Table tennis balls may have found a comfortable, consistent balance today. But they have seen many changes throughout the years, some of which have improved the game, and others that have hurt it.
If you’ve ever wondered “how are ping pong balls made?” Here is a complete breakdown of the creation of the table tennis balls and ping pong ball manufacturing from its origin to the present.
What Were Ping Pong Balls Originally Made Of?
The history of table tennis is storied, and it has come a long way since its beginnings. Although the very first ball primary ping pong ball material was cork, it was celluloid that became the standard ping pong ball material when table tennis became a serious sport.
These balls were 38mm in diameter, and were the standard table tennis balls all throughout the 1900s. It wasn’t until the year 2000 when we first saw a real change in ping pong ball manufacturing.
The year 2000 marked the switch from 38mm balls to 40mm balls.
As a minor size increase, the change was rather minimal. The increase in size was meant to make the game a more spectator-friendly sport.
Larger balls travel slower and are less susceptible to spin. This ultimately leads to longer rallies, which the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) thought would be beneficial for optimal audience viewing.
The prominent use of speed glue might have also had an influencing factor. Speed glue sped the game up, so the increased size change more or less offset the use of speed glue.
Celluloid to Plastic Balls
The greatest change in ping pong balls material occurred when the material changed from celluloid to plastic. This was spurred on by safety concerns regarding the use of celluloid. It is a highly flammable material, and safety regulations became more stringent.
Additionally, plastic is much cheaper and more versatile as a material than celluloid. Eventually, it got to the stage where there were only a few celluloid factories left in China. And, these were exclusively producing celluloid for the creation of table tennis balls.
It was clear that supply issues would shortly ensue if changes were not made.
And so the ITTF Equipment Committee began investing in plastic balls. It wasn’t long before they had their first batches.
In 2013, the ITTF announced that from July 2014 onwards, plastic balls would serve as the new table tennis ball. However, there would be a transition period where celluloid balls were permitted for use.
What are Plastic Balls?
Plastic balls, poly balls, or 40+ balls are all terms used to describe the current table tennis ball. They are usually made from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, more commonly known as ABS plastic.
ABS is a widely used plastic, as it is both strong and relatively safe. You can also find this material in pipes, Lego, and 3D printer filament.
To see how ping pong balls are made in a factory, check out this great video by World Table Tennis. Who knew ping pong ball manufacturing had so many steps!
Issues Transitioning to the Plastic Ball
Quality Control & Price
There were hopes that the introduction of the plastic ball would introduce a consistency that would eliminate the need for ball ratings. However, the initial release of the plastic ball couldn’t have gone worse than it did.
Quality control was a serious issue. The balls weren’t perfectly round and they shattered very easily. This of course upset many players. Supply was also a major issue. Many players and clubs rushed to stockpile the new balls, as they were only available in limited quantities.
People wanted to get used to the new balls as quickly as possible, as this is what they would be using in competitions. Without adequate experience using them, players would be at a major disadvantage. This posed issues across the board to leagues for how they would integrate the plastic ball in the interest of fairness.
I remember attending an AGM meeting for my local league that year. The majority of the meeting discussed how the league would transition over to the new plastic ball. At the time, no one in my club had been able to get their hands on any plastic balls and other clubs echoed the same. If I recall correctly, we delayed the changeover by a year until the supply was able to meet demand.
Price was another issue. Upon release, the balls were astronomically expensive. Especially considering how poor they were and how easily they shattered. Fortunately, as we are now some 7 years post celluloid, the prices of table tennis balls have fallen considerably.
My Experience Testing the New Balls
When the new balls became more widely available, I began purchasing different 3-star brands to determine which I preferred. By this time, quality had improved a lot though I still find plastic balls crack easier to this day.
As an aggressive looper with a low throw angle, I edge the ball frequently. There’s no getting around it. And the new plastic balls crack easier when they contact the edge than celluloid balls used to. They also really do shatter sometimes, not just crack like the celluloid balls did. However, besides this, I’m pretty happy with the quality of 3-star balls now.
On the other hand, I’ve had trouble with training balls in the past. When I was studying at university, our club purchased a large set of training balls alongside our 3-star balls for matches.
As soon as we first played with the balls, something felt off. None of us could get any sense of rhythm and balls were flying everywhere. All of us looked at each other, baffled. We switched to the 3-star balls and to our relief, we were able to play normally.
This further demonstrates that quality control issues persisted for a number of years.
How It Has Affected the Sport
There was undoubtedly a large adjustment period for players adapting to the new plastic ball. With its increased size and new material, the balls carried less spin and speed, and they bounced higher.
Consequently, players had to adjust their strokes to find a new balance with the balls. Although beginners were probably oblivious to the change, anyone who played at an advanced level could clearly notice it.
Certain players were more suited to the change than others. Those who played fast shots straight off the bounce were some of the most advantaged players.
Perhaps hit the hardest were choppers, which is a shame given that you see fewer and fewer choppers among up-and-coming players. The fact that the new plastic balls carry less spin means choppers are not able to cut the ball as heavily with their chops. The increased bounciness of the ball also means that players have a better angle to power loop or smash through chops.
What Balls Should You Buy?
Now that the manufacturers have had years to improve their process of creating plastic balls, they are far better currently than they once were. If you’re shopping for 3-star balls, there are many great options out there such as the Butterfly’s A40+, Nittaku 40+, or GEWO Ultra SLP 40+.
However, one of my favorites is the Sanwei ABS PRO 40+. It is very well priced compared to the other balls mentioned, and plays really well. Sanwei also sells a 1-star training ball bundle. A bestseller, this again is very well priced. The next time I need training balls, I’ll pick this one up. if you want a complete list of the best ping pong balls in 2021, we’ve got a thorough guide on that too.
Plastic Balls Are Here to Stay
Thus closes the question of “what are ping pong balls made of?” – plastic! Originally beginning as cork, and then 38mm celluloid balls, ping pong balls went through a few changes before becoming 40mm+ plastic balls. These plastic balls are much more environmentally friendly, and safer to produce and transport.
Now that the plastic ball has had adequate time to settle in the table tennis community, I hear very little discussion about the old balls. They have truly integrated. Initially, I was even a little frustrated. Not only by the plastic balls’ quality and scarcity, but also by how they affected my game. I felt the change had hurt my spinny style. But, I’ve gotten over that and it doesn’t cross my mind at all now when I play. Plastic balls are here to stay.