Set of white balls on a surface

What Are Ping Pong Balls Made Of? Journey From Cork to plastic

Last Updated on March 24, 2024

Ever found yourself in the middle of an intense ping pong match, wondering about the composition of the tiny sphere bouncing back and forth? You might think the ball is made of plastic, and you’d be right. But there’s more depth to the answer to What are ping pong balls made of? than just that outer layer.

While it once was crafted from celluloid, the official match ball material has now transitioned to plastic. But there’s a rich depth to its composition. Stay with us, and we’ll uncover its unique properties and intriguing history, revealing more than just what’s on the surface.

What Are Ping Pong Balls Made Of?

Ping-pong balls, crucial for the dynamic sport of table tennis, are primarily constructed from celluloid and plastic, measuring 40 mm (1.57 inches) in diameter and weighing 2.7 g.

Historically, they were made from materials like champagne cork. However, as technology progressed and the game’s needs evolved, plastic became the favored material.

In international competitions, where consistency and performance are paramount, plastic balls are not just a recommendation but have become the standard.

In the section below, we will look into the history and evolution of ping pong balls through the years.

Original Material: Champagne Cork

In the late 1800s, during the nascent stages of table tennis, balls were ingeniously crafted from champagne cork. This choice, while surprising to many today, was rooted in the cork’s inherent bounce and its widespread availability at the time.

As table tennis transitioned from an after-dinner pastime in England to a more structured sport, the need for consistency became paramount. The champagne cork balls, although novel, lacked the uniformity required for competitive play.

As the sport gained traction and popularity, the quest for a more consistent and durable material led to innovations.

Transition from Champagne Cork to Celluloid

By the turn of the 1900s, the game of table tennis witnessed a significant shift in the material used for its balls. Celluloid, a plastic developed during the 1860s and 1870s, became the new standard, replacing the earlier materials.

This transition was not merely a change in material but represented a leap in the sport’s technological evolution. Celluloid offered several advantages: it was clear, combustible, and had been used for various products even before the twentieth century.

Its introduction to table tennis brought about balls that were more uniform and durable. Moreover, as the sport grew in popularity and competitive standards heightened, the consistency of celluloid balls became crucial.

These balls, unlike their predecessors, were produced with a seam down the middle, a feature that would later change with the introduction of plastic balls.

Introduction of Plastic Balls

Red table tennis racket and white ball on a blue table, showcasing what are ping pong balls made of.
<strong>Plastic balls<strong> <strong>enter the scene<strong>

As table tennis continued to evolve, so did the materials used for its balls. While celluloid had been the standard for decades, the sport saw another significant shift with the introduction of plastic balls.

In recent years, China has spearheaded this change by producing balls made entirely of plastic. These plastic ping-pong balls, distinct from their celluloid counterparts, were crafted as a single piece, eliminating the seam that was characteristic of celluloid balls.

Made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic, these balls boasted qualities like heat and abrasion resistance, surface hardness, and dimensional stability. Players noted that these plastic balls bounced higher and flew faster than the celluloid ones.

Celluloid vs. Plastic Balls Differences Explained

The evolution of table tennis has seen a shift from celluloid to plastic balls, each bringing its own unique characteristics to the game. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between the two:

Material Composition:

Celluloid: An early form of plastic developed in the 1860s and 1870s. Celluloid was the go-to material for decades due to its flexibility and ease of production. Its semi-transparent nature and glossy finish gave balls a distinct appearance.

Plastic (ABS): Made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, this modern plastic is known for its durability and resilience. ABS plastic is more rigid and has a matte finish, giving the balls a different feel and look.

Manufacturing:

Celluloid: These balls are produced with a noticeable seam down the middle. This seam is a result of the two hemispherical pieces being fused together, which sometimes affects the ball’s trajectory during play.

Plastic: Crafted as a single piece, plastic balls eliminate the seam, leading to a more consistent bounce and trajectory. This seamless design is a result of advanced manufacturing techniques.

Performance:

Celluloid: Known for their distinct bounce and spin, celluloid balls evoke memories of table tennis’s earlier days. Players familiar with these balls often feel a deep sense of nostalgia for their unique playstyle.

Plastic: Compared to celluloid, plastic balls have a higher bounce and faster speed, resulting in faster-paced rallies. This shift in ball behavior has led many players to tweak their techniques, particularly their shot timing and execution.

Safety:

Celluloid: Being combustible and less resistant to heat, celluloid balls pose certain safety risks, especially when stored in high-temperature areas or exposed to open flames.

Plastic: ABS plastic balls are heat and flame resistant, making them safer in various conditions. This resistance ensures a reduced risk of accidents during storage or play.

