Lane Oil 101

This post will go over lane oil in the most simple form. Great for new bowlers who are wondering why the lane is so slippery and might even have a few fun facts for advanced bowlers. I would like to make clear that this is a very broad overview designed for non bowlers, new bowlers and intermediate bowlers.

Lets start with the why? The reason lane oil was originally applied to the the bowling lane was to protect the wood surface from the constant beating they took from bowling balls rolling down the lane. Less friction between the ball and the lane surface meant the lanes would last longer. Now that most lanes are synthetic and can survive the damage from bowling balls, lane oil is applied to dictate the scoring pace. The most simple way to think about lane oil and scoring pace is if bowling lanes were like golf holes. For this example, lane 1 has oil applied in a standard house condition. This would be like your average par 4 hole at your local public golf course. Lane 2 has been oiled with a much tougher oil pattern, we’ll say the one that is used at the US Open. This would be comparable to a par 3 at golf’s US Open.

On the bowling lane with the typical house condition you want to strike as much as possible just to keep up. We’ll say par is around 235. Just like on the par 4 at your local golf course, this is the hole you want to get your birdie.

On the bowling lane with the US Open lane pattern, you just want to survive. Par would be around 205 and just like the par 3 at Golf’s US Open, its probably not the hole that you’re going to get a birdie on but its also not the hole that you want to go +2 on (bowl 160).

This is why scoring in bowling is completely relative. Your scores in your house league, do not compare to the pros bowling on tour. Your scores also don’t matter against anyone elses house league since there are too many factors. Average is relative and you can only compare to people bowling in your same league and with how quickly conditions can change, people on your pair that night.

How? Lane oil was originally applied by hand with hand sprayers. They looked like giant bug sprayers. As the game progressed and people started to notice the effects the lane oil had on bowling balls, lane oil continued to be applied by hand in patterns. Each lane was a little different and there wasn’t a lot of science to it. Over the years different hand tools were built to apply oil in different patterns more consistently. Eventually, lane oil machines were built which apply complex oil patterns to the lane that are accurate to a micro-liter. (I’ll eventually to a whole write up on lane machines, they’re really incredible.) This is when oil became a major factor in the sport.

*Lane oil’s effect on bowling balls: *When there is more lane oil, the bowling ball skids more. When there is less lane oil, more friction is created between the bowling ball and the lane which will cause the bowling ball to slow down and potentially curve more.

While you’re bowling, the lane oil changes. Plastic and pearl bowling balls will push the oil down the lane (carry down) while reactive and sanded bowling balls will lift oil off the lane. This means that the lane conditions are always changing and you should be watching where your ball is skidding, rolling and hooking, to see the lane change. This is something that even top pros struggle with so don’t get discouraged if its hard to see.

Brief overview of oil patterns: Difficulty is not rated by how much oil is applied to the lane but the ratio to oil on the inside of the lane to the outside. (Inside refers to inside of the 10 board and outside to the outside of the 10 board) This is expressed in a ratio of units. Units is generic term describing the comparison of inside oil to outside. The higher the ratio, the easier the pattern is, the lower the ratio the harder the pattern is. This is because when there is less oil on the outside of the lane and more oil in the middle of the lane it gives the bowler more area to miss. If the bowler misses outside of the 10 board, the boards with less oil will allow the ball to curve back towards the middle and if the bowler misses left of the 10 board their ball will skid towards the middle of the lane without curving past the headpin.

In a typical house condition, there is usually a 10:1 ratio. This means there is 10 times the amount of oil inside of the 10 board as outside. For a pattern to be considered a “sport” pattern, the ratio needs to be less than 3:1. The US Open pattern is 1:1.

Volume is completely relative and usually based on what surface the pattern is being applied to. Old wood lanes do not hold oil as well as new synthetic lanes.

Length is important. Typical house patterns are 38 -41 feet long. Any pattern less than 38 would be considered short and any pattern longer than 42 feet would be considered long.