The Chemistry of Bowling: A Short History of Bowling Balls, Lanes, Coatings, and Conditioners


This was published in the May/June, 1992 issue of In Chemistry (the magazine of the student affiliates of the American Chemical Society. In the 16 years since this was published, there have been further changes in the various materials described in the article.

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When you think of bowling, it is very seldom with a consideration for the chemistry that went into its development. Recently, an article (“Predicting the Path of a Bowling Ball”, Edward Zecchina, CHEMTECH) appeared in CHEMTECH, describing the physics involved in rolling a bowling ball. (Note added in 2008 – changes in the composition of bowling balls now need to be considered when thinking about the physics involved.) Whenever bowling appears on television, you are apt to hear the announcers discussing the friction of the lane and the choice of balls used to deal with that friction. The friction between a bowling ball and the lane surface is a direct result of the chemistry of the ball, the lane, the lane coating, and the lane conditioner.

Lane coatings are liquid compounds applied directly to the lane surface and may be composed of urethane – or water-based or epoxy formulations. Lane conditioners (commonly known as oil or dressing) are substances placed on top of the lane surface and coating. Bowlers sometimes refer to the “wax” or “grease” on the lane, but these are incorrect terms. All conditioners are oil-based compounds. Lane conditioners have two purposes, the importance of which depends on whom you ask. From a maintenance standpoint, the primary purpose of conditioners and coatings is to protect the lane surface. For the proprietor, conditioners are used to assure consistent scoring. The role of conditioners in scoring is one of the more controversial topics in bowling. It is possible to place conditioner on the lane in such a manner that it improves the bowler’s score. This obviously is not the intent of assuring consistent scoring.

Originally, bowling balls were made out of lignum vitae, a wood so dense that it would sink in water. These balls were prone to chipping, so manufacturers searched for a suitable substance. In 1905, Brunswick introduced the first commercial rubber bowling balls. As part of their advertising campaign, the manufactures sent the balls, known as “Mineralites” on a tour of YMCAs around the country. At this time, there was no concern for the relationship between bowling balls and lane surfaces.

Until the 1940s, bowling lanes were coated with shellac. During this era, it was rather easy to see where one should roll the ball because a track, easily visible to the bowler, was created in the shellac coating. In part because World War II limited the supply of shellac, and because of the operational requirements for shellac, nitrocellulose-based lacquer-type coatings were developed. Lacquers perform better than shellac, but the fact that they are nitrocellulose compounds is a major disadvantage. In addition to the obvious hazards of flammability and explosiveness, there was also a need for special conditioning agents that would allow the surface to perform properly. The introduction of lane conditioners solved this second problem; safety problems took more time to solve.

In response to the need for safer lane coatings, manufacturers sought to develop suitable alternatives. Among the alternatives developed were urethane, urethane/epoxy combinations, high-flash point solvents, and water-based systems. Each of these coatings was designed to replace the nitrocellulose lacquers and provide an added measure of safety. A discussion of these types of lane coatings may be found in the Guide to Fire Resistant Bowling Lane Coatings (Remo Picchietti, Tech Ed Publishing Company, Deerfield, Illinois, 1972).

The next change in bowling ball composition came with the development of the polyester ball in 1959. Such balls provided more hooking action on the prevalent lane finishes. Originally, polyester balls were transparent, but this allowed dirt to be more visible, so the formulation was changed to make the balls opaque in order to hide the dirt.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a problem concerning these new polyester balls and existing lane conditions arose. For a ball to react properly there must be a certain coefficient of friction. However, the coefficient of friction between the polyester ball and lane conditioning material was too low, casing the ball to skid too far down the lane and not have the proper hooking action. To counter this, some professional bowlers sought compounds that would soften the surface of the ball and thus increase the coefficient of friction. Among the compounds tried were methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), acetone, and toluene.

The use of chemicals to soak bowling balls brought about obvious safety problems. With a concern for the limited supervision and lack of safety such usage would involve, the American Bowling Congress (now the United States Bowling Congress) and the Professional Bowlers Association set standards for the softness of a bowling ball. One professional bowler from St. Louis was overheard to say that “after 10 years of learning how to throw a hook, today I went out and bought one,” referring to the increased hooking action of these new bowling balls.

The next change in bowling came with the increased use of urethane-based lane finishes. As before, these changes were made primarily for economic reasons. However, as lane finishes and conditions change, there is a corresponding change in bowling balls. It was found that bowling balls made from urethane compounds would perform best on these new lane finishes and conditions.

A problem with early models of urethane balls was that they tended to soak up the lane conditioner. As a result, it would be necessary to periodically wash the ball in hot water and detergent to remove the lane conditioner from the pores of the surface. An additional countermeasure taken by many bowlers was to sand the surface of the ball. Doing so improved the hooking action of the ball. Some bowlers originally sanded only the “track” of the bowling ball, but this has been ruled illegal. If a bowler sands any portion of the ball, be it urethane or otherwise, the entire ball must be sanded. Just as soaking polyester balls in selected solvents dramatically increased the hooking action and bowler’s scores, so do did sanding the surface of a urethane ball. The American Bowling Congress is currently evaluating proposals that would limit the number of times a bowler may do this to a particular ball. The purpose of such legislation would be to ensure that a bowler’s score is the result of individual skill and not artificial techniques. This legislation is similar to the standards placed on golf clubs and golf balls by the USGA.

Until the 1980s, bowling lanes were made from maple and pine. The first 15 feet of a lane were made from hard rock maple with the last 45 feet made from softer pine. The harder maple was used because it could withstand the impact from the bowling balls. The rest of the lane was made from pine because it provided a better interaction between the ball and the surface. Also, pine is cheaper than maple. Recently, bowling has seen the development of lane surfaces made from synthetic materials. This change, along with new lane finishes and ball materials, makes the search for optimal scoring an on-going process.

(Since first written, the introduction of newer synthetic lane surfaces has caused a change in the nature of lane conditioners and the composition of bowling balls. Each change in one of the factors forces changes in the others.)

Chemistry has had an impact on the development of bowling balls, lane conditioners, finishes and surfaces (and will continue to do so for the coming years). Unfortunately, simply knowing the chemistry of a bowling balls’ composition or the physics of its trip down the lane will not improve one’s average. That can only be accomplished through practice.

Acknowledgments

I wish to thank Mike Sands of Columbia Industries, Dan Speranza of the American Bowling Congress, Remo Picchietti of DBA Products Co. Inc., and John Wonders, Sr. of Faball Enterprises for their input into the preparation of this article.

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