More exploding boules

We’ve blogged before about exploding leisure boules, but until now no-one has been killed or seriously injured by such an explosion. Today, however, a Thai newspaper reports that a player in Thailand has been killed by an exploding petanque boule. The story is rather bizarre.

Apparently some Thai players believe that soaking boules in water and then heating them can somehow improve a player’s ability to put spin on the boules. In preparation for an after-work game with his buddies, a firefighter named Decho Phetchnin had been heating his set of 3 boules on an “Ang Lo” burner for about two hours when one of the boules exploded, blowing the burner apart and scattering debris in a 10-metre radius. The explosion occurred while Decho was bending over the burner stirring the boules. A metal fragment from the exploded boule struck Decho in the forehead, piercing his skull and killing him instantly.

The photo that accompanies the story looks like the boule might have been a leisure boule (rather than a competition boule), although it’s hard to be sure. The dust visible in the picture suggests that the boule (like many cheap leisure boules) was filled with sand.
CLICK for a larger image


Proper use of the boule towel

Most players are familar with the requirement in Article 16(c) always to carry a boule towel in order to be able to remove (enlever) any mud or foreign substance clinging to a boule before throwing it. The rules, however, do not contain precise specifications for boule towels, so it is hardly surprising that the most frequently-asked questions about the rules of petanque are questions about the boule towel— What kind of fabric should it be made of? How big should it be? How should it be held and used?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about boule towels is that the usual English translation of the French word (chiffon) is “boule towel“. In fact, toweling material, thick and fuzzy, is completely unsuitable for use as a boule towel. It quickly picks up stray bits of leaves, twigs, and thorns and is almost impossible to clean. Instead, we recommend a fabric with a much smoother, harder texture— a patch cut from the leg of a worn-out pair of jeans does the job nicely.

There is no regulation size for a boule towel. A towel that is too small to do the job is obviously undesirable; a towel that is too large will be clumsy to use and carry. We have found that a rectangle of fabric approximately 29cm x 43cm (11.5″ x 17”) works well. A cloth table mat makes an excellent boule towel.
Some so-called “experts” advise a player with a larger (or smaller) hand to use a larger (or smaller) towel. That’s rubbish, of course, since the relevant factor here is not the size of the hand but the size of the boule. A player who uses a larger (or smaller) size of boule should use a larger (or smaller) towel.

Finally, there is the question of how to carry and use the boule towel. Here, there are two basic requirements: one legal, the other practical. The boule towel must NOT be carried in such a way that it hides any boules that the player might also be carrying in the same hand. And, as a practical matter, the towel must be carried in a way that it can be conveniently used when needed, while not interfering with a player’s grip on any boule(s) that he may want to carry in the same hand.

The traditional provençal method of using the boule towel is to fold the long edge over the short edge, and then pinch the end of the towel into a small bunch,

The pinched end of the towel is then threaded through the fingers in the manner shown in the photograph (below).

When the hand is closed and holding a boule, the fingers naturally and effortlessly grip the towel firmly, and the tail of the towel falls cleanly away from the hand. When the towel is needed, the long loose tail can easily be folded up and over a boule in the hand in order to wipe the boule thoroughly. While doing this, it is easy to clean and dry the fingers and palm of the throwing hand by rubbing them vigorously with the cloth-covered boule.

Once you have found a boule towel that perfectly fits your hand and your playing style, you should treat it like what it is— a piece of personal hygiene equipment. Never lend your boule towel to another player; you don’t want to catch their cooties.

NOTE I am not a certified umpire. The opinions expressed in this post are solely my own and do not represent official rulings or rules interpretations of any organized petanque federation, national or otherwise. Posted April 1, 2017.

Are your boules toxic?

The answer is: No, they aren’t. But I wanted a headline that would grab your attention because there is an interesting story here. Read on.

There are basically three kinds of boules: boules made of stainless steel (inox), boules made of carbon steel (acier au carbone), and boules made of carbon steel that is then coated (revêtu, or chromé) in chrome to make the surface of the boules tougher and more resistant to rust (rouille). Some competition boules (e.g. Obut Match TR), but virtually all inexpensive leisure boules, are chrome plated.

Chromium is one of the elements; it is atomic number 24 on the periodic table of elements.

There are a number of different forms of chromium; some are helpful to human health, others are dangerous and harmful to the environment. The worst of these forms is hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6. Chromium 6 is a known carcinogen that can cause respiratory problems, rashes, ulcers, allergic reactions, kidney and liver damage, birth defects, and death. Its use in any industrial process creates a dangerous work environment and serious toxic waste disposal issues. (Do you remember the movie “Erin Brockovich”? It was groundwater contamination with chromium 6 that Erin uncovered.)

Naturally, chromium 6 has started to attract the attention of environmental protection agencies and health and safety regulatory agencies around the world. Governmental regulations are still much looser than they should be, but things seem to be getting better.

So— what does this have to do with petanque boules?

