Inexpensive Rola Bola is lots of fun

Rola Bola made of 27 inch long 2x8 pine, varnished

Rola Bola made of 27 inch long 2x8 pine, varnished

Life can be simple yet fun. Take the example of a Rola Bola, aka rolla bolla, rolo bolo, roly boly, balance board, rocker-roller board or bongo board. Whatever you call it, there is a board that allows you to stand shoulder width apart, a wooden stop board on the underside each end, and a rolling cylinder. You put the board on the cylinder and get on. Simple.

Bola Construction: Cut a piece of pine or other wood you have around to a little longer than shoulder width. Plywood is also great. I had some 27″ 2×8 pine. Add some wooden stops on the underside of the board. I glued and screwed it to the top board with #6 1.5″ wood screws. Only sand the top deck, and only in the middle of the board. Leave the bottom deck unsanded or roughed up so it can grip the cylinder. After 4 coats of varnish to protect the wood and you’re done. I only did one coat for the sides and bottom.

All the rola bolas that I saw on the internet had grip tape on the top deck. As I was varnishing I decided that if sprinkled sand on the deck it would come out roughly the same, and it did. After initially using the board we found grip tape or sand was unnecessary. I sand down the sand and revarnished the top deck.

Bola Finish: For the finish of the board we varnished top and bottom once and then varnished the top another 5-6 times. We used Varathane or polyurethane, and wiped it on. The cleanup is easy if you use a rag as you just throw it away. Use disposable vinyl gloves. One of our boards was stained black, then varnished as above.

Safety: I had read that safety was important when learning the rola bola, so was concerned with allowing my kids to use it. This proved to be unfounded. With a standard 3″ roller the rola bola only goes up a maximum of 6″ on either side. Kids usually shift their weight down on one side, the deck touches the ground and stops all action. Even when moving kids can simply get off the board. As a toy it would be difficult but not impossible to badly hurt yourself. The toy is more dangerous as a swinging blunt object, or maybe if you threw the cylinder. Used as a rola bola it is extremely safe to learn and use. Appropriate ages to start rola bola are from 5 years old up. For smaller kids use a smaller cylinder and hold their hands for support. For use on carpet, first put down a piece of plywood, then the rola.

Rola Types: We tried a variety of cylinders:

  • 2.25″ ABS pipe: Available at any hardware store, used as standard drain pipe, there are scraps of this pipe all over. It is very inexpensive and very strong. We found that it is more difficult to learn on this size pipe because the stops keep hitting the bottom. you have less room to recover your balance. For kids it is the safest cylinder to start. Cost: free.
  • 3″ circumference propane cylinder: This propane cylinder was empty, discarded as trash after use. Used to solder copper pipes in plumbing, once empty is is garbage. As the tank is a pressure vessle capable of 2,000 psi, empty is can easily handle a 200 lb adult. There are lots of these around. Instead of throwing them into hazardous waste, they make a great cylinder. Cost: free.
  • 3.5″ circumference metal tube. We got these out of an old electric lawnmower. They are great magnets as well. While not as wide as the top deck, they are the right size to start rola bola. Inert, will last forever, repurposed and saved from the landfill. Cost: free.
  • 3″ ABS drain pipe: The drain pipe walls are thick and rigid and works very well. Note that the 3″ diameter is the inside diameter. The outside diameter is 3.5″. This is my recommendation for beginners, especially kids. Cost: $10.50CAD/3′
  • 4″ ABS drain pipe: The drain pipe walls are thick and rigid and works very well. Note that the 4″ diameter is the inside diameter. The outside diameter is 4.5″. This pipe is large and rolls quickly. Cost: $18CAD/3′
  • 5.5″ furnace motor fan: Disconnect the metal brackets adn you have a round motor housing. It is heavy but rolls pretty well. A little slippery and difficult to mount, but otherwise Ok. Cost: free.
  • 10″ circumference PVC sewer pipe: These took some help getting on the board. A helper can step on the inside of the pipe and balance the board on top. The rider can then get on with two handed help from the helper. Once on, the roller is not any more difficult to ride than a 3″. An alternate mounting method is to hold the helper’s two hands and jump up and on the board. It feels initially scary but really is not. Cost: Free, as I found it at a construction site.
  • 11.25″ circomference PVC sewer pipe. Same as the 10″ PVC sewer pipe. you really feel no difference. Cost: Free

Here are some tricks from Wikipedia:

