The box tree moth and the future of the jack

I just saw a news story about the wood that is used to make petanque jacks. All of the wooden jacks produced in France (about a million each year) are manufactured by one small company, Monneret, which sells its jacks to large distributors such as Obut. Now Monneret is reporting that caterpillars (larvae) of the box tree moth (which were first introduce to Europe from East Asia around 2007) are attacking and killing the trees from which wood is harvested to produce the jacks. Monneret’s company head predicts that in 5 to 7 years, all of the box trees in France will be gone. The company is attempting to stockpile box tree wood, and says that in the future it hopes to be able to import wood from other countries.

This kind of situation actually isn’t new in the history of petanque. Between about 1870 to 1930, boules games in France were played with boules cloutées. The sun, heat, and harsh conditions of the hills of Provençe produced stunted boxwood bushes with tough fibrous roots that were perfect for use as the core of these boules. But boules games grew tremendously in popularity during that time until, in the early 1920s, players were facing a catastrophic shortage of boxwood roots. Inventive players went looking for alternatives to nailed wooden balls. Around 1920 Paul Courtieu hit on the idea of manufacturing a ball made entirely of metal. Around 1925, Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier invented the modern steel boule. In 1925 the Union Nationale des Fédérations de Boules approved Courtieu’s all-metal ball for use in official competitions. The last wooden boule clouté was manufactured about 10 years later.

I predict a similar destiny for the wooden jack. In an earlier post I wrote— It is inevitable that better synthetic jacks will be developed in the future, and that they will be certified by the FIPJP for use in competitions. When that happens, synthetic jacks will will be cheaper, more durable, and more consistent in size and weight than wooden jacks. They will replace wooden jacks, just as metal boules replaced the old wooden nailed boules.

I don’t think, though, that hard resin jacks like those from Obut and VMS are the future. They’re simply too dangerous. Instead, I think we are more likely to see jacks like the Decathlon/Geologic recreational jacks. Decathlon markets them as recreational jacks because they aren’t officially approved by the FIPJP in competitions. But the jacks, although a little small and a little light, have a legal weight and size. My advice to Decathlon is (a) to make these jacks slightly larger and heavier, and then (b) to get the FIPJP to certify them for use in official competitons. Then, I think, we will see the jack of the future.

An alternative of course is to use some other kind of wood. The rules don’t specify what kind of wood a wooden jack must be made of. It doesn’t have to box tree wood. You can even go to your local craft store, buy a wooden ball, and make your own jacks.

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Why amazon.com is a terrible place to buy your first set of petanque boules

Why amazon.com is a terrible place to buy your first set of petanque boules

There are ladies and gentlemen out there who haven’t yet played petanque but are interested in learning it. Perhaps they saw it being played while they were on vacation in France, or they saw it in the movie A Year In Provence, and it looked fun. They’d like to buy some petanque boules and try it out.

If you are one of these wonderful people, I have two things to say to you. (1) It really is fun! (2) Be be warned about shopping on amazon.com. What you will find on amazon.com will almost certainly NOT be what you want.

If you search amazon.com for “petanque boules”, the first thing that will be offered to you will almost certainly be something like this. Click to see larger image.
The set will be described as “bocce/petanque” balls or boules. The cloth bag will be emblazoned with the word “bocce” or “boules”. The set will contain 8 metal balls— pairs of balls with 4 different groove patterns— single narrow, single wide, double, and triple.

The problem with such sets is that they contain NEITHER petanque boules NOR bocce balls. I’ve seen such sets so often that I’ve become hardened to the sight. Rather that screaming “stupid crap!” at my computer screen, I now give the product ONE star, and leave a review which I hope is both objective and helpful. It goes like this.

Before buying a set of “petanque/bocce” balls, consider what you want to do with them.

Before buying a set of “petanque/bocce” balls, consider what you want to do with them. Do you want to: (a) play petanque, (b) play bocce, or (c) just mess around without worrying too much about any rules. My recommendations, for each of those scenarios, are at the end of this review.

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY PETANQUE
=====================================

(1) Petanque is played with balls (called “boules”) that are about the size of a baseball (about 73mm, less than 3″). Boules are typically made of steel. They may or may not be hollow, and they typically weigh around 700g (just under two pounds).

(2) In petanque, each player brings his own set of three boules. A proper set of petanque boules contains three boules, all with the same groove-pattern. You identify the sets belonging to different players by the number and pattern of grooves on the surface of the boules. Typical patterns are: no grooves, single-groove (wide), single-groove (narrow), and double-groove, although you may also see patterns with three or even 4 grooves. Coloring the grooves with different colors of permanent marker can help players to see the differences between sets.

(3) In petanque, each team plays with 6 balls. Players play with 3 boules when their team has two players, and play with 2 boules when their team has three players.

