How to blacken your boules

There are a number of reasons why you might want to make the entire surface of your boules black. You might want to make it easier to tell your boules from other players’ boules. You might want to play solitaire. You just might like the color.

Gun blacking comes off on your hands and wears off quickly. Black magic marker (permanent marker) is time-consuming and messy to apply, and leaves your boules slightly sticky for a while. Now Kim Badcock, of the Mission Beach Petanque Club in Australia, has a tip for what may be the best method yet.

In response to our post on boules and rust Kim wrote

Did you know you can make your SB boules black again and very easily. A soak or wipe over with a very weak acid solution (vinegar, lemon juice, dilute hydrichloric acid etc) will change the outer molecular layers of your boule to magnetite (black colour). Quickly wipe with an oiled cloth afterwards to help seal in the colouring.

This should work with all carbon-steel boules. It shouldn’t work with stainless steel boules or with chrome-plated boules (which means that it shouldn’t work with leisure boules).

Following Kim’s suggestion, I bought an inexpensive jug of distilled white vinegar. I left two La Franc SB boules to soak in the vinegar overnight. (La Franc SB boules are relatively soft carbon-steel boules, acier au carbone.) In the morning they were really black. When I washed them off, a lot of black came off on my hands. The boules were left with a deep uniform matte gunmetal grey color. There was a small shiny spot where they had been sitting on the bottom of the container.

In this picture, the brownish boule in the front is a rusty boule that has been brought back from the dead. The two vinegar-blackened boules are at the back. The boule at the left has been played with more than the boule at the right, so it is more scratched-up. The image doesn’t really capture the color of the boules. The boules, while not absolutely black, are a much darker grey than they appear in the photo. In play, they do appear to be black.
Click to see larger image.

This picture was taken immediately after I treated the boules. Since then, I’ve played with them a couple of times and the color seems relatively long-lasting. In any event, even if the color doesn’t last forever, renewing the color with another vinegar soak is essentially effortless. I’m happy with the result.


Update, April 28, 2017
Today, about 5 months after the date of the original post and after perhaps 30 to 50 hours of play, I thought the boules were beginning to look a bit shiny, so I blackened them again. Soaking them for 6 hours in distilled white vinegar restored them exactly to the condition that you see in the pictures in the original post.


Restoring rusty boules

If you happen to find some rusty old boules, don’t write them off. They can be restored to playable condition.

I have a set of La France SB boules, which are soft carbon-steel boules. During the summer, I lost one of the boules. About 4 months later, I found it under the edge of a scrap piece of carpet in the back yard. Outdoors in our summer rains, the carpet had kept the boule covered and moist. By the time I found the boule, it was completely covered in a thick coat of orange rust.
Click to view larger image.

Despite appearances, this was not a disaster. A few minutes with a wire brush, and a few more minutes dragging the boule around on the ground to simulate a few days of play, and the boule was restored to playable condition. Here is a picture. The boule on the left is the rusty and restored boule. The other is another boule from the same set that was kept out of the weather and played with occasionally. The restored boule is darker in color, and has a rougher surface. Personally, I like the changes.
Click to view larger image.

I simply used a wire brush to remove the rust, but there are other ways to deal with rust. On Youtube you can find a lot of videos that show you how remove rust from iron objects by soaking them for a few days or weeks in vinegar. An important part of the process is a post-processing soak in a solution of baking soda that will neutralized whatever acid (vinegar) might still be left.

There are also products called rust converters that don’t remove rust, but chemically convert it to a hard, black, stable material called iron tannate. Rust converters are often used to restore and preserve iron-based historical artifacts such as old swords. For more information, Google (or search amazon.com or Youtube) for “rust converter“.

I personally haven’t dealt with a rusty boule using vinegar or a rust converter, so I can’t personally vouch for them. But there is a lot of convincing testimony that they work. I have used a short (6-hour) vinegar soak to blacken boules.


The moral of the story is that if you come across some rusty old boules, don’t write them off and throw them away. They can be restored to playable condition. Depending on your taste, they may even be better than they were before they got rusty.


How to remove magic marker from boules

During the off season I like to play solitaire. To make it easy to distinguish the two sets of boules, I cover one set pretty completely with black magic marker. When regular play resumes, I can easily remove remove the black marks with a product called “Goof Off”. You might be able to find it at your local hardware or hobby store. Otherwise, it is available via Amazon.com or from www.goof-off.com.
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