Flatiron Cornhole: Bags

Cornhole bags were the most popular product of Flatiron cornhole. As of early 2017, I made and sold at least 80,000 bags of at least 500 variations, including many prototypes and donations. I currently sell the following types of bags:

  • Traditional Cornbags – High quality 16.0 oz traditional 100% whole corn filled bags made from industry standard 10 oz cotton duck cloth. Available in 25 colors.
  • XL Resin Bags –  Like Traditional Cornbags but filled with plastic resin pellets to add longer life and resistance to bugs and pets. Available in 25 colors.
  • Extended Life XXL Resin Bags –  Resin-filled bags (like XL) bags but using a heavier (12 oz) cotton duck cloth. Available in 8 colors.
  • Pro Style Dual-Sided Resin Bags – Resin-filled bags with an easy sliding cotton twill side and a sticky suede side for greater control demanded by serious players.
  • Stars and Stripes Corn Bags – Fourth of July themed decorative bags
  • Rugged Camo Resin Bags – Camo design resin-filled bags made for camping
  • Ballistic Industrial Strength Bags – Made to last “forever” (or close to it). Very stiff and not much fun, but useful for bars and weather-proof use.

Surefire Cornbags

I needed a separate brand for bags. There was a bags market that was separate from the boards (and full sets) market. Most people wanted to make their own boards and buy bags. I think that’s a cultural thing. Boards are a wood working project, and bags are a sewing project. I don’t know why a man who can master a router and table saw is intimidated by a sewing machine, but so be it. I can’t count how often I heard “my mom makes the bags”. Well I’m their mom. You won’t catch me sewing doilies or pinafores for the tikes anymore than you’d find me building a wooden bassinet. But bags are a whole lot easier and in higher demand than boards, so I’m happy to deal in them.

The Surefire name embodies the quality and reliability of my bags and worked well for branding a web site and made a good memorable logo for the bags themselves.

surefirecom.jpg

Innovations

This first thing everyone asks about a “commodity” item is how are they different from others. Quality construction and materials is a partial answer, but it’s not the most interesting.

Shape

Most cornhole bags are made from two square pieces of fabric sewn together. That means that they are only flat and square when they are nearly empty. New bags have a good amount of corn in them which typically means the corners flare out to a point when made in this lazy fashion. Not only does that flare not look and feel right, the corners tend to block the hole and can make new bags harder to score with. And for the truly elite players, a square bag lays flatter on the board meaning a larger and more consistent (with wear) surface that is easier to control for a player who as developed a highly skilled flat throw.

square.jpg

Surefire wasn’t the first to use this style of construction. ACO pro bags have been using it for years. But I may have been one of the first to apply it to traditional bags, and to experiment with different arcs based on performance metrics.

Weight vs Fullness

Consistency is the main goal. But there are two metrics that an experienced user can detect immediately. One is weight, the other is fullness. There is a significant challenge in keeping BOTH consistent from bag to bag, set to set, and when possible throughout the life of the bag.

You can imagine that the first goal would be to achieve an absolutely consistent volume and a consistent filling density. If you had those two things just right, and could keep them that way, you could tweak your bags until they were perfect using minor adjustments to the volume. Then you would go along forever with perfect bags.

If you use identical fabric for all your bags and have them all precision machine-cut and sewn, you might expect the volume of the bags to stay constant. Unfortunately, in the real world, different batches of fabric, even from the same manufacturer will have different characteristics. Some batches will be more or less stretchy. Some will be a bit thicker and heavier. Some will be a bit more or less tightly woven. So volume might be the easiest thing to keep constant, but it will still vary.

Corn is a natural product. On average each kernel of corn is about the same size, but they vary more than you’d expect. And different manufactures sell corn that is a bit heavier (denser) than others. Even from the same brand, the density of whole corn varies from one season to another and sometimes from one bag to another. Different manufacturers “clean” their corn to different extents, resulting in more or less non-kernel waste mixed in, which also affects the density. So you cannot count on corn being a single consistent density.

If you have bags of a truly constant volume, and you fill them to a precise weight, the bags will feel fuller when the filling density is low and less full when the density is high. Good players can detect that difference, probably more so than the weight.

