA and AHPA for tournament and professional play (yes, there are professional air hockey players and matches), these tables are also made in a variety of sizes for home play.

Children’s air hockey tables, for example, usually measure about 4 feet to 5 feet in length (if not smaller); while adult versions of the game come in sizes that range from 6 feet to 7 feet to the full regulation 8-foot size.

The reason manufacturers make air hockey games in varying lengths is to accommodate home owners who may not have enough room in their homes, man caves or game rooms for a full-size table; and to accommodate children whose reach is not long enough for play on the sanctioned 8-foot tables.

Some air hockey games made for home play also come with a variety of extras, such as flashing LED lights on the field of play; lighted or painted rails; and smaller-than-standard pucks to make goal scoring a bit easier and striking the puck somewhat more challenging.

And while these tables are a lot of fun on which to play, none of these would be allowed in tournament play—but hey, they are fun for practice.

Mallets & Pucks

Finally, to fully understand how an air hockey table works it is necessary to briefly describe the mallets and the air hockey pucks.  An air hockey mallet is known and marketed by several different names, the most popular being mallet, striker, paddle or even goalie (because this is the only way to block a shot propelled towards the goal).

Air hockey mallets consist of a handle of sorts that is attached to a flat surface that will typically lie flush with the table’s playing surface.

These mallets or strikers come in a variety of sizes and styles.  The most common paddle consists of a rounded handle that extends upward from the body of the mallet—these are nicknamed high-tops or high-hats, as they somewhat resemble small plastic sombreros.

There are also flat-top mallets, with a shorter handle that allows your hand to be closer to the playing surface.  Many professionals use these types of mallets, claiming they help them have better control of the puck and a bit more accuracy.

Lastly, let’s talk about air hockey pucks.  Air hockey pucks are small discs made from a plastic material known as Lexan polycarbonate resin.

This material works ideal with the smooth plastic of the playing surface.  It is also light enough to be suspended by the air cushions created by the fan, yet heavy enough to not fly off the table every time it is struck.

Polycarbonate resin is also a very durable material, which prevents the puck from chipping or breaking even after heavy use.

Standard air hockey pucks, those approved by the USAA and AHPA, must be round in shape and colored yellow, white, red or green.

According to tournament rules, when playing competitively a thin white piece of tape is placed on the face up side of the puck to ensure it is always facing in the right direction, and to prevent a player from gaining an unfair advantage.

If you have a home air hockey table and you are looking to get creative, air hockey pucks also come in a variety of colors (even fluorescent colors for nighttime play) and many different shapes, including triangles, squares, hexagons and octagons.

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