Buckyballs: little magnetic metal balls that are fun to play with

Jake Bronstein of Zoomdoggle sent me a bunch of Buckyballs and for the last few days my daughters and I have been playing with them during meals and in front of the TV. They're addictive.

Each box contains 216 Buckyballs, arranged in a 6 x 6 x 6 cube. They stick together because they're magnets. The magnets are strong enough that you can make a chain with all 216 balls that won't break when you dangle it. They are so strong in fact, that my thumb is a little bruised from the effort it takes to pull the balls apart.

The fun part about Buckyballs is the way they balls arrange themselves when you stick them together. The balls have a preference for certain crystalline structures. There seems to be a huge variety of structures the balls like to arrange themselves into, as you can see in the video above. (Learn other tricks with Buckyballs.) When I play with them, I feel like my hands are a nanotechnology machine sticking atoms together.

My current goal is to stack them back together into the 6 x 6 x 6 cube, but I haven't been able to figure out how to do it. I know that there are some YouTube videos that show how to do it, but I'm going to try to figure it out on my own.

(Disclosure: I'm an unpaid adviser to Zoomdoggle.)

Buckyballs on Amazon


  1. Any word on how tough the coating is?

    Rare earth magnets themselves are pretty touchy; being quite brittle and quite fond of smashing together. You have to coat them with something, often nickel, to get reasonable durability.

    Any signs of flaking, chipping, cracking, etc. during use?

    1. …Another caveat about neodymium magnets: while everyone knows not to get your fingers in the path of two large ones attracting one another – some local guy was having to have his index finger reconstructed after having been crushed between two one-pound Ny magnets while I was getting “Stumpy” back almost two years ago – these things will mess up a picture tube if you get them too close. Enough to where the degausser that’s built into most picture tube monitors and TV sets aren’t powerful enough to restore the tube’s standard field. Damn things are powerful enough to permanently distort some color picture tube masks, and ISTR Sony Trinitrons being the most vunerable.

      Like mercury, neodymium magnets are fund to play with, but can also be very dangerous if not handled correctly. Which means don’t swallow a pair of them, dammit!

    2. I have owned them for 1 year and the coating hasnt worn of the spheres at all except for a few with only at the pole they have worn of not even enough to notice. These spheres never crack of break.

  2. I don’t know how old your kids are, but you want to be careful with those. Swallowing them can cause all sorts of problems (particularly if two are swallowed). Playing with them at meal time sounds like your begging for trouble.

    1. When I read your message I had to laugh. Any parent in there right mind can judge if there kids are old (and smart) enough to play with a toy like this.

      So parents: Use the gray thing between your ears and when it’s safe get a toy that is educational, hilarious and mildly addictive (just be sure to buy two, you won’t want to share.)

  3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of those shapes match the crystal lattices you see in inorganic chemistry quite often. The problem with the cube is there’s no space in it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the balls don’t like doing that shape very easily. Then again, what do I know?

    1. I have a set of these (well, the CyberCube set) and the cube is indeed a very unstable state that the balls don’t want to stay in and is very hard to get in.

      I’ve played with them off and on for a while now and I haven’t noticed any chipping at all. The benefit of being spheres is that in normal use there are no edges to catch on or scratch each other. I’d imagine you’d only chip them if you dropped them on something else.

      1. I have a set of these and maybe mine are somehow the exception but they are very solid in the cube form and go into it pretty easily once you figure it out. A little tip, if you have a ball that is trying to slip out of position, try rotating it in place to adjust its axis and often it will become much more solidly anchored in place as you want it. Also, when joining together two blocks or shapes if they aren’t lining up, flip one over.

        One thing I really love is that they are strong enough to wear as a bracelet (6 wide strip) and have on me to play with anytime

  4. Cool!! Amazon seems to have another very similar thing (the CyberCube) that’s a few bucks cheaper (but winds up nearly the same, as the BuckyBalls qualify for free shipping). CyberCube gives you a few extra balls, in case you lose some, which is nice. Anyone have both & have a recommendation as to which is better?

  5. These are exactly the same thing as the NeoCube: http://www.theneocube.com/ (warning, that site is ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE and made entirely of Flash).

    I’ve had my NeoCube for about 6 months now. The balls do indeed have a finish on them (nickel, as suggested by #1?), and it has held up very well so far. None of the balls have cracked or broken, although I’m pretty careful with them. I will say, though, that the finish is definitely less shiny than it was at first, so I’m not sure if it will eventually wear off with continued use. I can also convince myself that the magnets aren’t quite as strong as they were when I first got the thing, but that might be my imagination.

