What Are Pool Balls Made Of? Unraveling the Mystery

arrange pool balls in the pool table

Nothing beats a round of pool at the local bar on a Saturday night. But have you ever been lining up the perfect shot and wondered, "What are pool balls made of?" Well, the answer to this question has a rich and interesting history behind it.

What Are Pool Balls Made Of?

pool balls

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Today, almost all pool balls are made of phenolic resin. This material is a type of durable polymer that has all types of useful applications. Using a mold, pool ball manufacturers are able to shape solid phenolic resin into the standardized balls we use at the local bar or see on television.

But pool balls haven't always used phenolic resin. In fact, this polymer is an extremely recent invention in the world of plastics and other materials. So what were pool balls made of before phenolic resin became the standard?

The History of the Pool Ball

White pool balls

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When you picture a game of pool, you probably imagine a dark green table filled with all different colored and numbered balls. However, the game of pool far outdates this version of the game.

Believe it or not, pool balls date back to the 12th century in the form of French and British lawn games. It wasn't until the early 16th century, though, that these games moved indoors and to the tops of tables.

Wood and ivory

The first notable pool balls, at least that we know of, used wood for their construction. Throughout most of Europe, wood was easy to source and fairly inexpensive. This allowed pool and similar games to gain popularity among both the nobility and less-privileged people.

But as the colonization of Asia and Africa picked up steam, artisans were soon designing pool balls made of ivory and other luxury materials. Along with piano keys and jewelry, pool balls became one of the most popular uses of ivory. Unfortunately, this also means that the game of pool largely contributed to elephant poaching and the destructive ivory trade.

Of course, these more expensive pool balls weren't found in lower class communities. Instead, you could expect to find ivory pool balls in wealthy or royal households throughout the 17th century.

Despite the use of rare and costly materials, ivory pool balls were far from indestructible. While these balls were undeniably beautiful at first, they often cracked or yellowed with use. So when more durable alternatives hit the market, pool enthusiasts quickly abandoned the use of ivory balls.

Nitrocellulose plastic

Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the popularity of pool continued to grow exponentially. At the same time, though, the price of ivory was climbing at almost the same rate. To keep the game from fading into obscurity, pool table manufacturers Phelan and Collender offered $10,000 (a bit under $100,000 in today's money) to whoever could produce a suitable alternative.

One New York inventor, John Wesley Hyatt, saw this ad and did come up with a non-ivory pool ball. This new ball combined alcohol, camphor, and nitrocellulose to create one of the world's first synthetic plastics. Under extreme pressure, this plastic forms into a smooth, uniform ball.

However, he didn't take home the prize money with this invention. While this nitrocellulose plastic showed potential, it lacked durability. In fact, Hyatt's pool balls are the reason why exploding pool balls were a somewhat common occurrence in the past.

Bakelite

A couple of decades after Hyatt's nitrocellulose plastic, Phelan Leo Baekeland invented a plastic-like substance called Bakelite. Unlike nitrocellulose plastic, this material offered an affordable, but still durable, alternative to ivory pool balls. Exploding pool balls became mostly a thing of the past.

Between Bakelite's invention in 1907 and the mid-1920's, almost all pool balls switched to this material. In fact, if you're wondering what are pool balls made of, you can guess that most pool balls still use Bakelite today. However, now we use the generic, non-trademarked name: phenolic resin.

Pool Balls of Today

pool balls 03

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As you can see, the humble pool ball has a rather dense history behind it. While Bakelite might have won the fight for a durable and affordable pool ball material in the early 20th century, its reign wouldn't end there.

Today, as mentioned above, most pool balls use phenolic resin for their construction. However, we can't end our discussion of what are pool balls made of and their construction without at least mentioning the leader in pool ball manufacturing.

Amarith

Starting in 1923, a Belgium company by the name of Saluc S.A. began manufacturing specialty billiard balls under the brand name Amarith. Like Baekeland, who happened to be a Belgian immigrant, Amarith balls used a form of phenolic resin. Unlike pool balls made from other plastics or polyesters, this material could withstand countless games without losing playability.

To the average pool player, one pool ball may seem just like any other. But in the world of competitive pool, Amarith balls are the gold standard. While Saluc S.A. certainly isn't the only manufacturer of modern pool balls, their product is certainly the most renowned for its durability and consistency.

"What Are Pool Balls Made Of?" Q&A

Here are some other popular questions related to "What are pool balls made of?":

What's inside a modern pool ball?

Of course, not all those who wonder what are pools balls made of are actually talking about the chemical construction of a pool ball. In some cases, you might be wondering what's inside your favorite pool balls.

Not all brands of pool balls are 100 percent alike. In general, though, the average pool ball cross-section is pretty surprising.

Most noticeably, the colors and number on most high-quality pool balls are not just superficial. Instead, they permeate partially or fully throughout the entire ball. This adds additional structure to the ball and helps protect against hard impacts.

Are pool balls and billiard balls the same thing?

Pool and billiards are just different names for the same game, right? Historically, no.

While, today, many people use these two terms interchangeably, billiards is a distinctly different game than pool. In fact, they don't even use the same table or balls.

In billiards, each player has their own cue ball and a communal "striker" ball. Using their cue ball, each player's goal is to hit the striker ball into their opponent's cue ball to score points.

Billiards normally does take place on a table. But, unlike a proper pool table, this table doesn't have any pockets.

How do you clean yellowed pool balls?

When learning what are pool balls made of, you might notice a key issue that technology hasn't yet addressed: Resins tend to turn yellow with light exposure. And, with time, this is definitely true of phenolic resin pool balls.

This change in color won't affect the quality of your pool game, but it can make your set up look a bit unsightly.

Fortunately, it's possible to clean most scuffs and stains from your pool balls. However, you need to be careful about which methods and products you use.

The best option for cleaning your pool balls, especially when removing yellow stains, is to use a professional-quality cleaner. But you should only apply these products to phenolic resin balls. If you use them on another material, the pool ball could discolor, break down, or suffer other damage.

What do the colors of pools balls mean?

Perhaps the most interesting pool-related fact involves the different colors used for each pool ball. At first glance, these colors might seem random. But they actually have an important purpose.

Each ball's color coordinates with a place on the color wheel. Specifically, the places with the most contrast to each other. With this arrangement, players can more easily distinguish between one ball and another.

But have you ever noticed that televised pool tournaments sometimes use a slightly different color scheme? Well, you're not imagining things!

On the standard television display, some of the otherwise highly contrasting colors can become muddled. To help fight this, many tournaments use a slightly different color scheme optimized for television broadcast.

Since the blue and purple balls are normally the hardest to distinguish in these conditions, some ball manufacturers swap in pink for purple. However, since television displays vary greatly in quality, this updated system isn't entirely perfect. But it still provides an interesting insight into the use and ever-changing design of the pool ball.

Step Up Your Pool Game Today

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Okay, knowing the answer to what are pool balls made of might not actually improve your pool game. However, you can certainly impress your competition with a bit of history and other facts about the game!

Pool balls have been through many iterations in just a few hundred years. In time, we might see UV-resistant pool balls that never yellow. Or even more durable ones that last longer than Amarith balls. Only time will tell.

Do you have a favorite rendition of pool or set of house rules that takes the game up a notch (or several)? Let us know in the comments below!

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