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 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.

7 thoughts on “Restoring rusty boules

  1. I have the same boules! Our terrain is by the sea and our climate is very humid and warm to hot all year. We play twice a week every week but only if we aren’t getting the rain this region is famous for. Suffice to say rust is a consideration.

    I keep a Ziploc bag with a lightly oiled microfibre cloth in it. I give my boules a very quick wipe over with this cloth before stowing them away and especially if they got damp at any stage.

    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


  2. Hi kimbo (Kim Badcock, of the Mission Beach Petanque club in Australia), Thanks for the tip!

    I bought a jug of white vinegar and left the other two boules to soak overnight. 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 on the bottom, where they had been sitting on the bottom of the container. If I do this again, I’ll try sitting the boules on something porous like a bit of sponge or a wad of paper towel.

    In this picture, the rusty boule is in front, and 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.
    Click to see larger image.


    • Great! I googled around and discovered that the vinegar (acetic acid) in ketchup makes it an effective rust remover. A nailed boule will have lots of little crevices between the nails. Bob Vila’s web site suggests that after treating metal objects with acid (vinegar, ketchup, etc.) it is a good idea to rinse the objects in water and then immediately soak them for about 10 minutes in a mixture of ½ gallon fresh water and ½ cup baking soda. This will neutralize any remaining vinegar trapped inside the crevices. After about 10 minutes, rinse the items in warm water, and dry them.


  3. Hi, I am not sure if this is the right section to post but do you have any reviews (or come across any) on the OBUT MAINTENANCE PRODUCT ? Is it just normal WD-40 in a different container ? I am a bit concerned as one of our players is allergic to some chemicals in regular WD-40 and we have no idea what is in the Obut formula.


    • Sorry, I have no idea what is in the Obut Maintenance product. But, frankly, I’m very skeptical about the need for any such specialized product. Boules are simply steel balls. The easiest way to clean them after play is soap and water and maybe a stiff brush (a toothbrush maybe) for caked-in mud. To protect them from rust in a very humid climate, I think Kim Badock’s idea (see the first comment) is easy and practical — “a Ziploc bag with a lightly oiled microfibre cloth in it. I give my boules a very quick wipe over with this cloth before stowing them away and especially if they got damp at any stage.” Any kind of light machine oil from your local hardware store should work fine. Another trick is to store them in a bag with some dry rice… the rice will absorb moisture in the air, helping to keep the boules dry and rust-free.

      In addition, I think using a petroleum-based product at close range in a spray form is a bad idea. This is not the kind of product whose vapors you want to be regularly inhaling.


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