    Regarding #2’s question about the cube, you are partially right. There are lots of configurations (all the cubes (3×3 / 4×4 / 5×5 / etc.)) that are very difficult to get the balls into, but if you get them arranged just right they sort of “snap” into shape and are pretty stable. The person handling the cube in the video has obviously practiced a lot.

    It’s a pretty good geek toy.

    1. Yeah, I know my 9 month old would shove these straight in her mouth given the chance.

      I’d imagine she could pass a single one without issue.
      But more than one, and god only knows what’d happen in her little bowels.

  6. Yeah, they’re pretty tough little buggers. Search around on ebay and you can get ’em way cheap direct from China.

  7. AKA the NeoCube. Available in the UK via usual gadget shops (IWOOT, Firebox etc.).

    These are happy to settle as triangles (4 per side, hole in middle) for making icosahedra and other platonics galore…

    The closest to a true buckyball I can get is made from 12 rings of 10, think of each as 5 pairs and connect each pair to another ring. It kind of works.

  8. BuckyBalls are fun to play with for sure! I was fortunate to win a set on Chempedia (a cool StackOverflow like website for chemists http://lab.chempedia.com/ ), and indeed whilst playing around with it I noticed many shapes I knew from my chemistry classes. Besides the crystalline structures, also the hexagonal shape is very stable, and reminded me of organic chemistry.

    BTW, there isn’t really a secret to making the cube. (That’s all I can say without spoiling your fun of finding the solution too much.)

  9. The original cube will be extremely difficult to recreate, because #2 is almost exactly right. the 6*6*6 cube is like a crystal lattice, but it’s similar to the not very dense Simple cubic structure. For these, a more stable configuration would be the Face centred cubic structure, which unfortunately doesn’t stack into a neat cube.


  10. I got some of these for my birthday a few months ago, they are GREAT! Anybody who comes into my office now gets sucked into playing with them for a good 20min.

    – Jacob
    Seattle, WA

  11. I love these things. I got them for Christmas. But I dropped a few of them and now I am one ball short of the full set. I can not make the cube with out all 216 balls!

  12. I only have 100 at the moment (ordered cheap from Hong Kong), but planning to get more.

    One easy way to get the cubes is to start with a flat strip of the square lattice. So for a 6x6x6, you would start with a strip 6 wide and 36 long. Then you simply accordeon-fold this strip into a cube, adding a 6×6 layer onto the growing cube with each fold.

    Note that the flat square lattice actually has a polarity – even though it looks identical in both axes, it will be easier to fold along one axes than the other. In other words, there are two different ways to put together that 6×36 strip that look exactly alike, but behave very differently. I forgot which one is easier to fold up into a cube, but you can easily experiment…

  13. I got a set a while back, and figured out a good way for separating them without killing your fingers. use 2 old credit cards or similarly dimensioned objects. that should make it relatively easy to get them apart, and with a lot less damage to your structure.

  14. I got a similar set of cubes, which don’t look nearly as fun as they don’t do the crystalline structure thing. They do fall into rectangles very easily, but stacking the rectangles into cubes can be problematic until you get the polarity of all of them right.

  15. Of all of things we got (and bought) for Christmas, these were the most popular. They’ve hardly been out of anyone’s hands for more than a few hours.

    Hopefully we’re all old enough to avoid swallowing them accidentally, but judging from the comments here maybe I should order a few more sets before litigious do-gooder nannies get them banned.

  16. I just got a set of these as a late Christmas present, and have been playing with them quite a bit. Remaking the cube is actually pretty easy — make all 216 balls into a chain, fold the chain in a 6-wide zigzag back and forth to get a 6x36x1 mat, and then fold the mat over itself in a zigzag six times to get a 6x6x6 cube.

  17. I got NeoCube on Christmas 2008 (yes, more than year ago). And I have 251 balls, which is little more fun – you can create large icosahedron with 240 balls or two “hollow cubes” each from 120 balls.

    Some things are very nice and non-intuitive – you cannot guess what you get until you do it. For example the “hollow cube”. Create 24 circles of five balls. Then put them to eight “triangles” (connect three little “circles” so that each two are attached using two balls). And then connect these eight trianglelike shapes together (I believe you will find a correct way – they always attach on two balls).

    So far shapes that seemed to be most difficult (as in patience needed to create them) were cube 3x3x3 and (hollow) deltohedron (ten sided dice).

    And there are very nice shapes that can be created using 320 balls. I would not want only 216.

  18. I got these for Christmas, and unfortunately right off the bat one of my balls split into about five pieces due to a hairline fracture.

    HOWEVER we called the company and they sent us a completely new set for free like IMMEDIATELY. Got them within three days.

