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Understanding the Lane - Bowling Oil Patterns

Updated: Feb 20

International Bowling Federation

You picked up your bowling ball, made a shot and your ball came back through the ball return all greasy and slippery. That is because every bowling lane is oiled with specific synthetic oil (also know as conditioner). And no, it is not a sunflower oil your mom use when she bakes morning pancakes.

In this article, we will delve into the basics of bowling oil pattern types and how to read them. We will answer the question of how oil is applied to a bowling lane and take a deeper look into the differences between professional and house bowling oil patterns.

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What is a bowling oil pattern?

Bowling oil pattern is a specific order of how the oil is applied to the bowling lane. Oil patterns can vary, creating different bowling game conditions each time, or even on every lane if needed. Different oil patterns make the bowling game more challenging, as it allows to change game conditions on demand.

The standard bowling lane is 60 feet long, but not the entire length is applied with oil. There is always a dry part of the lane where the bowling ball reacts and hooks towards the pins. The majority of the lane is covered in oil, usually more oil is applied in the middle of the lane than on the outside. This kind of oil distribution allows bowling ball to react and hook towards the pins.

How oil is applied to a bowling lane?

Back in a day, oil was applied on a lanes using a spray and a specific broom to distribute oil in a desired oil pattern. It was a long process which required knowledge and diligence from a bowling technitian. In a modern game, oil patterns are created by lane machines.

Applying oil to the bowling lane serves a dual purpose—not only does it create varied sport conditions, but it also acts as a protective measure for the lane surface during the bowling ball's journey. Without adequate oiling (or conditioning), the lane's surface may suffer significant damage.

Bowling oil machines

Kegel bowling oil machine
Picture credit:

Nowadays, each bowling alley is equipped with a bowling oil machine (also known as a lane machine) that is utilised to clean a bowling lane using an appropriate cleaner and subsequently apply oil to the lane. Initially, a set of cleaner heads sprays the cleaner onto the lane surface. A mixture of stripper chemical and water works to break down the oil and dirt present on the lane. Simultaneously, a duster cloth roll is deployed onto the lane surface to collect larger debris. Following this, a vacuum extracts all the cleaner fluid and waste. During the process, a lane machine moves all the 60 feet down the lane. After that, an oil is applied to create a desired oil pattern.

There is no sprays or brooms, everything can be done withing a push of a buttorn in seconds. The alley technician programs a specific pattern into the machine, telling it how much oil to put down and where to put it, according to a desired oil pattern.

What kind of oil is used on bowling lanes?

Bowling lane conditioners are specialized products crafted specifically for the sport of bowling. These conditioners combine high-quality oils with additives to ensure optimal performance and are available in different viscosities and surface densities to create various lane conditions based on the bowling alley's requirements. Lane conditioners must not only maintain their structure when applied to the lane but also offer protection for the lane, pins, and bowling balls. Additionally, they are designed to be non-toxic and friendly to human health, ensuring that bowlers can enjoy their pizza while bowling without risking their well-being.

Bowling oil pattern types

Bowling oil diagram

Bowling oil patterns can be classified in various ways, with one of the most common methods being based on their length. These patterns are typically grouped into short (35 feet or less), medium (between 36-42 feet), or long (43 feet or longer). The length of the oil pattern influences the timing of the bowling ball's hook, with shorter patterns causing an earlier hook.

House bowling oil patterns

Most bowling alleys use special patterns, often called "house patterns," to help regular bowlers knock down more pins. These patterns guide the ball toward the pocket by putting more oil in the middle of the lane and less on the sides. If you roll the ball in the middle where there's more oil, it stays straighter for longer. But if you roll it toward the sides, it can curve back toward the middle. Simply put, the house pattern is designed to make it easier for you to hit the target as you get greater room for mistakes.

Professional bowling oil patterns

Unlike the usual oil pattern in recreational bowling centers, a professional bowling oil pattern is intentionally created to increase the difficulty of consistently hitting the pocket. On a sport pattern, the oil is spread more evenly across the lane compared to a house pattern. This implies that if you deviate from your target, the oil in the middle of the lane won't prevent your ball from hooking into the gutter, as it would on a house pattern.

