The original reason for oiling bowling alleys was to preserve the wood and protect it from the dings and dents of bowling balls. Over time, as chemical technologies advanced, various products were used to protect the lane surface including lacquer, polyurethane, and synthetic surfaces. However, oil is still used.
A bowling alley is, at minimum, 86 feet 6 inches with the actual lane portion measuring 60 feet. The entire wood portion of the lane is 42 inches wide. The lane itself is made out of 39 boards from different kinds of wood. The first 15 feet and the last two feet of lane (which is located in front of the pins) are usually made from rock maple, a very hard wood. The middle of the lane is made from a softer wood or even from a synthetic material.
Bowling Alley Conditions
A bowling alley’s condition, for the most part, just doesn’t happen. Many times the condition of the alley is made a specific way on purpose, especially for competition. What is interesting to note is that the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) has staff that are responsible for maintaining the lanes used in competition. The staff go to all PBA tournaments, inspect the lanes, and advise on what oil pattern to use on each lane. There are five different oil patterns: the Chameleon, the Cheetah, the Scorpion, the Shark, and the Viper.
The Chameleon pattern
This consists of oiling 40 feet of lane in a series of strips. To obtain a high score on this pattern requires the bowler to be able to use various styles of play throughout the game. An adaptable bowler will score high on this type of bowling alley.
The Cheetah pattern
This is the shortest of all of the patterns, is 36 feet long. High scoring bowlers bowling on this type of pattern are able to throw the ball near the gutter. This takes skill as delivering the ball incorrectly down the lane results in a gutter ball, equaling zero points scored.
The Scorpion pattern
This has the oil located further down the bowling alley than the other oil patterns. Forty-two feet long, this pattern forces the bowler to find just the right spot down the lane to knock down the pins.
The Shark pattern
In comparison to the Cheetah pattern, is the longest of all the patterns at 44 feet. This pattern works for the bowler who can bowl near the middle of the lane. If you are a hook bowler, then this pattern will be challenging for you, as the Shark pattern does not make a hook work.
The Viper pattern
38 feet long, enables the bowler to adapt their bowling style by using different grooves in the lane. Once the bowler finds the groove that works for them, the pins fall.
Most bowling alleys, generally speaking, apply a sixth oil pattern – known as the house pattern – on the lanes. Basically, the house pattern has more oil in the middle of the alley and less oil on the outside of the lane – outside being located between what is known as the 10 board and the gutter on each side of the alley.
Bowling the Alley
Not all bowling alley lanes are the same. To improve your score, you really need to understand the condition of the lane you are bowling on. Essentially, you need to learn to ‘read’ the lane. Lanes can be categorized as ‘dry’, ‘medium-dry’, or ‘oily’. Understanding lane conditions and how the conditions change the bowling ball’s speed, level of traction, and direction is truly an art.
In addition to oil patterns, lane conditions are explained in ratios. To understand lane ratios, remember that a lane usually has oil in the center of the lane (around the 10 board) to the outside of the lane near the gutters. This results in greater friction along the outside of the lane and less friction on the inside lanes.
House oil lane conditions are usually at a ration of 8:1. According to the USBC, tournament play uses a 4:1 ratio and the USBC Sport Bowling program uses a 2.5:1 ratio that produces lane conditions that challenges competitors. The ratio used will determine how the ball will react on the lane itself. For example, depending upon the ratio used, a ball thrown wide on the lane might experience fewer hooks than a ball thrown inside the lane, which may have the opposite effect — more hook. No two balls thrown may react the same way on the same alley.
There in lies the challenge – the way in which the bowler changes his/her delivery, the type of ball used, etc. changes how the ball reacts to lane conditions.
Adjusting to Conditions
The more you bowl on different lanes, the more you will learn how your bowling style impacts how the ball travels down the alley, which, in turn, determines how many pins will fall. You will also learn how the lane’s condition will change from the start of a game to the end of a game. Experienced bowlers talk about the “carry down” effect. This is where the oil moves or is carried down the alley from one end of the lane to the other as the game goes along.
So what are some techniques that you can try on constantly changing lane conditions? Here are a few suggestions:
- Watch how other bowler’s balls react to the lane conditions. Do balls tend to hook on the outside of the lane, and then move toward the middle striking the pins? Or does the ball fail to hook, traveling straight down the left or right side of the alley, not hitting the pins with gusto or missing the pins all together?
- Watch how the ball impacts the pins and how the pins fall.
- Watch where the ball moves in regards to the lane finders – the arrows on the lane.
- Be aware how your delivery and follow through impact ball reaction. A higher backswing will result in a faster ball speed; a lower backswing will give you a slower ball.
- Don’t be afraid to try different techniques. For example, start your delivery back a few inches. This increases the length the ball travels giving you more room to create a hook. Or, start your delivery one board to the right or to the left (depending if you are right or left handed). Try using the same delivery but vary your direction by aiming at different lane finders (arrows) on the alley.
Remember, your adjustments do not need to be dramatic. Usually the best responses come from slight adjustments to your swing or delivery. The more you play with your technique, the more you will learn what works on certain lane conditions so that, eventually, you will be comfortable and confident tweaking your delivery in the moment, resulting in a higher score.