  • Acrobalance on the board
  • Balance with one knee and one foot
  • Center stand (feet together in the center of the board with your feet facing forward)
  • Combine with other circus skills (e.g. juggling on the rola bola)
  • Free mount and ride for 30 seconds
  • Free ride for 3 minutes
  • Frog stand (slowly squat down while riding the board)
  • Full jumping turns – 360°
  • Half jumping turns – 180°
  • Hand & foot balance
  • Jump mount
  • One hand/one foot on both sides
  • Penguin stand (feet together in the center of the board with one’s feet facing one of the long ends of the board)
  • Quarter jumping turns
  • Riding a bowling ball
  • Riding two rollers (going in different directions)
  • Riding 3 or 5 rollers stacked in a column (see picture)
  • Standing on one foot (foot must be right over the roller)
  • Surf hop (while surfing, stand on one foot then hoop to the other foot)
  • Surfing (riding the rola bola with the feet facing one of the long ends)
  • Walking the board (walking the board on the roller from one end to the other)
  • Stacking additional boards for height in layers of “board-2 cylinders on end-board”; one must jump up accurately to mount

Other tricks while riding a Rola Bola:

  • reading out loud
  • Playing “Simon Says”
  • juggling balls, diabolo
  • partner gives you simple math problems, like addition of the fingers on each hand
  • Rubic’s Cube
  • girl’s hand clapping games with another partner also on a rola bola

Rola Bola is inexpensive, safe and fun for kids and adults. It will allow you to practice your balance. Try to make one with your kids. They will love it.

Update Aug 25 2010: So I have been trying different rollers. Lawnmower wheels can be bolted together to form a long enough roller. The ones I have are 4.5″ and 5.5″ in diameter. Unfortunately they are rubber coated and squish, so they do not provide enough support. They also flex and twist, throwing me off the board. Made of plastic the wheels seemed strong enough but do flex when weight is applied. I also tried an old metal furnace motor with a diameter of 5.5″. After I took off the clamps it rolled very well, though it was heavier than an ABS pipe. It is a little larger and heavier to be portable.

On a trip to the Home Depot I picked up 3′ of 4″ black ABS drain pipe. Cutting it with my mitre saw was not difficult, though the saw could not cut through the whole pipe. Cut, rotate, place carefully, then cut, and all was well. At 1′ each, I got 3 rollers from the pipe, all for $18CAD. The drain pipe is very rigid and is a very good roller. Note that the 4″ diameter is the inside diameter. The outside diameter is 4.5″, a little larger than 4″. I might try the 3″ pipe, a little safer until I become more skilled.

Update Aug 26 2010: So after purchasing and chopping the 4″ ABS pipe, which has an outside diameter of 4.5″, we found the difficulty level much higher than a 3″ roller. The kids were initially a little afraid. For certain the excitement level is higher because you can swing farther and higher, but with increased risk of falling. We have all fallen off this 4.5″ ABS pipe. On the insistence of my oldest I have purchased the 3″ ABS pipe but have not yet cut it. The OD of the pipe is 3.5″.

Balance board

Rola bola cartoon depicting it as a surfing alternative

Rola bola cartoon depicting it as a surfing alternative

Addendum 2012: Since this post I have been practicing rola bola in the park. Of course now that I know how to ride it looks easy, so others have asked to try it. I hand hold the kids and they do not get hurt. Once I am confident they will not fall I let them ride on their own.

I also try to hand hold the adults, but some of them are larger than I am and do not really take to instruction very well, i.e. they ignore my advice. As a result, some of them have tried the rola bola when I was not looking, or doing something else, and have fallen, some quite badly. Some adults, especially the men, do not take kindly to holding hands with another guy, even though I am trying to keep them safe. It is not a gay thing here, it is a safety thing. Other adults have very bad balance and cannot keep up with their kids. As a result many adults have fallen and now my rola bola has a certain bad rep at the park. When adults do fall the board shoots out at below knee height, possibly hitting onlookers. My neighbour’s kid got a nasty bruise when her Dad thought he was better than in reality. We really need to be careful of onlookers that stand on the sides, especially kids, who can sometimes not listen to you or are dopey to begin with. This might be a good thing to keep the adults off, but not so good for kids that want to learn but are forbidden to do so by their unbalanced parents.

Connor McDavid, hockey player, on a Rola Bola, cross training

Connor McDavid, hockey player, on a Rola Bola, cross training

Rola bola at the park still attracts a lot of attention. Newcomers ask about it and I let them try, with my help. A few can pick it up right away, while their friends fail miserably. As a general rule I now size up adults and guess if they have some balancing skills or not. If they do not then I do not let them get on. There are some awkward moments, but I hope they understand.

Interestingly the cool kids who can do ripstik and skateboard cannot master even basic rola bola, so they have stayed off. This creates somewhat of a geek factor for the rola bola, right where I want it to be in the public eye.

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