Sound:

Celluloid: Produces a distinct sound upon impact, a “click” that longtime players recognize and associate with traditional table tennis.

Plastic: These balls have a different acoustic quality, often described as more muted or “dull” compared to celluloid. This change in sound was one of the first things players noticed during the transition.

Comparing Celluloid and Plastic Balls.

Economic Considerations and Production Challenges:

Affordability: Compared to celluloid, plastic stood out as a cost-effective and adaptable material, offering similar or even enhanced performance attributes.

Limited Celluloid Manufacturers: The dwindling number of factories in China dedicated to celluloid production, specifically for table tennis balls, signaled potential supply disruptions in the near future.

Proactive Steps by the ITTF:

Exploring Plastic Alternatives: Anticipating future challenges and recognizing the benefits of plastic, the ITTF Equipment Committee initiated research and investment into plastic ball manufacturing.

Transition Announcement: By 2013, the ITTF had made a landmark decision, announcing that from July 2014, table tennis would adopt plastic balls. However, to ease the transition, a grace period was granted during which celluloid balls remained permissible.

Why Were Celluloid Balls Discontinued?

Celluloid, once the primary material for ping pong balls, faced its end by 2020. The ITTF transitioned away due to celluloid’s flammability and potential safety risks.

The change wasn’t hasty; manufacturers faced challenges ensuring the new balls met strict standards. By 2014, 26 suppliers had produced non-celluloid balls.

The introduction of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) in 2016 marked a significant improvement in ball quality.

ABS balls offered better durability, roundness, and environmental benefits, as they are heat and flame resistant. By 2019, the market was flooded with diverse non-celluloid options, leading to competitive pricing.

The shift was inevitable, with celluloid no longer being a profitable choice for manufacturers.

Impact of Ping Pong Ball on the Game

The material and design of a ping pong ball play a pivotal role in shaping the dynamics of the game. Over the years, as the sport transitioned from using champagne cork to celluloid and then to ABS plastic balls, players and enthusiasts have observed noticeable changes in gameplay, techniques, and strategies.

Differences in Bounce and Spin

Bounce:

Celluloid Balls: These balls have a specific type of bounce that players of the past century were accustomed to.

Plastic Balls: Known to bounce higher than their celluloid counterparts, they introduced a different rhythm to rallies and required players to adjust their timing.

Spin:

Celluloid Balls: These balls were known for their ability to maintain significant spin, allowing players to deliver a diverse array of shots with different flight paths.

Plastic Balls: Plastic balls act a bit differently than celluloid ones. They slow down a bit more, losing about 4% of their speed. They also spin a little less, losing about 1.2% of their spin compared to celluloid balls.

Red table tennis racket and white ball on a blue surface
<strong><strong>How Ping Pong Balls Shape the Game<strong><strong>

Player Adaptations to New Materials

With the introduction of plastic balls, players had to rethink and adjust their techniques. The higher bounce and reduced spin of the plastic balls meant that traditional strokes, especially those relying heavily on spin, had to be modified.

Some players even had to change their grip and stance to accommodate the new ball dynamics. Additionally, strategies during matches evolved, with players focusing more on speed and placement rather than spin-heavy shots.

This adaptation phase was crucial for both amateur and professional players, ensuring they remained competitive in a sport that was undergoing material evolution.

Quality, Testing, and Standards of Ping Pong Balls

The integrity of a ping pong ball is paramount to ensuring fair play and consistent performance. Over the years, rigorous quality control measures, testing procedures, and standards set by governing bodies like the ITTF have been established to maintain the sport’s high standards.

Quality Control Measures

Material Selection: Only top-grade Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic is used for modern ping pong balls, ensuring durability and consistent performance.

Manufacturing Process: Modern plastic ping pong balls are crafted as a single piece, eliminating the seam and ensuring uniformity in shape and bounce.

Packaging: To avoid any damage or deformation, balls are securely packaged, often with labels indicating their material composition (e.g., “ABS Plastic”).

Testing Procedures for New Balls

Veer: This measures the roundness and thickness of the ball. It’s tested by rolling the ball down a slight incline, ensuring it goes straight without deviating off its path.

Bounce: The ball’s bounce is tested by dropping it from a height of 305 millimeters onto a steel surface. The bounce-back should reach a height of at least 240 millimeters.

Hardness: A computerized machine tests the hardness of the ball. The ball is pressed with a pin with a specific force, and the resulting indentation is measured.

Thickness: An ultrasonic device calculates the ball’s thickness, ensuring uniformity across batches.

ITTF Approvals and Standards

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) sets rigorous standards for ping pong balls to ensure fair play in international competitions.

