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Bowling Lane Conditioning

Preparing the Lanes

At one point or another, you’ve seen people bowling.  It’s no wonder.  Bowling is the most participatory sport in the world.  Whether through personal experience, movies or television, you know something about bowling. As odd as it may seem, many folks see the smooth shine radiating off the lanes, but few realize why.

Why Do They Put Oil on Bowling Lanes?

As bowling balls are thrown onto the lanes, they land with a thud, making dents in the surface, and to make things worse, bowlers learned to adopt techniques that achieve higher averages by releasing their ball in a revolving motion as it travels down the lane. 

The primary method to obtain strikes is to curve or ‘hook’ the ball into the pocket, or gap, between the head pin and the pins to the side of it. The resulting friction between the lane surface and the ball created scuff marks on the lane.  The higher the rev rate, the more severe the scuff marks. Lane surfaces simply could not escape the resulting damage, and maintaining lanes became more costly and less playable.

To minimize the resultant lane damage, bowling center began coating their lanes in order to protect them.  Lacquer, polyurethane and synthetic lane surfaces were introduced to prolong the life of the lanes. In later years, oil conditioners were applied to the lane as a barrier to protect the surface from damage over years of use.  Oil became part of the sport.

They put WHAT on the lane?

Have you ever noticed the slippery stuff on your ball after it comes back through the ball return? That’s oil.

Today most lanes are harder synthetic surfaces and are coated with a thin layer of oil on a regular basis. The area where the ball hits the lanes are made of surfaces much harder than the balls in order to protect the lanes from damage.  Without oil, bowling balls would leave the lane with damaging scuffed areas. The application of an oil conditioner is then applied to protect and prevent scuffing the lane surface and is applied most heavily in the front area of the lane.  Most, if not all, lane conditioners are based on high grade mineral oils and additives to engineer the oil that best suits the needs of the bowling community.

Oil applied to the lane also plays an important role in the motion of your ball, how it will slide over the front areas of the lane and where it will begin its turn or roll. This is an added feature in addition to protecting the lane themselves from the friction created by rotating bowling ball motions in addition to rolling down the lane.

In earlier days, oil was applied to the lanes using a spray gun and brushed out with a mop or applicator. Lane mechanics would walk back and forth spraying oil. Then, they would drag an applicator from the foul line to whatever conditioner length was chosen to be. Skilled lane mechanics were as consistent as they were able to be, but on any given day or time the amount of applied conditioner would differ. The oil viscosity, surface tension, and depth as well as the pattern also varied. Thus, achieving consistently high averages were difficult. 

Lane Conditioner Overview

Lane Conditioners

A variety of conditioners are available to match lane, environmental and desired play conditions.  Bowler performance is affected by a combination of the selected conditioner and the conditioner pattern. No lane conditioner or pattern is best for every lane surface or environment. Every bowling center is unique. Temperatures, humidity, lane surfaces, and lane conditioner patterns determine how a bowling lane will affect bowler performance. It is incumbent on bowling centers and bowlers to work cooperatively to establish the conditioner and lane pattern that meets the objectives of their bowler population.

Surface Tension

Without getting too detailed, surface tension is the resistance of a fluid (oil) to break down under the external force of gravity and the sum of other forces that influence how well an oil will remain and interact with the surface of the lane.

As oil is applied to a surface, it tends to form puddles and droplets just as water on a surface forms droplets.  Consider the way a spilled liquid spreads across a kitchen counter. It produces a thin, but visible, depth of liquid on the surface. The size of the puddle depends on the competition between gravity and surface tension of the fluid. Gravity pulls liquids down against surfaces, making puddles grow larger and thinner, and surface tension makes drops of liquid want to bead up into the most compact shapes possible and stop spreading. Surface tension results from how tightly the conditioner molecules stick to one another.  As an example, the surface tension of water is great enough to support the weight of debris floating on water.

Surface tension contributes to how long an oil pattern holds up before it begins to thin out. Lane conditioners having higher levels of surface tension tend to remain as droplets, attaching themselves to balls more easily and increasing oil carry-down. Lane conditioners having a reduced level of surface tension tends to remain on the lane, resist carry down and create better ball reaction. 

Because of the low surface tension of oil, gravity tends to overcome the adhesive forces between the oil and the lane causing the droplet to spread across the surface.  


Polymers (chain-like molecules) are sometimes added to oil to cause the conditioner to form as longer strands rather than droplets. This, in turn, provides an improved a better conditioner structure on the lane and provides more predictable ball motion. While the oil doesn’t evaporate in normal conditions, some additives do evaporate. Alcohol, as an example is often used to lower the surface tension, allowing the conditioner to move more uniformly across the lane surface when applied. This alcohol evaporates during the first 15-30 minutes after application and then settles down. Because additives stabilize oil migration as well as establish its characteristics, the lane conditioner can sit for long periods with minimal changes.

Other additives are friction modifiers, lubricity agents, to enhance the lubricity of a conditioner.  The slicker the surface, the less the ball slows down and the more carrydown is experienced.


Lane conditioners are engineered to have different lubricities to provide different performance characteristics to match the various types of lane surfaces and lane machines.  Higher lubricity conditioners (slicker) are better for use on fast response (“hooking” or “worn”) lane surfaces since they provide a slower response time. Balls can be more affected by carry down with this type of conditioner and may require the pattern volume to be lower. Lower lubricity (less slippery) conditioners are excellent for use on slow-response (harder, less “hooking”) lane surfaces since they provide a faster response time. Low lubricity conditioners may require the pattern volume to be higher.

Lane Cleaners

High lineage and dusty lanes are a bad combination. Maintaining bowling lanes is important when providing the benefits of consistent lane conditions.  Cleaning (stripping) built-up residues, oils, and dust is important, and prevents debris from being ground into the surface. Plainly, these contaminants increase the wear on the surface and reduces the life of the lanes and results in the way the lanes play.