How to read bowling oil patterns?

Knowing how to read bowling oil patterns is crucial - it will allow you to know how to play the lanes given the speciffic oil pattern. It is hard to say how many bowling oil patterns are there in bowling, given the extensive Kegel pattern library containing nearly 1000 different patterns. While mastering every pattern may be mission impossible, having a foundational understanding becomes necessary for effective gameplay.

Understanding bowling oil diagram

Oil patterns are depicted in pattern sheets. If you ever had a glimpse, you've noticed that lots of science are going on there. For entry-level/mid-level bowlers, knowing where to find two main components to start with is essential. You'll find 'Oil Pattern Distance' and 'Volume Oil Total' at the top of the lane sheet. Knowing these two components will help you quickly determine which bowling ball to use and where the bowling ball will hook at the breakpoint.

Breakpoint and exit point

Every oil pattern has a breakpoint. A breakpoint is a spot where the bowling ball is most distant from the pocket before changing direction and moving toward the pin. A breakpoint spot usually stands a few feet down the lane from the exit point, where the oil pattern distance ends.

The rule of 31

The rule of 31 is nothing new in bowling sport. Many professionals use it even in the highest level competitions. How does it work? Well, as you know, standing in the same spot and trying the same line won't work on the different lengths of oil patterns. It means you must know at which board your exit point must be to have the best breakpoint for knocking down as many pins as possible. The whole secret of this rule is to subtract 31 from the Oil Pattern Distance found in the pattern sheet. The result gives you an approximate board where your ball should be exiting the oil.

Let's say you're shooting on a pattern that is 42 feet long. To apply the rule of 31, you'll take 42 and subtract 31, having 11. Therefore, you want your ball to be at the 11th board at the end of the oil. As this rule works best for medium oil patterns, it can also be used for shorter and longer patterns.

How to read bowling lane condition changes?

As the lane pattern undergoes transition, adjustments are necessary to stay in the pocket and score. Players may need to modify their standing position, target, or employ changes in bowling balls, speed, and loft.

Starting with a stronger ball on a fresh oil pattern ensures a smoother hook spot, providing insights for subsequent decisions on ball choice, playing location, release, and speed. Monitor how your ball rolls off the breakpoint and adjust accordingly.

As the lanes break down, transitioning to a weaker ball (with less grit or with polished surface) can combat early hook in the front as it skids further down the lane.

Understanding bowling lane oil and patterns is crucial for improving your game. Understanding the lanes and reading oil patterns contributes to success on the lanes. Whether a seasoned pro or a beginner, these insights empower you to navigate varying oil patterns for a satisfying and rewarding bowling experience. So, grab your ball, analyze those oil patterns, and roll your way to strikes and spares with confidence!


What is the purpose of applying oil to a bowling lane?

The application of oil serves a dual purpose—creating varied sport conditions and acting as a protective measure for the lane surface during the bowling ball's journey.

How are oil patterns on bowling lanes created in modern times?

Bowling oil machines, also known as lane machines, are used in modern bowling alleys. These machines efficiently clean the lane using a specific cleaner and then apply oil according to a programmed pattern, eliminating the need for sprays or brooms.

What kind of oil is used on bowling lanes, and why is it important?

Bowling lane conditioners are specialized products crafted for the sport, combining high-quality oils with additives. These conditioners maintain structure, protect the lane, pins, and bowling balls, and are designed to be non-toxic and human-health-friendly.

How can bowlers read and interpret bowling oil patterns?

Bowlers can interpret oil patterns by studying pattern sheets that highlight key components such as oil pattern distance and total oil volume. Recognizing the breakpoint and exit point is crucial for strategic shot placement.

What is the significance of the "Rule of 31" in bowling?

The "Rule of 31" is a valuable tool used in bowling to determine the exit point based on the oil pattern distance. By subtracting 31 from the pattern distance, bowlers can approximate the board where the ball should exit the oil, aiding in strategic shot placement.

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