Size and Weight: According to ITTF standards, a ping pong ball should weigh 2.7 grams and have a diameter of 40 millimeters.

Approval Seal: Balls used in official competitions must have the ITTF approval seal, indicating they meet the federation’s strict standards.

Material Standards: With the transition from celluloid to plastic, the ITTF has updated its standards to accommodate the new material, ensuring that the balls used in competitions are of the highest quality.

Choosing the Right Ping Pong Ball

Table tennis table and a ball on  surface
<strong><strong>Selecting the Perfect Ping Pong Ball<strong><strong>

Selecting the appropriate ping pong ball is crucial for both casual play and competitive matches. The choice can influence the game’s dynamics, player performance, and overall enjoyment. Here’s a guide to help you make an informed decision.

Star Rating System

One-Star Balls: These are basic balls, often used for recreational play or practice. They might not have the consistency required for professional play but are suitable for beginners or casual games.

Two-Star Balls: A step up in quality, two-star balls offer better consistency than one-star balls. They’re suitable for advanced practice sessions or club-level matches.

Three-Star Balls: These are the highest quality balls, meeting ITTF standards for international competitions. They offer the best consistency in bounce, roundness, and spin. If you’re playing in tournaments or serious about the sport, three-star balls are the way to go.

One-star balls are your laid-back weekend choice. Two-stars step up the game for club matches. But if you’re aiming for the big leagues, three-star balls are your ticket. Choose wisely and play passionately.

Factors to Consider: Material, Bounce, and Durability

Material:

Celluloid: a traditional material, offers a specific type of bounce and spin.

Plastic (ABS): a modern material that provides a higher bounce and is more durable.

Bounce: Ensure the ball has a consistent bounce. A good test is to drop it from a height and see if it bounces back uniformly.

Durability: A quality ball should withstand regular play without deforming or cracking. ABS plastic balls are known for their durability, making them a popular choice among professionals.

Brand Reputation: Established brands often have stringent quality control measures, ensuring you get a ball that meets or exceeds standards.

Purpose: Are you practicing, playing a friendly match, or participating in a tournament? Choose the ball that aligns with your purpose.

Pick a ball by looking at what it’s made of: old-style celluloid or tough plastic. Make sure it bounces the same way every time. It should last a long time without breaking. Big-name brands are usually good. And pick the right ball for fun games or serious matches. Play and enjoy.

Conclusion

Ping-pong balls have changed a lot over time. They started as cork, then became celluloid, and now they’re made of plastic. When people ask, What are ping pong balls made of? The simple answer is plastic.

Transitioning from the 38mm celluloid versions to the eco-friendlier and safer 40mm+ plastic balls signifies more than just a material shift; it underscores the sport’s dedication to environmental stewardship and production safety.

At the beginning, some players felt the new balls changed the game a bit, especially when trying to spin the ball. But as more time passed, everyone got used to them.

Now, it’s rare to hear anyone talk about the old balls. It’s clear that these plastic balls are a mainstay in the world of table tennis.

FAQs

Are ping-pong balls flammable?

Yes, ping-pong balls are flammable. They’re primarily made of celluloid or plastic, which can ignite easily when exposed to an open flame. It’s essential to keep them away from fire sources.

Are ping-pong balls recyclable?

Ping pong balls, made mainly of celluloid or plastic, are not typically recyclable in standard municipal recycling programs. However, specialized recycling facilities might accept them, so it’s good to check locally.

Are ping pong balls pressurized?

No, ping pong balls are not pressurized. They are lightweight, hollow balls made of celluloid or plastic. Their bounce comes from their material and construction, not internal pressure.

Can a ping pong ball break a window?

Under normal circumstances, a ping pong ball lacks the weight and force to break a window. It’s extremely light and not designed for such an impact. However, if propelled at extremely high speeds, theoretically, it might cause damage, but it’s highly unlikely in regular play.

How are ping pong balls made?

Ping-pong balls are primarily made from celluloid or ABS plastic. The chosen material is formed into sheets, cut into small circles, and then molded into two hemispheres. These hemispheres are heated, allowing them to soften and shape, and then fused together to create a complete sphere. After molding, the balls are cooled, polished for a smooth surface, and undergo quality checks to ensure they meet standards for bounce, roundness, and weight.

author avatar
Ashton Brown
Ashton Brown spent a lot of time in after school programs as a child. In a local community-run recreation center in Boston, they had a ping pong table, and since then he has always played. He had a ping pong table in his college dorm, and a mini one in his office for giggles. After playing for years, Ashton wants to show you how to get started with ping pong, learn the tricks of the trade, and equip yourself with everything you need to be better at the game.

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