Well, nothing and everything. On the one hand, the chrome plating on your leisure boules is perfectly harmless. No worries there. On the other hand, the process that is used in chrome plating (of boules and other kinds of chrome-plated objects) uses hexavalent chromic acid— chromium 6. Bad news there.

Because of the health and environmental issues associated with chromium 6, at least some manufacturers are moving away from chrome-plated products. One of them is Obut. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Obut is no longer making its line of “Tatou” chrome-plated leisure boules. Starting about a year ago, Obut’s new line of “Obut Loisir Inox” leisure boules are stainless steel. Conçues sans chrome, contrairement aux Tatou, ces boules de pétanque Loisir inox sont écologiques. And in its lines of competition boules you now have only two choices: stainless steel or carbon steel.

I learned about this recently when I noticed that Petanque America seemed no longer to be selling La Franc boules. In response to my email question, Phillipe Boets told me that Petanque America had indeed stopped selling La Franc boules about a year ago. Apparently La Franc has been getting orders for 30/40 thousand boules at a time from French sporting goods stores. (One wonders if news of exploding leisure boules might have something to do with that.) In any event, La Franc seems to be slacking off on its service to smaller vendors— Phillipe reports that its deliveries had become unpredictable and unreliable. So now if you go to the Petanque America web site, you won’t see La Franc competition boules for sale. You will see only Obut competition boules. Phillipe sees the new Obut stainless steel leisure boules as filling the niche that La Franc boules once filled.

With the Euro taking a dive, the price difference between La Franc competition boules [which are made in Thailand] and French competition boules has become smaller. Obut also came out with a new line of leisure boules in stainless steel, about 73mm, 660g, in 8 different designs. At $64, they’re the perfect “middle-of-the-road” boule, between the cheap chrome Chinese boules and the range of competition boules.

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.

Exploding leisure boules

On Saturday, September 4, 2016, in the German town of Nettetal, near Düsseldorf, during a neighborhood party, in the middle of a tent erected for the event, a petanque boule spontanously exploded. The explosion ripped a hole in the ceiling of the tent and left a small crater in the ground, but nobody was injured. A Düsseldorf bomb squad removed the remaining seven boules in the set and safely detonated them.

The investigation of this incident is still ongoing, but it recalls a similar incident that occurred in Switzerland in 2009.  In that incident, the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) analyzed the remaining boules in the set in an effort to determine the cause of the explosion. The boules in question were cheap leisure boules with thin metal walls, filled with a sand-like mixture (French news reports referred to it as “mortar”) to bring them up to proper weight. The sand was damp and contaminated with iron filings.

The moisture in the sand corroded the iron filings. Inside the sealed boules, in the absence of oxygen, that chemical reaction produced hydrogen gas, which caused high pressure inside the boules. The cheap boules had poorly welded seams. Under the pressure of the hydrogen gas, the seam of one of the boules failed and the boule exploded. It literally blew its top.

In the 2009 incident the set of boules was sitting on a shelf in its original packaging. In that incident, the Swiss department store chain Coop, which sold the sets, immediately stopped selling them and launched an aggressive recall campaign.

On the Wednesday following the explosion in Nettetal, the German federal government issued a press release warning the public of the danger of cheap boules. The German Petanque Federation (DPA) recommended buying certified boules and shopping for boules in specialty stores rather than in supermarkets.


The boules that exploded in Switzerland in 2009. The boules were stored in the black bag shown on the right. Note the top of the exploded boule on the left side of the shelf, the sand scattered about the shelf, and the dent in the shelf wall at the right. It looks like the black bag must have been standing upright against the wall when the boule exploded.


Closeup of the bottom half of the exploded leisure boule in its original packaging.


Cross-section of another boule in the set. In addition to the sand filling, note the thinness of the metal shell.

For an interesting short video showing EMPA testing cheap boules, see THIS.

For EMPA diagrams comparing cheap leisure boules to competition boules, see THIS.

The EMPA engineering failure analysis, “Investigation into the mechanisms leading to explosion of pétanque balls”, is available HERE.

Pocket scorekeepers for petanque

Traditional leather scorekeeper

One traditional design for a pocket scorekeeper has two numbered wheels made of stiff leather sandwiched between a faceplate and a backplate, also made of stiff leather.

This American umpire’s scorekeeper for baseball (below) was manufactured in the 1870’s. At that time, the rules of baseball allowed nine balls and nine strikes, so the numbers on the two wheels go up to 9, and the wheels are labelled “balls” and “strikes”

The same two-wheel design is used in traditional petanque scorekeepers like this one from the French manufacturer Obut. The front plate identifies the two wheels as the scores for Nous and Eux — “us” and “them”. Numbers go from zero to 15 because international championships used to be played to 15. (It is available from Petanque America for about $14 plus shipping.)

The problem with this scorekeeper is that it is poorly made (or perhaps poorly designed).

