billiard balls

What Are Pool Balls Made Of?

We’ve all been there, a surprise visit to a pool hall or bar and the inevitable game of pool with friends.

Your favorite cue is at home, so you’re using a house cue that looks and feels like a broom handle. The table looks stained and not entirely flat, so you aren’t expecting much of an experience.

When you’re confronted with this less than ideal situation, it’s pretty likely that you’re not playing with high quality balls. Pool balls can vary greatly, and it’s possible that a low quality ball will negatively impact your game more than a low quality cue.

The roll, deflection, and lifespan of a pool ball can be determined by the materials used in its construction. In this article, we’re going to go over just what goes into making a pool ball.

It has been quite a ride from clay or ivory to exploding pool balls, right up to the modern pool ball we all use today.

Pool Balls – A Very Brief History

Billiards began life as a lawn game in France in the 15th century, with a playstyle similar to croquet. Over time, the game evolved, with its most significant change coming when it moved indoors to a table.

Pool balls used were initially made from either wood or, incredibly, clay. Imagine playing modern pool with a ball made out of a lump of dry clay, and you’ll soon see why the need arose for a sturdier material.

As this new indoor game became more popular and the games became faster, pool balls needed to be made from a longer-lasting material.

From the mid-1620s, Ivory was used to create pool balls, creating more waste when it came to tusks of wild animals.

Two or three pool balls could be constructed from each large tusk, making the cost of pool ball creation incredibly expensive. Ivory remained the de-facto material used until the 19th century.

By this point, public opinion had swayed towards protecting elephants, so inventors were encouraged to find new alternatives to ivory.

A $10,000 prize ($205,000 equivalent in 2023) was offered by Phelan and Collander, the largest billiards company in the world, for any inventor who could create a compound able to make the perfect pool ball.

Incredibly, as research into creating the perfect pool ball gathered pace over the next few years, a material was developed that’s now so ingrained into our society that we take it for granted.

Plastic as a replacement for ivory would not only save the elephant from extinction. It would change the world.

Exploding Pool Balls

A US inventor named John Wesley Hyatt stepped up to the plate in 1869 with his invention, nitrocellulose.

Rebranded “Celluloid” in 1870, the invention had one minor flaw. It was volatile, prone to explode, and wildly unpredictable. Using a Celluloid pool ball in the 1870s added a whole new dimension to a pressure shot.

Hyatt’s invention did start a new phase in plastics manufacturing, and eventually, a more stable plastic was used to manufacture pool palls. Adding Camphor to the compound made it more stable and became the most common method for creating multiple plastics.

As well as pool balls, piano keys, which had also been crafted from ivory, would also be made from this new material. This unique, robust, and thankfully non-exploding plastic would even be used to create false teeth.

Pool Ball Construction Today

Luckily, modern pool balls are made of much more consistent materials than ever before, making each ball uniform, and each shot less likely to deflect.

Pool balls would eventually be made of Bakelite, first introduced in 1907, or acrylic, introduced in 1933 – synthetic materials that proved to be an upgrade on celluloid pool balls.

While these pool balls were undoubtedly an improvement and offered a noticeable increase in consistency, it was only when pool ball manufacturers began using resin, specifically Phenolic resin and Polyester resin, that pool balls finally reached the level they’re at today.

Phenolic Resin

Phenolic resin is one of the strongest and most versatile polymers around. It’s an ideal material for pool balls as it’s created by applying extreme pressure. Once the phenolic resin is molded, it’s allowed to cool. The best pool balls in the world are made using phenolic resin.

Once cooled into shape, there’s no way to alter the shape of the resin. It can’t be re-heated, can’t be reshaped, and can take up to five tons of pressure. So don’t worry about breaking your pool balls – even the best break cues in pool can’t apply even close to that much pressure.

Making a pool ball out of phenolic resin is as simple as injecting a round mold with resin and then subjecting it to incredible pressure. Once cured at high temperature, the resin becomes solid, allowing a machine to grind it into the shape required.

The ball numbers are then etched into the cured resin before applying phenolic resin. A second blast in the oven, and you’ve got a pool ball that can take a direct hit from a sledgehammer.

One of the key advantages of this method is that each ball is identical, and the weight, diameter, and density are the same for each ball. For these reasons, the best pool balls money can buy are made using phenolic resin.

Knowing what to expect from each ball is critical to a consistent game, and phenolic resin is the culmination of decades of development and improvement. Aramith billiard balls, for example, are tested to an insane level to ensure they’re the best in the business.

A cue ball can accelerate from 0 to 18 mph in milliseconds, so the friction generated can be as high as almost 500 degrees, leading to burn spots and wear and tear on a pool ball. Top pool ball makers use phenolic resin to ensure the balls stay smooth and consistent.

Unlike ivory or celluloid, which fades, or even other modern plastics, such as polyester resin pool balls, a phenolic pool ball can last decades.

Polyester Resin

Polyester resin pool balls have been around for years, and while they’re not as long-lasting as phenolic pool balls, they’re great for beginners or casual players who’re just looking to keep costs down.

While a pool ball made of phenolic resin can last for literally decades, polyester balls often last no more than eight years or around 80,000 impacts. If you’re just learning the game of pool or are looking for your first set of pool balls, polyester is a great option.

You’re still getting a quality pool ball; it just won’t last forever and can be prone to discoloration and wear and tear. Most pool tables in pool halls and bars will use a polyester resin ball to decrease costs.

I learned to play pool using a set of polyester resin pool balls, and sometimes still use them. Moving on to phenolic pool balls will be a natural upgrade as your skill level increases or as you upgrade your equipment.

Wrap Up

Your skill as a pool player, the quality of your cue, and the standard of table you’re playing on mean nothing without quality pool balls. Chipped, worn pool balls make every shot a risk, so you’ll need to know which ones are the best.

Undoubtedly, phenolic pool balls, especially from a reputable company such as Aramith or Dynasphere, are the best option for serious players. Long-lasting and incredibly accurate, there’s often less than 1.5 grams of difference between any ball in a set.

Polyester pool balls are a low-cost, solid option for learning the game or for casual use, and can last around eight years.

As ivory is no longer an option, your choice is between top-grade phenolic resin pool balls or polyester. However, epoxy resin is now being looked at as an additional option.

Whichever pool balls you choose, you’re at least going to play safe in the knowledge that there’s no chance of the ball exploding!

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