Finished Lubricants

The Invisible Part of the Game


Most amateur bowlers have probably thrown more gutter balls than strikes, blaming the ball, the pins, the lane or their own lack of practice for their performance. Most are completely unaware of the invisible forces at work in the alley, right at the tips of their toes every time they step up to roll.

Bowling lane conditioners, stretching the width of every lane and extending about 40 feet down, provide critical protection of the hard synthetic material that makes up modern lanes and affects the way the ball behaves as it hooks, curves or barrels straight down toward the pins.

Ten-pin bowling lanes have been coated with oil to protect the surface since the beginning of the sport, but it wasnt until the 1970s that modern bowling lane conditioner was formulated. As synthetic lane surfaces made their debut, the oil also helped boost scores on a material that was harder and produced less friction than wood lanes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, lane conditioners were 98 percent mineral oil with 3 to 7 percent other components. Kegel, a Lake Wales, Florida-based manufacturer of bowling lane supplies and maintenance products, now makes lane conditioners that are 80 percent to 90 percent mineral oil, according to Dennis Sheirs, head of the companys chemical division, and some formulations contain as little as 75 percent base oil.

Todays formulations are blended with up to 16 different components, including additives such as friction modifiers, lubricity agents, surfactants and flow agents, according to an article by Kegels Chris Chartrand. Kegel uses many additives that are common in the cosmetic industry because they are safe for human contact, Sheirs said.

Kegel has recently begun using high oleic acid sunflower oil additives-though Sheirs noted that it is expensive-and jojoba oil, which is used in lubricants for metalworking processes but also works as a friction modifier. Were looking at renewable resources, still looking at different options, he said. I like the pinolenic acid sunflower oil because it doesnt oxidize or go rancid like most vegetable derived oils. But were hopeful that that chemistry keeps improving.

Viscosity (typically 20 to 75 centipoise) is less important in lane conditioners than it was before additives were included, Chartrand noted. However, higher-viscosity oils will not flow properly through wicking machines used to apply the product.

Bowling lane conditioners are unique in the lubricants world. Ive taken a lot of lubrication courses over the years, and you end up meeting NASA people or people from Cummings Diesel or all these other places, and they always end up talking about the lane conditioner because it fascinates them, said Sheirs. We have a whole host of things to overcome that typical lubrication people dont.

With most lubricants, Sheirs explained, the lubricants are constantly moving within the system. This isnt the case with lane conditioners, which are designed to remain in place on the lane.

Sheirs also noted the purpose of most lubricants is to create a protective film barrier between two surfaces in motion. We dont really want that. We want enough of the film barrier to protect the lane, but we also want the ball to have some shape and motion. So its a balancing act.

There are no specifications or standards by which lane conditioner abides. A good lane conditioner should protect the surface of the lane and the ball, have good wetting properties, and help keep lanes clean. Many lane conditioners are marketed as self-healing, meaning that the product flows back over the surface of the lane after a ball rolls through it. Product performance can be affected by many factors, though, including lane surface material, ball material, types of players, temperature, humidity, and even the cleaner residue left behind after cleaning the lane.

Manufacturers can track a number of data points like ball speed, friction, and changes in the lane and the ball as it travels up the lane. But according to Sheirs, what makes a good lane conditioner comes down to one question: How does it feel to bowl on it?

For us, all of that feedback comes from the emotion of the bowler, he said. Every batch of conditioner we make, we test in the lab, and then we take another sample and then bowl it on the lanes. Thats part of our [quality control] process.

Sheirs job is to determine what oil formulations adhere to the lane but not the ball, creating a durable barrier that remains on the lane. To do this, he studies interactions between the surface energies in the bowling ball and the lane.

All lane surfaces have a surface energy that can be different from surface to surface, Chartrand explained. Lane conditioners affect surface energy, and the material of the bowling ball also comes into play.

The surface energies between a synthetic lane and a bowling ball are so similar that, using a simplified molecular-input line-entry system chart, the difference be­tween the two is about the size of the head of a pin. We work within those parameters to try and create better products, said Sheirs.

The conditioner is applied by machine in a layer only two millimeters thick-about the thickness of a sheet of paper-and spread out in a pattern about 40 feet down the lane. The length of a bowling lane is 60 feet from foul line to head pin.

Oil patterns vary in shape and size, but all have an effect on ball motion. The average house pattern uses about 23 milliliters of oil in total, while the average pattern used at professional events ranges from 28 to 32 milliliters, Sheirs said. The shape of the pattern and volume of oil makes it harder to bowl on professional lanes due to more conditioner applied evenly across the lane. A house pattern has more applied in the middle of the lane, creating a wall to help guide the ball. If you watch a professional bowler take a shot, youll see them hook the ball to the edges, where less oil is applied, at the beginning and middle of the lane before its spin takes it back to the center board further down where there isnt as much oil.

With a basic house pattern, youre safer to throw the ball straight down the middle of the lane. Sheirs predicted that someone who bowls an average of 220 (out of 300) in a house league may average just 150 at a Professional Bowling Association event because of the different oil patterns alone.

An open play bowler wouldnt be able to hit their butt with both hands if they shot a PBA shot, agreed John Banach, the facility manager at Bowlero Centreville in Centreville, Virginia.

Banach uses an oil pattern at his alley that makes it easier to score because, as he put it, If [the bowlers] are scoring, theyre happy. The pattern was developed by a former professional bowler who worked for Bowleros parent company AMF, and took two years to design. He came up with a really good shot that was comparable to a 170 average bowler, Banach said.

Kegel also creates its own patterns, including its latest Landmarks series with names like Tower of Pisa and Great Wall of China. PBA lists a series of patterns on its website named for animals and another named for famous professional bowlers. The conditioners are applied by a machine with the pattern programmed into it.

Every bowling alley has different needs when it comes to the conditioner it uses and how often its applied. One of Banachs duties is to purchase and apply the lane conditioners used at his site. He explained that most patrons of Bowlero Centreville are open play bowlers-that is, casual bowlers.

On the other side of the spectrum, the AMF Bowling Lanes center in nearby Waldorf, Maryland, runs league play every day of the week, twice a day.

Banach applies his conditioner twice a week-every Sunday and Thursday-using a wick machine. The mechanic in Waldorf applies conditioner every day with a spray machine, so while Banach goes through about a gallon of conditioner a month (the boxes he orders come with four 1.25-gallon bottles), AMF Bowling Lanes will go through more. Typical shelf life for a lane conditioner is 12 to 18 months, according to Kegel.

Banach uses a Kegel brand of conditioner called Prodigy on the recommendation of an industry colleague because it is known to resist being carried down the lane by the ball, a particular problem for plastic bowling balls used by open play bowlers. AMF Bowling Lanes likely uses a different conditioner because more adept bowlers use balls made of reactive resin, for which the lane conditioner has less affinity.

The cost of conditioner isnt a consideration for Banach, who said the prices run about the same between brands, which is an average of $290 for a five-gallon case, according to Sheirs. Kegel sells approximately 190,000 gallons of conditioner annually, and Sheirs estimates that the company holds 65 percent to 70 percent of the United States lane conditioner market. That would put U.S. demand at about 271,000 to 292,000 gallons per year.

Other manufacturers include Brunswick, AMF and Legends. Products are sold through distributors, including Ace Mitchell, Bobs Business and Classic Products, among other smaller companies, all of which will carry the major brands of conditioner.

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