What Makes Bowling Lanes Slippery?

what makes bowling lanes slippery

When bowling, have you ever noticed the ball might come back slippery? If so, you’re not alone. Many amateur bowlers don’t realize this, but the bowling lanes are slippery for a good reason.

Bowling lanes are covered in oil. Bowling balls may occasionally come back slippery because of this oil, and it’s what makes the bowling lanes slippery too.

The oil has a particular purpose. It can also affect a bowler’s game. That makes it a good idea to know where the oil is on the lane!

Why Do They Put Oil on Bowling Lanes?

Professional bowlers refer to the oil used on bowling lanes as ‘lane dressing’. Bowling alleys use the oil to protect the bowling lane.

While the amateur bowler may not pay much attention to it, lane dressing does play an essential role in the game. A bowling ball will pick up oil on its surface, streak the lane, change the oil pattern on the lane, and make dry areas wet. This oil carried by the ball, called ‘carry-down,’ can have a significant impact on the ball in future turns.

Once the player sees that their bowling ball is being affected by the carry-down, they must adjust their throws. Typical adjustments a bowler may make include changing your throw speed and the target you want to hit.

Carry-down isn’t the only factor that causes the oil conditions of the lane to change. Oil break-down is the second factor. Oil breakdown occurs after many passing bowling balls. It is difficult for players to practice their game if oil carry-down and break-down affect it.

What Oil Is Used on Bowling Lanes?

On bowling lanes, the primary substance used is mineral oil. Bowling alleys may use a formula or a mix of substances for the lane dressing; mineral oil accounts for about 98% of formulas used. 

Bowling alleys refer to the oil used on lanes as ‘conditioners.’ Today’s conditioners have numerous additives. These additives vary viscosity, surface tension, and many other components critical to the lane’s health.

Understanding the properties of the lane oil and how it both carries and breaks down after many bowling games is essential to improving your bowling skills and mastery. It’s also critical to understand the different oil patterns that the bowling industry commonly uses on every bowling lane.

What Oil Pattern Do Most Bowling Alleys Use?

Every bowling alley uses specialized machinery that coats the bowling lane in a particular oil pattern. The bowling industry uses many different designs, each unique in how the oil is spread out on the lane’s surface. The bowling alley applies the oil in terms of volume, the shape of the lane, and lane length.

The ‘house pattern’ is what most bowling alleys refer to their oil pattern as. This pattern may vary from alley to alley, but the basics are the same. The bowling alley uses more oil in the middle of the lane and less on the outside. The oil usually stops forty feet from the foul line.

This design is more forgiving and designed around the amateur bowler. The alley wants to ensure its patrons are having fun.

Lane Oil’s Effect on Bowling Balls

But how does the oil affect your game? It’s simple. A ball thrown into a high concentration of oil will have a more challenging time grabbing the lane. The ball will remain straighter for longer.

Conversely, a ball that lands in a low concentration of oil will be able to hook back into the high concentration of oil into the center later down the lane. It’s crucial to find the ‘breakpoint’ to be a successful bowler. The breakpoint is where the bowling ball exits the oil pattern.

Use the rule of 31 to find the breakpoint of the oil pattern. Subtract 31 from the length of the oil pattern. The answer should give you the board number where your ball will exit. Use this to your advantage to ensure that you can maximize your throw.

Carrydown streaks of oil are not always consistent in width. Oil streaks are also usually never the same length. The overall distance of the oil pattern is applied to the lane’s surface varies the reaction the bowling ball will have when it impacts the lane.

Did you know that most professional bowlers wipe down their bowling balls after each shot? Oil track is excess oil that is left on a bowling ball after a shot. When a lane is oiled too much, the amount of oil tracked on your bowling ball will greatly affect the way it rolls. Using a bowling ball wipe pad like this one after each shot can help keep excessive oil off of your bowling ball.

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Professional Bowling Patterns

However, the Professional Bowling Association uses more intense names for their oil patterns. These names include ‘Scorpion,’ ‘Cheetah,’ ‘Viper,’ ‘Chameleon,’ and ‘Shark.’

The Scorpion

The Scorpion pattern is 42 feet long. This pattern places a lot of oil further down the lane. The pattern can be unpredictable at times. Finding the right groove to the pocket is the key to getting high scores.

The Cheetah

The Cheetah pattern is 36 feet long. The Cheetah is the shortest of the oil patterns. It forces bowlers to play close to the gutter, ensuring they have no room for error.  The scoring pace usually is medium to high for this pattern.

The Viper

The Viper pattern is 38 feet long and allows a variety of play styles to be used. The chameleon pattern is a manageable condition for every bowler’s adjustment.

The Chameleon

The Chameleon pattern is 40 feet long. The oil is placed in strips. The pattern forces the players to bowl in certain parts of the lane—scores on this pattern range from low to high.

The Shark

The final pattern, the Shark, is the longest. It is 44 feet long. This pattern forces the player to bowl closer towards the center of the lane.  The oil on the outside of the lane makes bowling balls not hook back, even if they typically would. Scores on this pattern are usually high.

Where on the Lane Is the Least Amount of Oil?

The area where the least amount of oil is depends entirely on the used pattern. Each pattern, as previously described, is different and forces a unique playstyle upon the bowler.

In the typical ‘house style’ oil pattern, the outside of the lane has the least oil. The center of the bowling lane has the most oil.

If you want to bowl a high score, you’ll have to study the lane and see if you can determine the pattern. With time and practice, you’ll be able to identify the design used and adjust your game accordingly!

Final Thoughts

There’s a whole lot more to bowling than meets the eye. Amateur and recreational bowlers may have no idea that there is oil on the lanes and that this oil affects the game they play. It’s more than just throwing a ball. It’s a game of skill and a bit of luck.

You’ll have to successfully identify the oil patterns used on the lane if you want to win. You’ll also have to know when you’re ball is being affected by oil carry-down and break-down.

Once you can successfully determine those factors, work on adjusting your game. Whether this means changing your speed or target, work on it until you’re satisfied. Research all the oil patterns used to ensure your success. Remember, each design is entirely different and forces the player to change up their play style. Make sure you find the breakpoint of a pattern and then aim for it.

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