(4) WHAT KINDS OF BALLS SHOULD YOU BUY? You want each player to have his/her own set of 3 boules. If you buy a bag that contains 3 matching boules, you have enough boules to equip one player. If you buy a bag of 6 metal boules that contains two 3-ball sets, you have enough boules for two players to play singles. If you buy two such bags, you will have 12 boules; enough to equip 4 people to play a doubles game.

(5) WORDS OF WARNING: Some vendors sell bags of SIX metal balls and call it a set of “bocce/petanque” balls. A bag of 6 metal boules — if it contains three 2-ball sets — WILL NOT work for petanque. Some vendors sell bags of EIGHT metal balls and call it a set of “bocce/petanque” balls. A bag of 8 metal boules that contains four pairs (2-ball sets) WILL NOT work for petanque.

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY BOCCE
====================================

(1) Bocce is played with balls that are larger and heavier than petanque boules. A bocce ball is about the size of a cantaloupe (about 110mm, just over 4″). Bocce balls are typically made of solid plastic (epoxy resin) and typically weigh about 900g.

(2) In bocce, someone typically brings a set of eight balls that is enough for the entire game. A proper set of bocce balls contains 4 pairs of balls: 8 balls in total. Typically, you identify the sets belonging to different players by the color of the balls and the number of grooves on the surface of the ball. Different teams play with different colors (usually, red vs green), and each player can tell his own ball by the number of grooves (single or double) on the ball. In some bocce sets there are 4 pairs of balls, each set of a different color.

(3) Bocce is played as a 2-against-2 game; each side plays with 4 balls; players play with 2 balls each.

(4) WHAT KINDS OF BALLS SHOULD YOU BUY? You want a set of 8 balls, consisting of 4 pairs of balls. The balls should be made of wood or epoxy, not metal.

(5) WORDS OF WARNING: Some vendors sell bags of SIX metal balls and call it a set of “bocce/petanque” balls. Six balls only, no matter what kind of balls they are, WILL NOT work for bocce. Some vendors sell bags of EIGHT metal balls and call it a set of “bocce/petanque” balls. These aren’t true bocce balls, although you can play a game of bocce with them if you wish. A set of 8 metal balls will be more portable (smaller and lighter) than a set of 8 true bocce balls.

CONCERNING THIS PARTICULAR PRODUCT
====================================

IF YOU JUST WANT TO MESS AROUND A BIT AND NOT WORRY ABOUT THE RULES:
[This section depends on the product being reviewed. It might, for example, say something like...] This product is a good buy. It is the least-expensive set of 8 metal balls that you will find on amazon.

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY PETANQUE: This product is NOT recommended. It consists of four sets of 2 boules each, so it cannot be used for any proper game of petanque, as explained above. MY RECOMMENDATION: Look elsewhere on amazon for offerings that contain two sets of 3 boules each. There are at least two other products on amazon.com that fit that description.

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY BOCCE: This product is NOT recommended. These metal balls are not true bocce balls, which are larger, heavier, and made of epoxy. MY RECOMMENDATION: Look elsewhere on amazon for proper bocce balls. There are many reasonably-priced sets of true bocce balls on amazon.

I have left reviews like this for a number of sets of “bocce/petanque” balls on amazon. A few people have flagged them as helpful. If you want to leave a similar review, feel free to copy-and-paste text from this post. (Just remember to customize the text in the IF YOU JUST WANT TO MESS AROUND A BIT AND NOT WORRY ABOUT THE RULES section.) And please share links to this post— help get the word out.

There actually are a few decent sets of petanque boules on amazon.com. You can search for petanque boules set of 6 — doing that will filter out the sets of 8, although it won’t guarantee success. (See our warning about sets of 3 pairs.) And for goodness sake, don’t buy any of the horrible painted boules offered by BuyBocceBalls

Your best bet on amazon is the set of leisure boules sold by Petanque America, although you will save money (and have a few more options) by ordering directly from the Petanque America website.

Finally, Petanque Portal USA is a good starting point for more information about the game.

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?

Some boules are made of stainless steel (inox). Some boules are made of carbon steel (acier au carbone). And some boules (especially inexpensive leisure boules) are made of carbon steel coated (revêtu) in chrome (chromé). The chrome makes the surface of the boules tougher and more resistant to rust (rouille). The problem is that the process of manufacturing chrome-plated boules uses Chromium 6, and Chromium 6 is highly toxic.

Continue reading

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.


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.)
pocket_scorekeeper_petanque_obut2

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, www.pocketscorekeeper.com, 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.

pocket_scorekeeper_in_hand

 


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.
ferg_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.

ferg_pocket_scorekeeper_closeup2


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.