1-From Wooden Boule to Nailed Boule
The history of boulemaking is naturally linked to the available technology of the day.
Until the middle of the 19th century they played with plain wooden boules made of boxwood, beech or elm. Sometimes their owners would "fortify" them by adding a few blacksmith's nails here and there.
These wooden boules had many defects, they wore out and deformed quickly, especially if the game was played on a hard and rocky ground.
After 1872 factory made nails became available. Applied to boule-making the resulting boules were far more durable. The first boules were covered with iron nails with large round heads. These boules were larger and heavier (from 100 to 150 mm and up to 1500 gr). Later they used flathead nails. The makers became real artists using nails of different metals (steel, brass and copper) to set out different designs: symbols, numbers and letters, but also stars, flowers and hearts according to the wants of the players.
Later they made boules of only 70 to 90mm diameter and these became the first boules for the jeu provençal and pétanque.
2-Types of Nails and Techniques
Different types of nails gave rise to different nailing
-At first, nailing was a hit or miss affair, nails placed here and there, in a more or less regular pattern.
-Big squarehead nails (steel and brass) allowed some creativity.
-With plain flathead nails in steel, brass and copper, it was difficult to make designs. Fishscale nailing allowed simple initials or numbers, sometimes even a fish, heart or anchor.
-Round (hemispheric) head nails were at first very large and rustic in their manufacture. Early models were seldom tightly worked. Later smaller nails of this type allowed far more involved decorative work.
-Nails with round (cylindrical) heads made possible complicated designs: stars, hearts, letters etc...
-Hexhead nails were particularly suited to complex design work. They could be worked so tightly that none of the wooden surface of the boule was exposed.
3-End of an Age
In 1923 Vincent MILLE and Paul COURTIEU brought to market boules of cast bronze (called "Intégrales") which sounded the deathknell for wooden boules. Despite this, it wasn't until about 1940 that they disappeared entirely and were consigned, forgotten, to the basements of France. Their heyday had lasted no more than seventy years.
Since 1930 most boules have been made from two steel hemispheres which are welded together.
The wooden boule has been rediscovered. They're to be found in the private collections of enthusiasts or displayed in museums. Some of these are the Museum of Boules in St. Bonnet-le-Château, in the massif-central region (not far from Lyon), the Woodturner's Museum at Aiguines (by the Gorges de Verdon) and also at the Eco-Museum at Vallauris in the South of France.