    These guys are good to their customers and make an awesome product.

    (BTW you can still pull off a 6x6x6 cube if you’re down a few – you just have to yank them out carefully from the 36×6 protocube sheet.)

  19. Interesting, I don’t understand how these are possible. How could a spherical magnet attach on more than two points? Wouldn’t everything want to move to one of the two poles?

    1. Dipolar spheres can attract each other either when they are pointing in the same direction, and the poles are arranged head-to-tail, or when they are side-by-side and pointing in opposite directions. So, I think the cube consists of rows of dipoles all pointing in the same direction, but with the rows all alternating direction. Each sphere has two aligned neighbors above and below it and four opposing neighbors in front, in back, left, and right.

  20. These are way cool but I feel that $30 plus shipping for 5 oz of magnets is a bit steep. I think I will wait for a while until the price comes down a bit.

    And for you science geeks out there. Buckyballs in this case refers to the shape of the magnets. Real Buckyballs are fullerene sphericals. Fullerene is comprised of stacked graphene sheets of stacked hexagonal rings (giving it its soccer ball shape).

    Fullerene was originally called Buckminsterfullerene (which is way cooler). It was named after Richard Buckminster Fuller, the architectural modeler who popularized the geodesic dome.

    1. I thought BB was populated by science geeks, but only one of 40 posts is annoyed by the misnomer Buckyballs?

      “Buckyballs” have been the accepted scientific diminuative name for the awkward mouthful Buckminsterfullerine. Carbon atoms arrange themselves naturally into the well-known graphite and diamond forms, but when it was semi-recently found that it can arrange into spherical forms, it was named after Fuller. As cool as magnets are, Buckminsterfullerine is way cooler.

      So, potentially, many people will now assume that “Buckyballs” are spherical magnets? Reminds me of Google/googol, and I for one am supremely annoyed when I have to explain that I’m using the right word when I’m speaking to someone about 10 to the hundredth power and not a more popularly-known search engine.

      “There’s a sign on the door, no biting allowed.” –RAKIM

  21. My current goal is to stack them back together into the 6 x 6 x 6 cube, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it. I know that there are some YouTube videos that show how to do it, but I’m going to try to figure it out on my own.

    Um, Mark, don’t look now, but you embedded one such YouTube video in your post.

  22. The cube is pretty easy once you figure it out and get the hang of it. I can do it generally mindlessly now that I’ve played with them for a while. I made a fun little sphere (think 20 sided die) with 6 piece triangles today. I like it MUCH more than the 9 piece triangles the little book says to use. And the cat was having a ball playing with it on my desk!

    And as far as the swallowing them goes… Um, they stick together. Just don’t let a 5 year old play with them unsupervised… or at all. Seems simple to me, but I guess some people want to warn for everything. *shrug*

    1. And as far as the swallowing them goes… Um, they stick together. Just don’t let a 5 year old play with them unsupervised… or at all. Seems simple to me, but I guess some people want to warn for everything. *shrug*

      Yeah, the problem here is when someone swallows more than one, more than a few minutes apart…

      Intestines fold upon themselves hundreds of times in your gut.. These magnets are powerful enough to stick together through several folds of intestines. As they get closer to eachother, their power increases exponentially. You do the math, it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture. It’s not immediately obvious that if you swallow two of them an hour apart it literally shreds your insides, so I’d say a warning is pretty apt. Think of the worst gas you’ve ever had, then multiply that by a thousand. Now choose between hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of surgery, or slow and excruciatingly painful death. Yeah, I think it’s a pretty good idea to warn people about that.

  23. I got myself 250 1/4 inch diameter grade N42 magnets for the holidays. Like BuckyBalls on steroids! (Yeah, they were more expensive ($95) but so much fun!)

  24. I love Buckyballs, I got some for Christmas. Personally I’ve been trying to figure out how to do a sphere, but I just can’t seem to get it!

  25. Why would you fork out $30 bucks for a brand-name version of something that is mass-produced in China anyway? Almost all rare earth and neodymium magnets are manufactured there, as the process is extremely polluting.

    You don’t need 216 of them to have fun. I bought 20 off DX recently, but plan on buying some more soon as these things are, as others have mentioned, incredibly addictive to play with. Trying to quit smoking or know someone who is? These will keep your hands busy.

    20 pack of 5mm balls = $2.99
    100 pack of 5mm balls = $12.28


    NOTE: I am in no way connected to dealextreme… simply a happy customer. I am sure there are other similar options out there… I use DX because they have a decent reputation – and free shipping on any purchase.