Environmental Temperature

As the weather changes, bowling centers ensure a consistent environment.  Temperature, rain, snow, and humidity interact with the lane conditioner and play conditions.

It is very important to understand and maintain bowling center temperature as applied to lane conditioners. Some conditioner viscosities change more than 5% for every 1°F temperature change.  Some well-engineered conditioners viscosity change about half of that but is more costly. Regardless of how much they change it’s important to know that all of them do. It become incumbent on bowling centers to manage and maintain recommended temperatures for their specific lane conditioner.

Simply put, as conditioner gets warmer, viscosity decreases, surface tension decreases, and density decreases. These changes, in return, cause the ball to maintain (slow down less rapidly) their speed and hook a bit less.  The opposite is true when temperatures decrease, and balls tend to hook more.

In turn with increased temperatures, conditioners flow more and carrydown increases. Also, backends become weaker.

During periods when the humidity is greater, the lanes tend to “crown” on the outside portion of the lanes, and the ball tends to “hang” and enter their hooking motion a bit later. When the humidity is low, the lanes tend to hook earlier.

It should be obvious, that temperature changes, adjustments should be considered.  Colder temperatures and lower humidity oftentimes result in more hooking bowling balls.  Either bowlers should change equipment or delivery strategies to compensate for that or bowling centers should increase their pattern a bit or change to an alternative conditioner.

Lane Conditioning Machines

Oil is extremely important to the game. Originally oil was put on the lane to protect the lane surface. Ideally, oil isn’t spread evenly across the lane. There are several choices desired when preparing a lane for use. The oil is applied in terms of a specific volume (amount of oil), width and length in a specific pattern. The oil is generally applied beginning at the foul line and continuing along the lane until a designed length is reached. 

Most bowling centers use recreational or challenge patterns – also known as “house patterns” designed for the average bowler to knock down pins by rolling the ball toward the pocket.

Of course, the oil pattern affects how much your ball curves or ‘hooks’ as it rolls down the lane. Typically, there is much more oil in the middle of the lane than on the outside. The dryer outside portion allows more “hook” and the middle, oiled area allows a longer sliding area before hooking.

The length of the oil pattern affects how far the ball slides down the lane prior to rolling onto the area where the friction between the ball and lane dominates the motion of the ball direction. The longer the oil pattern, the less your ball can hook. Knowing the pattern distance can help determine where the ball needs to be when it reacts toward the pocket.

The volume of applied lane oil also affects the skid motion of the ball travel. The greater the volume, the longer the ball skids prior to beginning the hook and roll into the pin deck.

So aside from the fact there is oil on the lane, how does it get there?

Automated Oiling Machines

Every lane in a bowling alley is regularly coated with a layer of oil to protect the surface of the lane. These oils are applied in patterns having an impact on the skid, hook and roll of a bowling ball.

Each center has a “lane machine” that is used to put the oil on the lane. The lane mechanic sets up a specific pattern into the machine, telling it how much oil to put down and where to put it.

In the 1980’s automated machines became popular. Known as wicking machines, these applicator machines  “wicked” the oil from a tank. The oil then went on to a transfer roller which touched a buffer brush. That buffer brush touched the lane, resulting the spreading of the oil onto the lane surface.  The lane mechanic set up the machine in a myriad of oil patterns. 

Lane conditioners of varied viscosities and surface tension were developed. Each specific oil acted differently depending on the type of lane surface, the ambient temperature and humidity. As temperature varied from location to location, the viscosity of the oil either increased or decreased.

Thicker oil flowed more slowly as it flowed to the wick, roller, and onto the buffer brush leading to less oil being applied on the lane. More viscous oil flowed more readily to the wick, roller, and onto the buffer brush leading to less oil being applied on the lane. The resultant shape of the applied pattern my remain the same, but the volume of oil differed. This required bowling centers to respond according to their specific environment.  Bowling centers are advised to maintain specific temperature and humidity standards specified by lane conditioner manufacturers.

Current Lane Conditioning

Another consideration is the preparation of the lane surface prior to the application of the conditioner.  This involved cleaning or “stripping” the lanes of all residual conditioner as well as any accumulated contaminants prior to applying new conditioner.  The first combination cleaning/oiling machine appeared in the 90’s. The Kegel machine, for example, the oil spray head goes back and forth depositing a precise amount of oil across a defined area on a roller. Each pass is known as a “load”. The lane machine speed is set to travel at a specific speed to ensure the oil is sprayed and applied to the lane consistent with the use of each specific oil.

These machines can be programmed to use a variety of oil patterns and depending on which pattern is selected they will then drift down the length of the lane, following their programming on pattern and volume of oil is applied.

Introduction of Conditioner Patterns

Current lane conditioning equipment can be programmed using a variety of oil patterns.  Depending on which pattern is selected they will then travel down the length of the lane, first cleaning “stripping” and then applying conditioners in a specific programed pattern and volume of oil. Oil patterns vary from center to center, depending on what the lane mechanic has programmed the lane machine to do. Typically, the oil pattern has the oil lightly coating the outside of the lane while the center area of the lane is more saturated. This allows to shape the path of the ball movement down the lane.

Kegel Recreational Conditioner Patterns

Each lane pattern details may be viewed or printed from new windows. When finished, close the page to return to this page.

Pattern Name
Kegel Challenge Patterns

Kegel Challenge Series Conditioner Patterns patterns are moderately challenging, neither too easy nor difficult. 
Each lane pattern details may be viewed or printed from new windows. When finished, close the page to return to this page.

Pattern Name
Kegel Challenge Series – MIDDLE ROAD – 4239 (40 uL)

If it scares you, it might be a good thing to learn.