The innovation is a device and method to combine with two materials of different densities and into a constant weight such that the final product has a controlled target density between the density of the two originals. This allows you to produce bags with precise weight (+/- 0.05 g) and fill density.  When volume is consistent and you calibrate often, you can maintain as accurate and consistent a fullness as you are willing to devote time and expense to. (Perhaps a future business idea is to allow customers to choose their own fullness level, like the “sleep number” concept for mattresses.)

With cornbags I call this process weight-balancing. Corn bags lose a lot of weight as they break in and dust is expelled, so the importance of weight-balancing is less noticeable than with resin bags. After years of experimentation I settled on a very simple method to achieve good results with corn. My initial method involved two brands of corn, one that was cleaned more than the other and had a different density. I would mix those bag by bag to the right fullness and weight. But that process was overly accurate for corn and I eventually settled on a much simpler method that achieved a good enough result with one corn supplier and a “trick”.

With resin bags, this weight-balancing step is more important because the weight and fullness of the bags are fairly constant throughout their lives. Small variations are detectable. However, with resin bags the initial densities of the filling materials are much more constant than with corn. Re-calibration still needs to take place in the (frequent) event that slight variations are present from one batch of filling to another. In fact, no two manufacturers of resin, even if made from the identical material, produce resin of consistent density. Although the raw material (usually) has a consistent density, the size and shape of the pellets varies a little and that affects the density of the resulting resin, sometimes dramatically. Oddly, when volume, fill density, and weight are all carefully controlled, there is still a bit of variation in resin bags fullness! The reason seems to be two-fold, the water content of the atmosphere when manufactured, and some stability of the materials as they wear. Both of those factors can be controlled to an extent by slightly over-stuffing new resin bags so they achieve perfect fullness when at the peak of their break-in. But the key is that only a certain degree of control is achievable, so only a certain effort and expense is justifiable. Fortunately, the proper balance is both economical and still detectable as superior to unbalanced bags.

Construction

I’m admittedly taking some liberties in listing my construction techniques under innovations. I doubt any are truly unique, but at least one is a technique I’ve never seen in competing products.

Testing scientifically

One possible innovation was developing a device for testing the strength of the bag “pouches” (unfilled bags). Having a reliable way to test bag strength means I didn’t have to guess when testing different threads, different stitches, different stitch patterns and spacing, different materials, different seam allowances, and on and on.

One can find a large number of guides on the internet describing how to make corn hole bags. But they are all flawed. They are either not specific enough, or just wrong in some ways. Clearly, none were determined scientifically to produce the strongest bags.

The basics were rather easy. The proper thread material (cotton, nylon, or polyester), the proper thread weight, the proper stitch (style, length), the proper number of seams (one, two, three), the proper seam allowance and seam spacing, and then the right techniques for sewing that prevented weaknesses from making it to the final products.

Cutting

When I was experimenting with synthetic materials in search of the ultimate all-weather bags I had a nice discovery that contributed to stronger bags of all types, by doing something no other bags manufacturer seemed to have discovered. Almost all fabrics that can be used for bags (natural or synthetic) are woven. This means that the ‘warp’ threads are set up on a loom, and the ‘weft’ threads are drawn through the warp. The warp and weft threads are not always identical. In some fabrics, especially synthetic ones, the warp threads are stronger, and sometimes less dense. That means that a rectangular piece of fabric is stronger in one direction than the other in most fabrics. You can imagine a square cornhole bag made from such a fabric. One direction would be stronger than the other! The strength of the bag (by some measure) is determined by the strength of the weakest direction. So there’s a natural epiphany (I don’t claim my discovery of this is not well known in the clothing industry, but it still feels useful). Simply by cutting the bags in line with the fabric’s “bias” as opposed to parallel and perpendicular to the selvage as would seem most natural and economical, both directions become as strong as the average direction making the whole bag stronger!

After years or inspecting bags that failed (broke prematurely due to poor construction), I noticed something very unexpected. Every one of them (maybe a dozen out of 10,000 or more bags) that failed, did so at the exact same point! It was not at the point I would have expected. The part of the bag that took the greatest strain was a surprise. And the way that the fibers of the bag weakened and broke was entirely consistent in every case, also a surprise. And the solution to preventing that weakness was simple but unexpected – it was solved by the trans-bias cut mentioned above plus a simple tweak in the sewing. This simple innovation (if you call it that), which no one on the internet ever suggested, and no bags manufacturer seemed to be using, made a very significant improvement to bags strength. It varied by materials, but in some cases, bags were 25% stronger and had almost no defects simply by cutting the fabric this way!

