History of the Table Tennis Ball

The Evolution of the Ping Pong Ball

The Table Tennis ball is one of the four essential pieces of equipment you need to play Table Tennis, along with the racket, the table, and the net.

The Table Tennis ball has evolved over the years, and the sport was molded around these ball changes. 

Any alteration to the Table Tennis ball has enormous effects on the sport, to the point that certain players may be favored and others disadvantaged. 

We are going to delve into the evolution of the Table Tennis ball, analyze the plastic ball that is used today, learn about the manufacturing process of Table Tennis balls and differentiate the qualities of balls you can find on the market today to help you make the best choice.

History of the Table Tennis Ball
Short history of the Table Tennis Ball – Infographic

The history of the Table Tennis ball

According to Cornilleau, the first Table Tennis ball was a champagne cork, but if we talk about the balls that we would recognise, the first of the 3 official balls was the 38mm celluloid ball.

The 38mm celluloid ball

This was the first official Table Tennis ball. Before this one, Table Tennis balls were made of cork or other materials.

This ball was used from the year 1900 until its 100th anniversary in the year 2000 when it was replaced by the 40mm ball.

The 38mm celluloid ball was used for most of the sport’s history, thus, it saw all sorts of technological advances.

Early in the sport’s history, players didn’t even have rubbers on their rackets, and by the year 2000, rubbers were high-tech with special sponges and grippy topsheets. Players even used speed glue to add speed to their rubbers.

The main characteristic of this ball is the spin players could generate on it.

The 38mm ball weighed just 2.5 grams, compared to the 2.7 grams of its successors. The interesting thing about this ball is that, due to its low diameter and weight, it bent much more in the air.

Because of this, players performed shots with all kinds of spins. Sidespin shots were seen much more often than they are now, and chops were a lot more effective. Lots of choppers broke into the men’s top 10 rankings.

In this video, we can see Chinese Chopper Chen Xinhua beating one of the best Table Tennis players of all time, Jan Ove Waldner.

We can see that Chen’s chops carried immense amounts of spin, which forced several mistakes from Waldner per set. With the current 40mm plastic ball, these chops would be a lot easier to return for offensive players, since the ball is harder and doesn’t take as much spin.

Going back to the 38mm ball, this had to be replaced in the year 2000 as the technology of blades and rubbers had advanced to a point where it was clear that the sport had to be slowed down.

The 40mm celluloid ball

The 40mm ball brought dramatic changes to the sport.

It went from 38mm in diameter to 40, and from 2.5 to 2.7 grams in weight. The 40mm ball still received lots of spin, but not as much as the 38mm one. 

Speed also decreased. It may seem a small change, but because of the added 2mm in diameter, this ball flew substantially slower than the 38mm one.

As happened with the 38mm ball, technological advancements were very fast and the game had to be slowed down again. 

For example, the invention of the Tenergy rubber in 2008 sped up the game dramatically to a point where it was again too fast for viewers to see long rallies and interesting points.

To counteract this speeding up of the sport, speed glue was banned in the year 2007, but non-VOC boosters were quickly created and they sped up the game again.

Apart from this, there was another important reason why the celluloid ball was changed to the plastic one. Celluloid is actually an environmentally unfriendly, flammable, and dangerous compound.

At the time of the change, celluloid was only produced to make ping pong balls, as celluloid had been replaced by different types of plastic in all of its other uses. Only 2 factories in China produced celluloid by the time the ball was changed.

In 2014, all official ITTF competitions started using a new ball, the plastic ball.

The 40mm plastic ball

The plastic ball we play with today is the official ITTF ball since 2014.

Its main characteristic is its hardness, which is much higher than that of celluloid balls. This caused the spin of the ball to be greatly decreased, but the plastic ball, because of its added hardness, sped up the game. The plastic ball flies faster than the celluloid ball.

Because of this, new styles emerged like Tomokazo Harimoto’s, who took everyone by surprise with his quick counters near the table, a style that other players had to replicate because it was so incredibly effective.

Ma Long, for example, plays a lot more backhand to backhand exchanges close to the table than he did in the past. 

Before the introduction of the plastic ball, he liked to step around and hit spinny, powerful forehands most of the time. Now the sport has developed in a way that forced him to incorporate quick direct shots over the bounce to counteract these new strategies.

With this ball, direct playstyles are much more effective than spin-based ones, and the hardness of Table Tennis blades and rubbers is constantly going up, in search of being able to get more and more speed and spin out of this hard ball.

When it was first introduced, most players hated this ball. The first versions were not very round, they broke easily, and it was very difficult to get spin out of them.

Over time, plastic balls have improved to the point that now they have their advantages and disadvantages, but most of the community feel comfortable with the ball and have been able to adapt in their own way.

The players who benefited from this change of ball were close to the table offensive players.

Defensive and all-round players were hindered by the new ball because it took out spin and added speed, making it difficult for them to play out their strategies and to return faster attacks from offensive players.

Choppers just don’t have as much spin to play with, and the ball comes to them even faster than before. This is one of the reasons why there are so few defenders on the world stage.

