North American Bowling News

Understanding Oil and Bowling Ball Technology

In the early days of tenpin bowling, up until about a generation ago, bowling lanes were dressed by applying an oil coating for the express purpose of protecting the wood from the continual wear and tear of balls impacting and rolling on the lane. However, with a revolution in the manufacture of bowling balls, the protective nature of oil on a lane is no longer the paramount reason for the use of the slippery substance. Nowadays, with synthetic lane surfaces playing a part in the equation, oil is also applied strategically to bowling lanes in an effort to add an extra level of difficulty to the game of bowling, compensating for the overpowering nature of the technologically-advanced bowling balls.

We hear a lot about different oil patterns, like Cheetah, Viper, Shark, etc., but what do they all mean? And how do they differ from one another? In this article, we’ll take a crash course on the different technologies in the ever-changing game of tenpin bowling.

The Bowling Ball Revolution

Before we can comprehend the way that the different oiling patterns affect the game, we must first understand a little about bowling ball composition.

In today’s world of tenpin bowling, there are four basic types of bowling ball: Urethane, Reactive Resin, Particle, and Plastic. The coatings of each of these types of bowling ball have different friction levels, making each one suitable for a different type of lane condition, that is, how oily or dry a lane is.

Urethane bowling balls are softer than other makes. These bowling balls also drag on the wooden bowling lane, (meaning that they don’t skid) which increases their hook potential. For those who tend to bowl toward the gutter, this hook can help drag the ball back to the strike zone in the center of the lane. These bowling balls can be sanded or buffed to help limit the amount of hook if desired.

Reactive Resin bowling balls are a relatively new type of bowling ball. Only in the 1990s did bowling ball manufacturers start to add resin particles to the urethane coverstocks. What did this resin do? Well, resin is sticky/tacky, and therefore increases the ball’s grip on the lane. It made the balls have even more hook potential. Additionally, this type of ball’s coverstock has pores, which allows the ball to absorb oil from the lane as it is rolling. Reactive resin bowling balls skid on oil (giving them great speed) and hook strongly on dry boards (at the back-end of the lane).

Particle bowling balls are reactive resin balls with small ground pieces of glass and/or ceramic pieces added to the mix. This glass increases the bowling ball’s grit, which helps it grip the lane. Professional bowlers generally prefer particle bowling balls because they help make spin and hook easier to control.

Plastic bowling balls are the most common type because they are the cheapest to manufacture. Made from polyester, plastic bowling balls handle intense wear and last much longer than urethane, reactive resin, or particle bowling balls. Professional bowlers avoid plastic bowling balls because they tend to skid across an oiled bowling lane rather than roll, which makes them harder to control. However, the balls are preferred for spare shooting, when hooking the ball is undesirable.

Back in the mid-1970s, there were 2 types of tenpin balls: rubber and plastic. The school of thought at that time (that is, the pro shops would tell you this) was that the plastic ball was easier to control, but deflected more upon impact with the pins, making it not as reliable for striking. A rubber ball was said to be more difficult to control, but drove the pins better—just a testimonial as to how much of a factor lane oil is, in today’s bowling world.

Lane Oil Application

So, did the complex oiling of lanes cause the manufacturers to renovate the composition of bowling balls, or vice versa? Actually, the famed ‘animal oiling patterns’ first originated (from the Kegel company) in the latter part of the 1990s, after the urethane and reactive resin balls made splashes on the tenpin scene in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, respectively. The specialized bowling balls with their ‘hard hooking’ nature, overpowered the pins and made the prospect of rolling perfect games well within the reach of the dedicated weekend player. Over the years, there has been discussion among some of the bigger names in bowling to increase the weight of the pins to make them more ‘bottom heavy’ to combat the aggressive bowling balls. But, the general direction seems to have progressed to alter the conditioning on the lane, affecting the path of the ball.

The 5 Most Popular Oiling Patterns of the PBA

Shown below are the famous animal patterns that are used by the PBA which tests the players' versatility. There are apparent similarieties upon first glance, but these images are only general representations of which the pros have to contend. (Diagrams provided by the United States Bowling Congress)

The 5 Animal Oiling Patterns. The green represents the oil intensity, and the orange shading denotes the dry part of the lane surface
35 ft. Pattern
Moderate Oil

The Cheetah pattern usually gives up high scores--but not without risk. The heavy oil and short pattern require bowlers to flirt with the gutter in order to strike. The Cheetah is so short, bowlers have to risk gutter balls in order to create the best possible angle toward the pocket. Those who do that successfully tend to shoot very high scores
37 ft. Pattern
Moderate Oil

The Viper is a fairly versatile pattern that's beatable by bowlers with the ability to adjust. Bowlers need to be prepared for an earlier break point than usual. Try to keep your ball as straight as possible through the oil. After a few frames have been bowled, the pattern will start to break down, meaning the oil will start to dry out in the thin oil areas.
39 ft. Pattern
Moderate Oil

The Chameleon demands a bowler to be versatile and unafraid of making large adjustments in order to score high. Increased volumes of oil are placed in zones on the Chameleon, forcing bowlers to choose which part of the lane they want to play. There's no universal line to use as the best plan. Each bowler needs to figure out which line best suits his game.
41 ft. Pattern
Heavy Oil

The Scorpion is a very slick pattern that requires you to find your path to the pocket early. You can attack the Scorpion from multiple angles, but due to the large amount of oil, the pattern will vary from lane to lane, and you'll need to be able to adjust from one lane to the next. The angle you should play will be based on your rev rate, ball surface, and ball speed.
43 ft. Pattern
Moderate-Heavy Oil

The Shark requires bowlers to play inside the lane. If your ball gets lost on the outside, you have very little chance of recovery. To strike, you're going to have to play tough angles. That is, you'll have to hit the pocket on a much straighter angle than you probably want, which makes it difficult to consistently take out the corner pins.

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