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Bowling Oil Patterns Explained (Finally a Newbie Friendly Guide)

Bowling oil patterns begin after the dots on the floor and the horizontal line that connects the gutters.

Be it through personal experience or perhaps on TV; you have taken in the bowling balls, the pins, the lane dimensions, and the competitive but friendly atmosphere.

However, have you ever stopped and just looked at the wood of the bowling lane?

As weird as it may sound, have you taken in the shine and sheen that seems to radiate off the wooden boards, glowing with a well-polished sparkle?

That polished shine started as a bowling oil pattern. 

Chances are you probably have, and many people find themselves looking down and thinking, “Wow, what shiny boards!”

Much thought and work go into your local bowling center to get those well-oiled floors.

Oiled Boards? Why Do They Put Oil on Bowling Lanes?

As hard as it is to believe, the oil isn’t just there to look pretty. Believe it or not, there are various reasons bowling alley owners slather their maple and pine boards with the oiled slick.

The oil plays a vital role in where your ball will roll as well as helping protect the lane themselves from the friction created by 10+ pound balls constantly rolling down their alley.

Without the oil, many balls would not roll as far, create skid or burn marks on the woodwork, and bowlers would have a greater chance of injury.

What You Need to Know About Bowling Lane Oil

Where the Balls May Roll

When you release the bowling ball, the point of the game is usually to get as many strikes as possible, thus earning more points and bragging rights.

The usual method to get strikes is not to approach the pins head-on but to ‘hook’ the ball into the pocket, or gap, between the headpin (pin 1) and the pins to its side (pins 2 and 3).

(Note: Because of angles, right-handed bowlers aim for the 1-3 pocket and left-handed bowlers go for the 1-2 pocket.)

Factors such as the height of the throw, the angle of the bowler’s wrist, the flick of the fingers on release, and the aim of the throw affect the curve, or hook, of the ball; it so happens the oil pattern the lane is also a factor.

Understanding Bowling Oil Patterns

The hidden oil patterns on bowling lanes

The first step in understanding oil patterns is knowing that all patterns are NOT created equally.

Oil patterns can vary from place to place, depending on what the center’s mechanic has programmed the lane oiling machine to do.

These machines can be programmed to use a variety of oil patterns, and depending on which pattern is selected, they will then glide down the length of the lane, following their programming on where to put the oil down and how much of it is put in one place.

Because of this variation, the two key things to look at while trying to understand your current oil patterns are the length of the pattern and the volume of oil used per unit.

Typically, the house pattern has the oil lightly coating the outside of the lane while the oil in the middle is more saturated. This allows for a better ‘hook’ from the outside and, depending on the pattern, helps correct missed throws and errors.

How to Read Oil Patterns on Bowling Lanes

Now that you know all bowling oil patterns are not created equal, the next step in your journey is knowing how to figure out the oil pattern you are currently bowling against.

Don’t worry, you’re not expected to be able to look out on the lane and see how the oil pattern is laid down by the lane machine. Instead, the bowling alley should have the pattern they used posted in a public space for all to see.

If it is not posted, you can also ask an employee or owner for said sheet or get the pattern’s name to find the information you need online.

After you find your oil pattern sheet, you will see a rundown of the oil pattern length and the different areas of oil saturation.

Make sure to take special notice of these two factors since they are key in knowing how to bowl with this particular pattern.

Bowling Fundamentals: Using the Rule of 31

Depending on the oil pattern present on the lane, as a bowler, you will have to make adjustments to your throw for when your ball ‘reacts’ towards the hook.

The best way to learn how to do this is through practice, trial and error, and considering the Rule of 31.

By looking at your oil pattern, you want to see how many feet the pattern covers on the lane and then subtract 31 from it.

What this does is give you a rough estimate of where your ‘breakpoint’ is going to be, or rather where your ball will (hopefully) begin to turn and make a break for the pocket.

So if we have a lane of 60 feet and the oil pattern covers 46 of those feet, you want to take 46 minus 31.

This gives you a total of 15, showing you that at the distance of 15 feet from the head pin the ball should begin to break towards the pocket.

Bowling Rule of 31 - One Minute Wednesdays

House Patterns Verses Sport Patterns

Another thing you want to consider is the bowler’s level of skill.

If you see a professional bowler on TV who has the same average as your friend Jill, this does not necessarily mean Jill should go pro.

 (Unless of course, she wants to, follow your dreams, Jill!)  One of the differences between league and professional play falls in the bowling lane oil patterns.

During league or recreational bowling, the lanes are usually covered with a “house oil pattern”.

Most house patterns are specifically designed to allow a more considerable margin for error and are considered easier to play on.

When you enter the professional world of bowling, different oil patterns are used. These oil patterns are called a “Sport Pattern.”

These patterns are designed for professional or highly experienced bowlers; they allow no room for error, and even the most experienced bowlers can have a hard time figuring out their technique and timing with these patterns.

So before you go pro, maybe give yourself a few sports pattern practices and figure out what techniques you need to modify to fit these new challenges.

How to Read an Oil Pattern Sheet: Understanding Bowling Lane Oil Patterns

Bowling Oil Patterns Explained (Comprehensive Overview)

Now that you have an idea about the basics of oil patterns and their use, let’s talk about the different types of patterns you can come across at bowling alleys.