  • The colored face is thin paper glued to the leather body. After moderate use, the paper face begins to peel away.
  • The tightness of the aluminum screws determines how easily the scoring wheels can be turned. It is difficult to adjust the screws so that they are neither too tight nor too loose.
  • The screws tend to loosen with use or vibration. If you drive around with this scorekeeper in your car, road vibrations will cause the screws to work loose and fall out, and possibly get lost.

Universal pocket scorekeeper

In 2006, Jill Barnes of Dublin, California (just east of San Francisco) was frustrated during her son’s baseball games. “Typically there aren’t any scoreboards, and if there is a scoreboard, it’s not functioning. My son was playing baseball. Like with all the other games, parents were saying, ‘Does anyone know the score?’ ‘How many runs is that?’   I thought, ‘I can design something. I know exactly what this needs to look like.’”

What she came up with was a simple universal pocket scorekeeper. Like the traditional scorekeeper, it has a set of wheels for “us” and “them”. (Well, “me” and “you”.) Its four independent numbered wheels can record scores of up to 99 for virtually any sport. (It is available from Jill’s web site,, for $6.99 plus $3.00 shipping.) The plastic construction is rugged, and the straightforward simplicity of the idea is great, but I found the wheels to be stiff and difficult to advance. I needed to use both hands to change the score.



Home-made pocket scorekeeper

I’m diabetic, and I use disposable insulin pens. To use an insulin pen, you twist the end of the pen— click, click, click— and dial in the number of units of insulin that you want to inject. When the pen is empty, you throw it away.

I took three of these discarded pens, cut off the ends with the twist counter, and glued them together in parallel to make a pocket scorekeeper.
This triple-barrel design is quite useful.

  • It is sturdier than the Obut scorekeeper and easier to use than the Pocket Scorekeeper.
  • In a cut-throat game, three players play against each other and you need to keep track of three scores, one for each player. That’s easy to do with this design.
  • Our favorite cut-throat game is Two Jacks, which is played to a winning score of 21. This scorekeeper is capable of recording scores of 21 (and more).
  • The best short form of petanque is one in which games are played to a fixed number of mènes. The third counter can be used to record the number of menes. Very handy.

If Obut was smart, THIS is the pocket scorekeeper that they would be selling.


Smartphone app

The requirements for a petanque scorekeeper app are quite simple. You need to be able to increase (and, in case of a mistake, decrease) the score of each of two teams. You need to be able to reset the scores to zero. And it might be nice to be able to count the number of menes played.

For Android, Pétanque: Marque Scores looks promising. It has a lot more features than just the basic ones I mentioned. Not surprisingly, it looks like it is the creation of a French software developer.screenshot_PetanqueMarqueScores

Apple’s app store didn’t seem to have any good petanque scorekeeper apps. Two general-purpose scorekeeper apps that had good reviews were Swipe Scoreboard and Score Keeper HD Lite.

Make your own jacks

There are several reasons why you might want to make your own jack. You may need only one (which isn’t worth ordering online and paying shipping on). You might need a jack TODAY and can’t wait for it to come in the mail. You might want a color that is not available. (Obut seems to have discontinued making RED jacks!)

Here’s a suggestion. Go to your local craft store or woodworker’s supply store. Buy a wooden ball whose size is one-and-a-quarter (1.25) inches in diameter. (If you can find a ball labelled hardwood, that’s even better.) It will probably cost you about 80 cents.


Once you have your wooden ball, color it red with a permanent marker. Voilà! A jack!


You’re probably thinking— It’s OK to be a little flexible about the size of the jack in casual play, but I would never use a home-made jack in an official competition.

But in fact your home-made jack isn’t a poor substitute for the real thing. The 1.25″ wooden balls are just under 31mm in diameter. That means that they are within the 1mm tolerance of the official 30mm size. (Obut painted jacks are usually just under 30mm.)

Your home-made jack will weigh around 13g, which places it in the middle of the required weight range (10g to 18g). This isn’t surprising. The requirements for the jack are requirements for a wooden ball, and that is exactly what your home-made jack is.

In short, your home-made jack meets FIPJP requirements for both size and weight. What’s more, it is not covered with a coat of paint. That actually makes it more like a traditional bouchon than the painted jacks sold by Obut.

So give it a try. I think you’ll like your home-made jack.

After using my homemade jacks for a while, I began wondering if it would be possible to get a shiny painted surface like the Obut jacks have. After a bit of experimentation, I made these. They are painted with three coats of “Sally Hansen Hard-as-Nails” fingernail polish ($3 per bottle). The first coat is white, the second coat is colored, and the third coat is clear.


Players in my club think that the easiest-to-see jack is Obut’s Fluorescent Yellow jack. But I have found that Testor Fluorescent Yellow Enamel Paint (which I found at my local Hobby Lobby) is even easier to see. My homemade jack (below) is on the left, and the Obut yellow jack is on the right.

The paint on Obut jacks gets badly chipped pretty quickly. I’m experimenting to see if a couple of coats of clear “Hard-as-Nails” on a new Obut jack might extend its useful life….