I'm new to this list; just saw this thread and think I have something to contribute. Forgive a long-winded technical geek, but I think I have a couple of answers.
I started out with a set of Vernets then got the japanese ones. I didn't like how the sharp points on the Vernets -- they jab your fingers, snag silks, don't work well with many kinds of ball droppers. Maybe I just needed to file the points down, but it messes with the chrome. They're just not comfortable, and working with billiard balls demands a lot of tactile comfort.
I have a set of the Japanese balls as well. Four balls, two shells, bright red lacquer, 1.67 inches/42.5 mm in diameter. Inside the lid says "Crafted by Mikame Craft". I assume (possibly incorrectly?) that they're made by the same Mikame, but I don't find Mikame making them now. Anybody connected with Mikame who could check?
Only regrets with the Mikame Craft balls:
1. they don't bounce, so don't drop them on stage
2. The shell can crack (not highly likely) so don't drop them
3. The paint can chip, so don't drop them.
The shells fit so well on mine that you can throw a ball/shell combination in the air and catch it without them separating. In fact, occasionally, getting them *apart* is more the concern. But they can be handled quite reely.
Like the rest of you, I wish I'd bought 3 or 4 sets -- they're really great balls, and the one set I bought is *definitely* not enough.
The Japanese wooden balls are *not* hollow. The hole isn't for hollowing, it's for mounting the ball on a pin in order to paint it. Many oriental woods have much lower density than our domestic hardwoods, the lower weight is a matter of good choice of wood species -- something close grained, low density. The tree they chose is fast growing -- looking inside the shells (which have only 1 coat of lacquer that you can see through) I see thick annular rings -- almost 1/4 inch thick. The tree is a fast-growing weed; something like poplar.
One could (and probably should) cover the hole by filling it, then lacquering it. I nver felt the need. If you make your own, matching the color is trivial.
The finish on the Japanese balls is lacquer. It's a fabled, classical oriental finish. You can spray it and generally get a very nice finish; you can also brush it, then sand/rub it with increasingly fine grits, then polish/buff until you get the ultimate shine. Classical Japanese lacquer finishes frequently run in excess of 30 coats. The lacquer handles really well. You might be able to buy various colors of lacquer in spray cans, but you may need a spray gun or an airbrush. I bought some to spray paint a bicycle 30 years ago, but I think some of the VOC regulations might affect the availability of such things these days. You won't find lacquer in a spray can at the hardware store. Try automotive painting suppliers. By the way, these guys have *unbelievable* choices of colors -- all the world class metallics for instance. People *love* to trick out their car finishes. If you have a friend who paints cars, start there. A small pin-hole to hold the ball, and spray away.
French polish is another possibility for finish. You *don't* need to sand between coats of french polish; each coat dissolves part of the previous coat, and you get a reasonable shine by just adding more. Learning to french polish well is a bit of an artform (make the pad right, and use a little oil to lubricate, ...) but can be learned. French polish also has nice grip. It's transparent, and can go over other things (like paint). French polish is easy to get at woodworking supply places (www.woodworker.com
On making the balls, this is a woodworking thing. A wood lathe and a couple of jigs seem the easiest way.
I'd probably make my own balls, rather than buying them. OK, so I'm a woodworker, but making your own means you can seek *just the right* wood -- you could even try balsa if you wanted feather light. The wooden balls I've seen in the woodworking stores are frequently made of tight-grained U.S. domestic hardwoods, things like maple, alder etc. They're fairly dense -- rather denser than the Japanese balls we lust after. While I've turned decent spheres purely by eye on my wood lathe, I'd probably build a ball-turning jig so they'd be much rounder.
Alternatively, on making balls, you *could* take a large drum, set it up so it can rotate automatically, rather like a rock tumbler, put a bunch of cubical blocks of wood and many strips of sandpaper in, turn the thing on and come back later. It will make spheres for you. Their diameters would vary some, so you'd need to make lots and pick out those that have same diameter.
I'm also aware of a process involving a custom-built machine. You need three pipes whose ends all meet, with some separation between them. 2 of them have to be motor-driven so they spin, and they have to be spring-loaded to move along their lengths. The ends of the pipes are coated with abrasive. You put a roughed-out block of wood in, the machine centerless-grinds the spheres, which fall out the bottom when the spring-loadings in the pipes bottom out.
To make a wooden shell, one would start with a ball, then hollow it. The shell is .034 inch / .71 mm larger in diameter (you need *some* thickness in order for the shell to surround the ball). Another reason to learn to make the balls -- you need the same technology to make the shell in this case. Anyway, the ball-turning jig with a lathe would enable a hollow sphere to be turned in the end of a ball. You'd need a way to hold the work too; I'm thinking a custom-made wooden chuck hollowed to the shape of the ball, perhaps made like a collet so you can tighten it. Alternatively, a vacuum chuck would work. You get the nice suction fit by trying taking wood off *very slowly* and testing the ball in the shell until it fits like you want it to.
You could make a metal shell by a process called metal spinning. (cf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKz0qZrQ ... re=related
) The process is how they make Zombie balls and cups for the cups and balls. Start with a wooden form, you mount a thin piece of metal against the form, then spin the thing in a lathe. Pushing the spinning metal against the form shapes it. This is an art form, and can be quite dangerous (sharp spinning metal edges), but it is how a lot of things are made.
The more I think about it, the more I *want* to make my own. If I did, I could have *many* colors, many extras, and could finally *stop* worrying about dropping them.