I have to call that result an innovation.

Inverted partial seam

There are basically two ways that bags are constructed. There are advantages to each. In the most common method, a bag is sewn as an inverted rectangle, then flipped inside-out, filled, and one entire edge seam is sewn shut. This is the simplest way to make a bag and always used by the cheapest bags.

The better way, in my experience, is to sew all four sides of the bag, leaving a third of one side open. Inverting the bags is a bit more effort, but in exchange for that trivial extra effort, you can use better bags shapes, and there is less exposed seam to wear – an exposed seam is going to fail sooner than an unexposed seam after years of being pounded on concrete for example.

I’m not sure just how important this construction technique is for improving bag strength because it can’t be measured in isolation. But it does seem superior, and experience seems to back that up. If there’s a significant downside, maybe it’s greater difficulty in converting to fully machine manufacturing.

Failed bags

Not all experimental bags became products. Here are a few that failed.

Round bags

I experimented briefly with round bags. I had seen how someone in Italy had made them for personal use. It seemed like a nice idea and I found they were not any harder to produce. They even had some advantages. But they were different, and I learned how big a deal that was! It was the equivalent of trying to introduce a yellow baseball to the major leagues. No one would even try them because they were not traditional. I could have pressed harder, donated them to the major tournaments, but the advantages were too subtle. They’d be seen only as a gimmick rather than an innovation. It was clearly not the kind of change I wanted to champion.

All-weather bags

I tried for years to produce truly weatherproof bags. There were thousands of synthetic fabrics that could stand up to the elements much better than cotton. Surely there was one that could be used to make weatherproof bags that played as good as cotton. I tried hundreds of samples or every fabric in existence (that I could buy by the yard without custom ordering). I have  room full of samples. Some played well but were not significantly stronger than cotton. But most just did not play very well. They had a stiff feel or a rubbery feel or some other uneven slide. Cotton was king. It was the only fabric that played right, broke in properly, weared well, and just felt right. In the end I gave up. The best way to make weather-resistant bags was with upgraded cotton. And I ended up making “ballistic” bags out of a heavy polyester marine grade polycarbon coated material, but I gave up on those playing well.

Ironically I learned that some of these fabrics made great all-weather bags, but the catch was that they had to be broken in. The fabric had to be softened but thousands of tosses. It wasn’t possible to do this beforehand (100 hours in a clothes dryer with stones didn’t help!). So there IS a way to make great all-weather bags, and in the end I found out how to do it. But it takes a very special fabric and some machinery that I have chosen not to invest in. Maybe someday. But as great as those could be, there is little demand there, and creating demand for something nontraditional is VERY expensive and risky, and almost always a bad idea. If someone else creates that market, I’ll jump in then.

Following all those years of effort i consider myself sort of a fabrics expert, but for these products I have come back to variations of cotton with a few very specialized blends and polyesters. It’s anti-innovation.

Glow in the dark bags

The prospect of quality glow in the dark cornhole bags is very exciting. A good implementation would make a fabulous product and could even be the basis of a stand-alone business. But after quite a bit of research and effort, I concluded that there were scientific breakthroughs in other fields that would have to lead the way.

My first attempts were naturally with glow in the dark materials. There are many of them on the market, but they have two big problems. One is the usual feel and play problems I found with all synthetic materials (plasticy and poor at sliding). But maybe worse was that they didn’t glow well and had to be charged with a bright light.

There were to other ways to get glowing bags. One was with chemical reactions like in glow sticks. Those are very bright but they are temporary and very expensive. The other way is with electricity (LEDs). But even with the miniature LEDs and batteries, electric cornhole were not practical. They would be too expensive and too fragile to make a reasonable product.

Glow bags will someday be a great product, but it’s not the product that is going to lead glow in the dark fabric innovation.

 

Resin XL

CSurefire Cornbags

Logo

Costruction

Innovations

Shape

Fill

Materials

All-weather

Run and Stun

Traditional

XL Resin

XXL Resin

Pro Style

Camo

Stars and Stripes