  26. As others mentioned, the problem is when a kid or pet swallows multiple that are not already stuck together, as they can pinch distant parts of your guts together, e.g. your intestines, and cause a rupture…..which is not good….

    Just like mercury, why do the greatest things in the world have to be tainted so!

  27. I’ve had a neocube for more than a year, and got a 2nd set for my birthday about 6 months after that. They are, indeed, great fun. Separating the balls is quite easy. you just need to ‘pinch’ them off each other.

    The finish on them *does* wear. I can tell, when comparing them side by side, balls from the newer set from the older ones. Since they always want to stick to one another at the polar ends, each ball has gotten two small spots at the poles. Mostly, it just seems slighting darker, or a touch less shiny than a brand new one. But no signs of chipping or flaking.

    Between these and unit origami, I never need to have idle hands again.

    But, as previous posters have stated, keep them the hell away ANY electronic equipment, especially computers and tv’s. They are VERY strong, and WILL screw things up.

  28. My twin 6 y.o.’s and I have been playing with them constantly for the past few weeks.

    Hint: go check zenmagnets.com (best price) and with some searching you can find coupon codes to get them for about $18/set of 216.

    trust me, WELL worth it.. amazing things they are. Its frustrating at first, but once you get a feel for how the strong fields work and how to assemble the stable state structures there is no end to goofing around with them.

    On youtube check the series by Szaki.

  29. Oddly enough, you can use Buckyballs to build buckyballs. But there’s a trick to it. Sixty magnets, twelve rings of five, will assemble into a sphere. But the chirality of most of the rings must match, otherwise the growing edges don’t merge right.

    Spoiler: 60-magnet sphere

    You can also start with two pentagons, then add rings of 10 and 15 to the edges, then merge the two resulting hemispheres. That’s how C60 grows from vapor, and why it can end up enclosing a non-carbon ion.

    Well, these are not actually Buckminsterfullerene, since the rings form squares and pentagons, no hexagons. Carbon bonds as quadrupoles, while these magnets are dipole. If you could rotate all the pentagons 1/10 turn, it would become a true buckyball. But it’s not stable. Perhaps this behaves like S-60 sulfur, rather than carbon-60? Perhaps figure out how to magnetize these with four poles?

  30. I bought these for my partner and I have ended up playing with them all the time. Mark, I can make the 6 x 6 x 6 cube. A bit of advice is be careful when laying them out – the balls, as you pointed out, have a tendency to arrange themselves a certain way. Use that. When you find out which way they won’t go remove and put those at the end. Don’t ask me why that helps but it does. Also, hold onto the shape as hard as you can!!

    Have fun!

  31. The cube is easy once you figure it out. Divide the balls in the 12-ball rings. Once done – you will have 18 12-ball rings. divide those into 3 sets. then carefully stack the 6 rings in the set together. you have to be sure the balls go exactly on top of each other and not into the crevice between the balls. If they go into the crevice – flip the ring over and it should work correctly. Once you have these 3 towers built – smush them vertically and you create a 6 x 2 sheet. Do this for the next 2 and then click the sheets together. This last step can take the longest as you have to find the sides that connect on top of each other and don’t go off to the crevices.

    1. Your correct, the last step of connecting the 3 6x6x2 (sets) sections can be very frustrating, but here’s a simple trick. Place 2 of the 3 sets with a flat side against opposite sides of a plastic card (nothing with a magnetic strip that you care about), visually align the 2 sets (you can also feel when it’s aligned), then slowly slide the plastic card out from between the 2 sets. They should now be firmly connected, so repeat the last step using your new 6x6x4 and your 6x6x2. Finally, a cube.

  32. I’ve had mine for just a few weeks and I’ve noticed some are already have chipping of the nickel coating. Maybe I’m too hard on them :) I’ve also lost a couple…

    For a real challenge try making filled polygons above n=6. For example, start with a 7 ring, then put a 14-ring around that such that every ball on the 7-ring touches 3 balls of the 14-ring. Continue with 21-ring, etc, just like you do when you’re doing a filled hexagon except each ring(n-6)(k) is k longer. You will have to twist a bit to get them all to fit snug.

    The resulting surface will be a “saddle”. I’ve been able to do this up to n=10… at n=11 the balls on the opposite edges get too close together and tend to adhere, at n=12 they touch. I’m sure there’s math that predicts that. :)

    Kudos to Zoomdoggle for providing 216 balls in a set. You may not recognize how great that number is for building regular shapes… until you lose a ball and thereby slash your divisors by 3/4!

  33. I saw buckyballs on sale at officefunhouse.com. They also have another product called Mag Spheres that appears to be similar but come in a different container.

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