How Table Tennis balls are Made

Table tennis balls go through 5 different manufacturing processes.

We’ll explain how the DHS brand, the world leader in the volume of balls produced, manufactures their balls.

Step 1: Shaping

A pressing machine is used which shapes the two halves of the balls. DHS balls, and most plastic balls, have a seam in the middle. That is, balls are two different parts glued together.

In this process, a sheet of plastic is taken and each of the halves is shaped. To prevent the halves from breaking, hot water is used when pressing these sheets, which makes plastic more malleable and prevents it from cracking.

Step 2: Edge trimming

The product halves of the previous step come out of the machine with edges that are too long. These have to be cut so that the ball is proportionate at the end of the process.

Step 3: Glueing

When the edges are cut, both halves are glued together, and the first version of the ball is formed.

The DHS factory workers stick the balls manually and put them in a mold that presses both halves together.

From there, balls are distributed in baskets to another machine, in which the balls are rounded with a higher degree of precision.

After this, the balls are kept for 15 days in a room at a temperature of 45-50 degrees Celsius to get rid of all moisture and harden them properly.

Step 4: Quality control

All balls must go through strict quality control. First, an automatic quality control is carried out.

Balls that pass this automatic control are manually controlled by the factory workers.

These workers manually evaluate the quality of the surface and the union of the seams, so that the ball has an optimal bounce and it doesn’t break when players smash it.

After this, the veer of the balls is tested. Balls are rolled on a table at a certain angle, and if they deviate more than 175mm, they are discarded. 

The next step is to test the hardness of the balls with a specialized machine.

Step number 4 is to weigh the balls. They must weigh between 2.68 and 2.76 grams to be approved.

The last step of DHS quality control is the roundness test. Balls must have a diameter between 40 and 40.4 millimeters.

The best balls are chosen for competition play (these are the 3-star balls that you can purchase), and those that passed quality control, but are not the best, are used for training (DHS 1 star balls).

Step 5: Packaging

The last step is packaging, which is done automatically. DHS robots are capable of packing up to 1,200 balls per minute, and the entire production line creates up to 600,000 balls per day.

This number translates to approximately 200 million balls per year.

Factory workers put the packed balls in larger boxes and ship them to different countries all over the world.

Types of Table Tennis Ball

Fun/Novelty balls 

These balls can be purchased at regular sports shops. Balls of any brand other than the most trusted Table Tennis brands are also considered novelty balls.

As the name implies, these balls are used to play for fun, and they aren’t nearly as good as real balls.

They are usually very light, soft, break easily and they’re typically not round at all.

Training balls

Training balls are of a completely different quality than fun balls.

They are balls that do not reach the quality of 1-star balls, but their goal is to be good enough so that Table Tennis players can train with them without problems.

These balls have the weight, diameter, and feel that the competition balls have, but for one reason or another, they do not have the same quality.

They are used more than anything for multi-ball training or with robots since it’s pretty cheap to buy lots of them. They’re perfectly fine for training, but they aren’t good enough for serious play. 

1-star balls

One-star balls are probably the most common in Table Tennis. They are good enough for normal use.

The DHS 1 star balls, pictured above, are approved by the Chinese Table Tennis Federation.

Most of these balls are of good enough quality to train with them and even play matches or local tournaments.

However, many of these balls come in a slightly oval shape, which is why they are one star instead of a higher denomination.

In my opinion, they are the best value for money, as they offer good enough quality at a fairly cheap price.

2-star balls

These are the rarest balls to find. In my entire playing career, I am yet to see a 2-star ball.

These balls fall between the 1 and 3 star balls, but they are not common, since most players who want to spend less money buy the 1-star ones, and those who want the best balls to play with buy the 3-star ones.

Hardly anyone ends up buying the 2-star balls because they are not as good as the 3-star ones nor as cheap as the 1-star ones.

However, they can be a good option if you want high-quality balls but you don’t want to pay a premium for 3-star ones.

3-star balls

These balls are the best of all, and they are a pleasure to play with, especially with those of the most reputable brands. My personal favorites are Nittaku balls, and in second place, DHS balls. Virtually all of the 3 star balls are ITTF approved.

Most tournaments are played with 3-star balls, as they are the ones with the most consistent bounce and the ones that feel the best when using them.

They cost quite a bit more than 1-star balls, but they are definitely worth it. The difference is very noticeable for experienced players, but if you are a beginner, you may not notice any difference between the lower quality balls and these.

Which balls you should buy depends on your particular needs. We don’t recommend buying novelty balls, though.

Do you need lots of balls to use for multiball training? We recommend training balls.

Do you want to play matches and train at the club? 1-star balls are good enough, but if you have money to spare, 3-star balls are a lot better.

For official tournaments, we recommend you always use 3-star balls.

Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 200 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!

Blade: Tibhar Stratus Power Wood | Forehand: Nittaku Fastarc G-1 | Backhand: Rasanter R42
Playstyle: Forehand Looper

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