The Surfaces and the Scores: A Roll Down Bowling’s Memory Lane

In bowling’s history, the 1930s were known as the shellac era.  Wood was plentiful then, and that was a good thing, because it was the only available option to proprietors at the time. Many high scores were rolled during this period due to a high friction ball track being burned into the finish by bowlers, and maintaining that finish took lots of work on the part of proprietors. To keep surfaces in top condition, the lanes had to be wiped down nightly with Butcher’s Bowling Alley Wax and a new shellac finish was applied onto the lane surface every month, which meant the lanes were unusable for a while and that meant no money in the till.
During the 1950s and 1960s bowling was in its lacquer era.  Wood was still the only available option to proprietors, but as the name suggests, lacquer replaced shellac as the finish of the day which, in retrospect, wasn’t all that good news. While lacquer was a much more durable finish than shellac, proprietors had difficulty doing business with insurance companies because of lacquer’s extreme flammability. It didn’t take much to ignite the entire center. This was also a high-scoring era for the same reason as the 1930s.  The lacquer finish would only last about six weeks, and balls would burn a high friction ball track into the finish. It was during this time that lane oil was first introduced, and on lanes with an exposed ball track, the oil would be completely absorbed into the wood lane 45 minutes after its application. As one might imagine, a lacquer finish was costly and the frequent recoating added to the cost.
In the 1970s, bowling entered the urethane era.  Most centers still had wooden lanes but it was now the urethane that replaced lacquer as the finish of choice.  Urethane was less hazardous than lacquer and so insurance companies were more willing to insure bowling centers because of the lessened risk of fire.  This era also saw the emergence of the first synthetic lane surface.  Generally, these durable surfaces were overlays on top of existing wood lanes. Most historians would say the first synthetic lanes were installed at Showboat Lanes in Las Vegas, Nev., in 1977-78.  The synthetic overlays were much harder than wood and created less friction on the surface and thus, bowlers found their scores were much lower.  To combat this lower scoring surface, softer bowling balls were developed and oil patterns on lanes were introduced.  The durability of the overlay not only kept the look of the wood and provided durability of a synthetic lane, it also extended the lifespan of the lane, saving proprietors money.
By the 1980s, water-based finishes were being introduced to replace the solvent-based urethanes.  This newer product provided an even safer environment for the installation crew and overall for the bowling center.  As technology increased, manufacturers were constantly improving their products and improving synthetic surfaces and installation costs because they could go on top of freshly cut wooden lanes or laid over a particle board base structure. Maintenance and labor costs for synthetic lanes are much less compared to those of wood, and the surfaces are much more resistant to damage sustained by bowling balls. And while they cost more up front than even the overlay, synthetic surfaces can last much longer, up to 25 years, paying off in the bigger savings proprietors still see today. –

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