While the exact number of patterns is hard to track down due to variations in the patterns based on brand and the level of bowler’s skill, here are two popular companies/associations that provide oil patterns.

PBA Patterns

The PBA (Professional Bowling Association) has adopted 16 patterns in total for their tours and changes up the lanes by using either their Animal or Legend series.

The pattern’s name also includes the length of the pattern, and you can find further information on the PBA’s official website. You will have to submit your email address, though.

PBA Animal Patterns

  • PBA Cheetah 33
  • PBA Wolf 33
  • PBA Viper 36
  • PBA Bear 39
  • PBA Chameleon 39
  • PBA Dragon 45
  • PBA Scorpion 42
  • PBA Shark 45

PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) Legend Patterns

  • PBA Johnny Petraglia 36
  • PBA Don Carter 39
  • PBA Don Johnson 40
  • PBA Earl Anthony 42
  • PBA Mark Roth 42
  • PBA CP3 42
  • PBA Carmen Salvino 44
  • PBA Dick Weber 45

Kegel Patterns

Like the PBA, the Kegel brand has its own set of patterns that they offer to consumers and customers alike.

The Kegel brand is also used on a broader array of tournaments and associations, so knowing their patterns is always a good idea.

Instead of just two sets of patterns, though, they break up their patterns into two types and then separate them further through skill level. The two sets of patterns they provide are called Landmark or Navigation.

Both sets of patterns are broken up into three levels of skill:

  • Recreational for easier patterns
  • Challenge for a little more difficulty
  • Sport as their most complex level

You can find more information about each pattern on their website (Kegal Built for Bowling).

Kegel Landmark Patterns

  • Recreation- Easiest Level, Kegel’s House Patterns are usually found here.
    Stonehenge Great Wall of China Gateway Arch Big Ben
  • Challenge- The middle level of difficulty
    Tower of Pisa Taj Mahal Statue of Liberty Chichen Itza
  • Sport- Hardest level of patterns; professionals usually play on these patterns.
    Sphinx Red Square Eiffel Tower Alcatraz

Kegel Navigation Patterns

  • Recreation- Easiest Level, Kegel’s House Patterns are usually found here.
    Wall Street Stone Street Main Street High Street
    Easy Street Bourbon Street
  • Challenge- The middle level of difficulty
    Sunset Strip Route 66 Middle Road Broadway
    Beaten Path Abbey Road
  • Sport- Hardest level of patterns. Professionals usually play on these patterns.
    Winding Road Turnpike Highway to Hell Dead Man’s Curve
    Boardwalk Autobahn

What Is the Hardest Bowling Oil Pattern?

So which pattern is the hardest?

Which bowling oil pattern is the most difficult to learn and navigate?

The problem is, they can all be difficult, it depends on your bowling style!

When you enter the bowling world, you begin to develop a style, that is, a specific way you move and throw.

This technique takes months and years to find and develop, with the goal to continually improve upon your style.

But when it comes to bowling patterns, your style can be a strength or a weakness on that particular pattern.

For example, a lot of people struggle with short styles like PBA’s Cheetah Pattern due to the longer length of adjustment period needed to hook and the lack of oil to help combat errors.

But some people thrive on the shorter patterns while struggling with the longer patterns that have heavy oil saturation!

When dealing with these patterns it all comes down to practice. You need to explore your style further, figure out your weakness, and actively seek out a pattern you know you struggle with.

Practice your throws, try new things, and talk to other bowlers!

One of the beautiful things about the bowling community is the level of camaraderie and support that you find in the sport, seek out these resources, and you’ll be mastering the patterns that give you difficulty in no time!

How to Adjust to Bowling Lane Conditions

Picture showing lane surface. The oil pattern is not known but oil pattern distance and oil volume can be given upon request.

Now that you know the different effects and types of oil patterns out there, you need to know how to adjust your bowling to adapt to these patterns.

As we said before, practice is key in figuring out how your style fits each pattern, but there are things you can do to get yourself started.

  • First, you need to know that the longer the length of the oil pattern, the less your ball can hook. Knowing the length is critical in adjusting to the oil pattern you face.
  • Second, calculate your “Rule of 31”. As it was mentioned earlier in this article, the Rule of 31 helps you know where your ball is going to make a break for a pocket. You need that information to adjust your throws and techniques.
  • Third, complete a couple of practice throws. Nothing like real-world experience lets you know how your technique is going to hold up against the oil pattern being used. Watch how many boards you fall off-target and make adjustments such as shifting your stance or your release technique to combat these misses.
  • And fourthly, adjust your style to match the pattern. If there is a lot of oil on the lane, it is considered a wet lane. When faced with a wet lane, the best thing to do is focus on straighter shots to the middle to allow a small hook.

When the lane is dry or has very little oil on it, you want to up the speed of your ball or throw it towards the outside of the lane a bit more, giving it more time to hook towards that golden pocket.

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Remember, practice and adaptation are essential no matter what adjustments you make and what techniques you try to do. Even the pros need a couple of throws to figure out what they need to change to find that breaking point and accurately use it!

Now, we understand that a lot of information is coming at you, or maybe you are reeling from the fact that bowling is more complex than simply rolling a ball towards some pins.

We hope that by introducing you to the concept of oil patterns, you can change your technique and adapt to the different styles required to traverse the many oil patterns you may come across.