How Does A Pool Table Return The Cue Ball

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Ever wondered how an ‘auto-return’ pool table manages to differentiate between a cue ball and a standard ball? Don’t worry. You are not alone. 

So, how does a pool table return the cue ball? There are a couple of methods, and it will be completely dependent on the age of the table. Older tables will return the cue ball based on the size of the ball, while others will use magnets to separate the cue ball from the rest.

So, how does this actually work? Our experts are going to tell you exactly how all of this works on pool tables with an ‘auto-return’ on them.

How does a pool table return the cue ball?

In order for a pool table to return the cue ball, it needs some way in which it differentiates that ball from the other balls that have been pocketed. How this is accomplished will be dependent on the table.

With older pool tables, the cue ball would be slightly larger than the other balls on the table. So, if the cue ball has been pocketed, the table wouldn’t allow the larger ball to pass through the same slot the other pocketed balls go through. This would cause the cue ball to be automatically returned.

If you look at the cue ball, it would be very, very difficult to see that it is larger than the other balls. This is because it is only 2mm larger. It is just large enough to allow the ball return system to ‘catch it’.

More modern pool tables will separate the cue ball in a slightly different way. Most modern cue balls will have a small amount of metal added to them. The other balls will not have this metal. The metal used will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it will always be magnetic.

When a ball is pocketed, it will be passed through a magnet. If the ball has metal in it (i.e. the cue ball), it will be separated at this point and sent into the ‘return channel’. If the ball is a standard numbered ball, then it will continue on its journey to the ‘ball storage’ part of the table. So, in a coin-operated pool table, you will not have access to these balls again. Well, at least not until you put money back into the table.

No matter how the ball is sorted, the cue ball will always come out at the end of the table. This will likely be the same end that you will be breaking from, although this will be dependent on how the table has been set up.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no real sophisticated technology inside of a pool table. There will be no electronic separating of the balls. It will all be done via magnetics or simply looking at the size. It is unlikely that this is going to change. After all, if something isn’t broken, why fix it?

Do All Pool Tables Have An Automatic Return?


Pool tables with an automatic return tend to be some of the more expensive options on the market. It was only recently that these tables were made available as tables for the general consumer. In the past, automatic return tables were pretty much all coin-operated. You wouldn’t be able to find one for use in the comfort of your own home. 

Do cue balls play differently based on how they are constructed?

No. Well, if they do, the difference is not going to be noticeable to most people.

The metal added to the cue ball is not going to carry that much extra weight. There will only be enough metal inside for the pool table to work out where the cue ball is.

As we said, the ball can also be slightly larger than other balls on the table. However, it is only going to be a millimeter or two larger. It would not be enough to completely change the weight of the ball. As a result, you wouldn’t know it is larger. It certainly will not change the way in which you take your shots, at least.

That being said, you may run into issues if you are using pool balls on a snooker table. Since the pockets are slightly narrower, you may find that larger cue balls may not fit in them properly. This will change up the way you take your shots. For most amateurs, this probably will not be a problem, but certain pros have reported that it is tough to pot a ball, even if it is just a fraction larger.

Can cue balls be used interchangeably? 

Generally speaking, yes. Although, it is likely that you will need to purchase a newer set of balls. You will also want to ensure that they are not too cheap. Some cheap cue balls have been known to either not have that metalcore, or they are the same size as the other balls. These cheaper pool balls have mostly been designed for use in ‘standard’ pool tables.

In many cases, pool tables are now constructed with both ‘size sorting’ and ‘magnetic sorting’ built-in. This acts as a fail-safe if one of the methods fails to separate the cue ball. It also means that you probably do not need to worry about which pool balls you are using, providing you avoid some of the cheaper balls on the market.

Related Questions

Is the cue ball heavier than the numbered balls in pool?

Sometimes. However, the increase in weight is so negligible that it shouldn’t really matter. You will often find that cue balls that have been designed to be sorted based on their weight will be ever so slightly heavier than cue balls that have a metal core inside of them.

Do you need to purchase specific pool balls for a table with an auto-return?

Most of the time, no. Pool balls tend to be designed to work with systems like this, no matter what set you purchase. Although, it is always worth reading through the product specification to make sure. Some cheaper pool balls may only have been designed for tables without auto-return. 

See Also:
4 Best Amarith Pool Balls Reviews
4 Best Valley Pool Table Reviews

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