R.J. Reilly, Inc. pioneers the aluminum court deck

Richard J. Reilly, Jr. had been building wooden courts since the mid 1960’s and had made numerous innovations over time. But, it was Wilson Sporting Goods that ultimately gave Reilly his best idea.

Wilson had come out with a metal tennis racquet and their major rival, Head, was anxious to catch up and had some consultants working on an aluminum racquet as a competitive response. It so happened that Reilly had built a wooden court for Peter Fisher in Katonah, NY and Fisher suggested he visit George Vaughn and Dick Hargrave who, along with an engineer with a PhD in the aluminum field, were the principal consultants for Head. This Princeton, NJ based team helped Reilly develop all the technology (specifications, extrusion dyes and techniques), required to manufacture an aluminum deck.

As a woodworking purist, he hated the idea of using aluminum, but saw it as providing the longevity that wood didn’t have, as well as the capability for conducting heat, which would help with snow removal. He was right, and by the mid 1970′s, 85% of his courts were aluminum.

There were many obstacles to overcome. The first aluminum boards had just two stiffening ribs and the boards sagged and bent at the edges. Adding a third rib solved this issue and became the standard ever since.

The other challenge was paint adherence but using wood floor sanders helped roughen the surface enough to obtain excellent adhesion. Reilly also experimented with paint formulations the best of which was a two-part epoxy paint but it dried so quickly on a hot day that spreading the aggregate that was used to create the rough texture on the deck had to be done very fast using a high pressure spray. This was tricky and on windy days more than one car parked nearby was accidentally painted.

Reilly had originally used sand as the aggregate (as pioneered by the Tremont Place Paddle Tennis Club in the mid 1930s) but then switched to walnut shells (too soft) and then aluminum oxide, the present day standard.

The epoxy paint was a big improvement over the deck enamel used previously as with deck enamel courts had to be painted every one to two years and the heavy paint build-up tended to chipped and became very uneven creating a poor playing surface. A well-painted epoxy deck on the other hand would last 7-8 years.

Source: Adapted from Off The Wire, Vol. 6 No. 3 and personal communication from Richard J. Reilly