A Stroll Down The Lane – Lane Oil


PBA dyed lane oil illustrates the pattern and how it breaks down


In my first discussion regarding the playing surface, we took a look at the topology of the lane surface itself. Next, we’ll take a look at the infamous “oil”.

Bowling, like many other sports, has gone through and may still be in the throws of a technological revolution. The science involved in designing modern bowling balls is staggering and the “missiles” we use to blow out a rack of pins is light years away from the spheres we used to throw when I was a boy. Increases in strength and aggressive high friction cover stocks have brought about a situation where the dressing (oil) applied to the lane surface had to evolve as well.

But, first let’s take a step back and ask why this oil is applied to the surface to begin with. Well, back in the day it was discovered that the wood, especially in the front part of the lane, was taking a beating from bowling balls constantly pounding the surface. So, to try and combat the wear and tear on the lane, a coat of oil was sprayed on part of the lane as a protective barrier. Over time, savvy players discovered they could use this to their advantage. So, the application of oil as a lane dressing became an integral part of the game.  

Fast forward to modern times, automated lane maintenance machines have advanced to a point where exact volumes of oil on various parts of the lane can be applied with pinpoint accuracy. Buffing in forward and backward directions can also impact ball reaction. And yes, the way in which the oil is applied can drastically affect the scoring pace by either raising or lowering the scores.

The problem is that no one can actually see the oil and therefore every bowling lane looks identical. Typical “house shots” have become increasingly soft over the years and when coupled with the changes in ball technology has contributed to record honor scores as compared to the much more challenging Sport patterns.

But, as if that were not enough, the oil itself is basically derived from a Mineral oil base sometimes including additives to either increase or decrease friction. The oil has a property known as viscosity, just like the oil you put in your car. Viscosity is essentially a measure of the oil’s resistance to flow. Low viscosity oil would be very runny oil and thus migrate more readily about the lane’s surface. This would be in contrast to high viscosity oil which would resist movement across the surface. Now, let’s factor in the weather conditions in and around a typical bowling center. Such things as humidity and temperature play a factor in how the oil performs on a specific lane and can influence the Oil’s viscosity. So, have you every wondered why in some houses lanes play tighter in the winter or seem to dry out quickly in the summer? These factors are at work in such a case.

Let’s now add in the notion of lane topography into the mix. From our earlier example, what would be the outcome if I used the same oil pattern and lane maintenance machine in the two hypothetical centers but, used different viscosity oil in each center? If you said the shot would likely play and breakdown differently, you would be correct!

Are you beginning to see why a shot, even in the same house, from week to week can change? If not, add in the weather as a factor from week to week and you can begin to see that the center is really not messing with you. Rather, you are falling victim to these variables at work.

So, the next time you hear someone complaining that there is “too much or too little oil this week”, you can chuckle to yourself because you now have an understanding of these principles and can begin to work them into your game.


Fran Varin is a USBC Silver certified coach who coaches throughout Rhode Island. He is also a coach for the Rhode Island Flyers and Bryant University. He can be reached at fvarin@verizon.net  

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