Freehand turning of a near perfect wooden sphere
without flat spots or bumps is a wonderful challenge
for a turner.Whether it’s for croquet, furniture drawer
knobs or simply as a decorative object, the wooden
sphere is a wonderful exercise in developing a
form, tool control and understanding grain
We’ve chosen to make wooden
balls for the ancient game of
bocce ball. Originating in
the Middle East some
7,000 years ago, the game
was popular with ancient
Greeks and Romans. It hit its heyday
in 16th-century Italy, where it
was something of a national sport.
Much of the vocabulary and manner
of play stems from this period.
Bocce Ball Essentials
To play the game you have to make either five or nine
wooden balls, in two sizes.One ball, the “pallino”or target
ball, should be approx. 2-1/4 in. in diameter, in a
contrasting or colored wood. The other balls, or
“bocce” that are tossed, should be approx. 4 in. in
diameter. Create either a full set with eight bocce or a
half set of four,with one-half of each set in distinctive
colors or patterns to identify two sides or teams.
Within each team you may want to create a crisscross
or other pattern to distinguish individual bocce balls.
Wood to Turn
Turn the bocce balls and pallino from a dense hardwood
such as hard maple, birch or white oak in either
solid or laminated stock. If you laminate, choose glue
that is water-resistant and does not “creep”at the seams
such as plastic resin or polyurethane.
Here’s what you need:
• Hard maple, 4x4 by 18 in. (makes four bocce balls; buy
twice this amount for a full set of 8). Each ball blank
should be 4-1/2-in. long.
• Hardwood, 2-1/4 by 2-1/4 by 2-3/4 in. (for one pallino).
• Basswood (or poplar) 3 by 3 by 2-in. in length
(headstock side holding chuck for larger ball); two
pieces 2 by 2 by 2 (headstock side holding chuck for
smaller ball and for tailstock-side holding chuck that fits
over the live center).
• 1/2-in. detailing gouge ground to a fingernail shape,
roughing gouge, parting tool, 1/2-in. to 1-in. round-nose
scraper, 1/2-in. or larger skew chisel.
• Outside calipers with a minimum capacity of 4-1/2 in.
• Dividers or compass.
• Either a scroll chuck or a 3-in. faceplate with 1-1/2-in.-
thick piece of face-grain poplar or soft maple.
• Live center for tailstock, spur center for headstock.
• Jacobs chuck and appropriate bit for fitting tailstockside
chuck to your live center.
• Acrylic paint in two colors and a small, stiff brush.
• Wood dye.
The Rules of Bocce Ball
Official bocce ball is played on a court of fixed
dimensions, often with walls and backstops.
What most of us play is an informal version or
“lawn bowling.” Here are the basic rules:
• There are two teams, played with two, four, or
eight players. In games of two or four players,
you can get by with only four bocce balls.The
game is a bit more interesting, though, if you
play with a full set of eight balls.
• By a flip of a coin or some other means,
choose one side to roll the small ball (pallino)
out into the playing area. All throws must be
made behind a real or imaginary foul line.
• The side that placed the pallino rolls one
bocce ball as close to the pallino as possible
(even touching it). This becomes the “point ball.”
• The opposing side rolls all of its bocce balls to
see if it can come closer to the pallino than the
• The starting team rolls the remainder of its
bocce balls to see if can come closer to the
pallino than any of their opponents’ balls.
• Points are awarded after all bocce balls have
been thrown. A point is awarded for each ball
closer than any of the opponents’ to the pallino.
Games are played to 12, 16, or 21. Often the
winner must win by at least two points.
• Yes, you may hit the pallino, your own team’s
previously thrown bocce or the bocce of the
For more information, go to sportcraft.com.
Fig. A: Shop-Made Chucks
You have to make three different concave holding chucks to turn
these balls. For the headstock side you need two different sizes
that fit into your scroll chuck or a recess in a scrap block on your
3-in. faceplate (a “jam chuck,” see Photo 2). On the tailstock side,
make a chuck that slips over your live center (two styles are shown
as examples). This tailstock chuck works for both size balls.
Click any image to view a larger version.
Bocce ball is played with
a “pallino,” the small
target ball (far left) and
two sets of larger
“bocce” balls.We cut
thin grooves to identify
individual balls and
painted the sets in two
colors, one for each
1. Begin by turning a chuck to hold the
balls as they are turned.This one is for
the larger balls, and is held at the
headstock (Fig. A).Work from the
center out with your round-nose
scraper to produce a smooth surface.
Make a smaller chuck for the headstock
to hold the pallino.
2. Turn another holding chuck for the
tailstock. It needs to fit over a live center
so it can spin freely (Fig. A). Drill or turn
out the center of the chuck to match
the outside diameter of the live center.
Each live center requires a slightly
different design.The chuck must be
centered and fit snugly.
3. Lay out the size of the ball with
dividers or a compass after roughing out
the blank to a cylinder. Mark the
centerline (red) and two radius lines
(blue) that are equal to half the dia. of
the cylinder. After marking, reduce the
waste outside of the radius lines to
approx. 1 in. in dia.
4. Rough cut the cylinder to a very
crude ball form using a 1/2-in. detail
gouge. Don’t be too zealous in trying to
hit the perfect sphere at this point—it is
far too easy to cut below the curves of
the final sphere. Allow considerable
waste material to be trimmed away in
the next step.
5. Mount the rough ball between the
two holding chucks with the red
centerline turned 90 degrees so it’s
parallel to the bed or axis of the lathe.
Rotate the lathe by hand a few times to
be sure both sides of the red line are in
alignment.When all seems right, firmly
secure the block by tightening the
6. A "Ghost Ball" is revealed when you
turn on the lathe. By experimenting with
your shop lamp and different angles of
viewing, you should see a definite ball
with a ghost-like appearance inside the
spinning blank.With light-colored
woods, a dark background often helps to
make the ghost more visible. Keep your
lathe in the slower speed ranges (400 to
7. Turn down to the ghost
ball, using a 1/2-in. detailing
gouge with a fingernail shape.
Work from smaller to larger
diameters on both sides of
the centerline (the ball now
has the same grain
orientation as a face-grain
bowl). Go slowly and gently,
with a mixture of cutting and
light scraping actions to
remove waste surrounding
the ghost ball.
8. Draw a new centerline (the
blue line) when you’re
9. Continue turning with the blue
line positioned parallel to the lathe’s axis.
The grain is again as we started (indicated
by the red line), so work from larger to
smaller diameter in order to work with
the grain. Gently turn away the waste that
was held in the holding chucks. Again, use
the ghost ball as a guide.
10. Sand to further refine the shape and
remove minor imperfections. Randomly
reposition the ball five or six times,
sanding lightly between each change of
11. Cut narrow grooves on the larger balls
with the long point (toe) of the skew
chisel. Create a crisscross pattern by
changing the axis of the ball.With the
lathe spinning, color the grooves with
unthinned acrylic paint applied with a
stiff brush. Light sanding removes excess
The single pallino (smaller ball) is
usually not grooved and can be dyed a
bright color for high visibility.