Saturday, August 1, 2020

Having a Ball

Summer at Berkeley, Lecture 6
“Having a Ball”

Puzzle Balls,  nineteenth and twentieth century

The Ming Dynasty scholar Cao Zhao published, in 1388, what he called an “important discussion about assessing antiques” of the time. It was an informational guide, essentially, and divided these important objects into thirteen different categories. By no means comprehensive, or encyclopedic, it was more or less his view on his own family’s impressive collection. He was a collector, writing about his collection, but this did not diminish the historical impact of what is now a part of Chinese cultural literature. In his guide, one of the objects he mentions is called a “devil’s work ball”. The reference is not to some evil object of dark religion, but rather to a beautifully carved ivory nesting sphere. These were the original puzzle balls, already antiques when he published his description, that some suggest date back one thousand years.

Victorian era puzzle ball with Tunbridge ware stars

The “puzzle ball” is certainly one of the oldest known examples of a puzzling object. These ivory spheres were hand carved, with freely moving inner spheres nesting one inside the other. The inner spheres were all highly decorated with lattice and geometric designs, and the outermost sphere would feature high relief carvings of temples, dragons, and the phoenix. They were “impossible objects” created on a lathe. Multiple channels would be drilled to the core, and special “L” shaped carving tools were then used to connect the dots inside and release internal layers, layer by layer. Most had between three to seven layers, but the largest in existence is said to have over forty layers. They became very popular in the nineteenth century, and ultimately stopped being produced when ivory was banned in the modern day.

Ebony Puzzle Ball with stand by John Berkeley

The Victorians had their own type of puzzle ball, turned on a lathe from wood. Hoffman describes two different versions. The “Puzzle Ball” references a boxwood sphere decorated with six raised ebony discs, or what he calls “bosses”. One of these bosses is actually a plug that sends a narrow projection all the way to the opposite side, where it appears to be the very center of that side’s boss. Press on the right spot and the plug will come out, revealing space inside the ball for a threepenny piece or other small object of the time. The “Ebony Puzzle Ball” appears to have been the more common variation, however. These were larger, and had many small nubs (little bosses) all around, encircled by intricately carved, ever expanding rosettes that covered the ball in fine detail. Finding the right spot on these leads to an actual secret compartment hidden inside the tapered plug, big enough to hide a dozen shillings. Victorian puzzle balls were made from around 1850-1900 and often featured a colorful mosaic of inlayed wood in geometric patterns. This form of decorative inlay was known as Tunbridge ware, after the spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent where it was commonly produced. John Berkeley made a few Ebony Puzzle Balls, although he never used ebony, a wood he disliked. He used African blackwood instead, his favorite. He recalls that it was very difficult to get the measurement right so that all the components fit accurately, and therefore he made very few of these. He also never used a jig or template, relying only on his eyes, and as a result his puzzles are as “near as possible” to perfect spheres.

Smokey Strawberry Old Fashioned, ala The Aviary

To toast these magnificent orbs I thought we should roll out a special cocktail as well. To pull this one off properly takes some balls – it had to be said at some point – ice balls. Serving a cocktail inside an ice sphere is all about the presentation, and it can be magnificent. No bar does presentation better than Chicago’s Aviary, where the style and showmanship is as important as the drink. One of the most famous cocktails they serve there is their Old Fashioned, of which they have many seasonal offerings on rotation, and which are all delicious. But what makes their Old Fashioned famous is the way they serve it, inside an ice sphere. At Aviary it’s really more of an ice egg, waiting to hatch. How long will it take? As consummate hosts, they don’t make their guests wait – rather, they provide a bespoke wooden ring fitted with a rubber band and striking stone, with which to place on top of the glass, crack the egg, and release the drink. Impressive and fun!

No ice ball cocktail is complete without a turned ring and fob striker by Stephen Chin

I made a home version of their “Smoked Strawberry” Old Fashioned, a summery sweet delight that they infuse with wood smoke before injecting it into the ice. I simply added a touch of extra peaty scotch to mine, which works very nicely as well. Strawberry syrup can be made quickly on a stove or in a blender, but at Aviary they make a lovely clarified syrup by simply covering fresh strawberries with sugar and waiting a while for the sweetened juice to extract. For the ice ball, a little patience and an ice sphere mold, plus a syringe, is required. Freeze the ice ball like normal, but flip it upside down in the freezer after about two hours. Wait another two hours, then take it out of the freezer. Poke a little hole in the top, extract the water still trapped inside, and viola. Now inject your chilled cocktail and serve with a little hammer, or a homemade ball cracker courtesy of another favorite wood turner. Class dismissed – cheers!

A lovely pair of balls

Smokey Strawberry Old Fashioned – adapted from Allen Hemberger, Aviary

2 oz bourbon
½ - ¾ oz strawberry syrup
¼ oz peat heavy scotch (such as Lagavulin)
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir with ice then inject into a hollow ice sphere (or simply enjoy with a large cube)

For prior lectures from the Summer at Berkeley series:


  1. WOW! MR Canfield, you have so many BALLS!. Had a mate made me one in Aluminium, very cool.John is one of a kind, my Hero , I made a few, even a pair, one is a dud

  2. Well you know, I’ll never be satisfied until I’ve got at least one of your balls too my insane friend

    1. Like what I did with your turned ring and bookmark?

  3. Steven,Beautiful.i have a tendency in puzzle balls and I try to collect whenever I can although I am not a collector.