By Patrick Burke
Growing up in the bowling alley business as a young boy was an experience I still cherish to this day. My grandfather owned a bowling establishment, and my father worked for Brunswick Corporation early in his career, sanding and finishing the alleys in the 1950s. My father advanced and became a service representative; later in the early 1960s, Brunswick stopped contracting the sanding and finishing of existing lanes and only did sanding and finishing of new lanes when installing. In the summer at the age of 15, my father would send me out to work in the bowling alleys. When working with the older mechanics, I learned no matter how young you are, you had to work hard, or you would be sent home.
There are two phases to construct a bowling alley. The first phase is the construction of the lanes, and the second phase is to install the machinery (pinsetter) that set the pins. The part I enjoyed the most was the construction of the wood lanes and sanding and finishing them. The wood used for the lanes consisted of Northern hard rock maple and Southern yellow pine. Most of the maple for the Brunswick lanes came from Canada, and the pine would come from Mississippi. The lanes were 42 boards wide, and were nailed up on a crib foundation. The lanes were then screwed down and leveled to this foundation. The reason for this type of foundation was so the ball could come back under the lanes, which was called the subway system (before the 1950s, the balls would come back on top between the lanes).
For a wooden alley the first 32 feet of the lane is a maple section; the first 16 feet is the approach and the second 16 feet is from the foul line to what is called the “splice.” From the splice to the head pin is pine, and the last section, called the pin deck, is maple. The total length is 78-79 feet. The maple and pine stock is a board 3¾ inch thick by ¾ inch wide. The part you bowl on is the ¾-inch—actually the edges of the boards—thus making it possible to sand and finish the lanes for many years. The maple was hand-nailed together with hardened screw nails and the pine with coated box nails. Once the lanes were nailed, they had to be 41 to 42 inches wide. The section from the foul line to the pin deck has to be level (not just flat) from side to side within 40 thousandths of an inch, which is less than a dime. Also, it has to be level from side to side within 40 thousandths of an inch.
In the early 1980s, the wood lanes were being phased out and synthetic (laminate) was being produced to replace the lanes. The two types at this time were a glued-down system or a solid system manufactured at the plant. The glued-down one was installed over the wood lanes. First the lane would be sanded flat and an underlayment put down, and the laminate would be glued down to it. This was done at the site of a bowling center. Most big bowling centers today have synthetic lanes. Where there are smaller centers with fewer than 16 lanes you can still find wood lanes.
The change to synthetic lanes is the reason why I got out of the business of sanding and finishing bowling alleys in the early ’80s. I became a hardwood floor layer/finisher for 30 years and am now an NWFACP wood flooring inspector (that is much easier on knees; definitely “up my alley!”). My friend Mike Renda still resands a few wooden bowling alleys occasionally; here are some photos from a job he and I did last summer showing how it’s done and some of the special equipment that was created just for sanding bowling alleys.
These photos show the condition of the alley when we arrived to resand it. We estimated that there were 20 coats of water-based finish on it, as bowling alleys are typically coated twice a year, and this one had not been resanded for a decade. The black that you see between the boards is from an oil dressing that they put on the lanes every night before the leagues; it’s supposed to help the ball hook. You can also see how the finish is chipping where the foul line is.
This photo is from about halfway down the lane. Those arrows are walnut inlays. At the top of the photo is the splice, where maple and pine meet.
This big machine was specially made for Brunswick by American Lincoln (the company that is now Clarke American Sanders) to do bowling alleys; I think it’s from sometime in the 1950s. It has a 12-inch drum with a weight on it, and there is a double wheel on both sides so that if you get too close to the gutter with the wheel the machine won’t fall off the lane. We don’t have it in this photo, but this machine used to have a stainless steel water tank attached to the stack. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, sanding the lanes was a dangerous operation because they were coated with lacquer, which is extremely flammable, so the tank was intended to make sanding safer.
This is what was in the bag from the drum sander. You can see it’s pure finish—no sawdust. Normally you have to make one pass down and back, but since these alleys had so many coats, I can’t tell you how many passes we made up and down those lanes using an open-coat sandpaper that was the lowest grit we could find—12 or 16. In the photo on the bottom you can see the fibers of the pine coming up.
Some guys totally remove the ball returns when you have to sand underneath them, but then you have to take all the electrical apart. I use an old trick from my dad where you scoot it over enough to sand under it but leave it attached. A standard big machine is used to sand the approach.
This sanding machine, called a “cross-sander,” was specially made for sanding bowling alleys. You use it after the drum to sand the alley, taking out dents or other wear and tear, and it also levels the lane. It is hydraulic and is operated with that little control in Mike’s hand to go forward and back and sand to the right or left. After stripping the finish off with the big drum sander we used this machine with 36 to level it. After that, we used the cross sander with 50, 80 and 100 grits. Bowling alleys are never stained, so, much like a sports floor, traditionally people could get by with leaving a lot of sanding marks.
This device is called a “bridge level,” and the vial can tell you how level the alley is to within 2 to 3 thousandths of an inch.
Here’s the stamp showing the name of Mike’s company and when they did the floors last. According to the American Bowling Congress (which has now merged to become the U.S. Bowling Congress) it was required to stamp the floor after resanding it to verify who did it and what year. Then, when somebody would shoot a 300, they wanted to document the time and when the lanes had been done.
This machine is actually a vacuum called the Sharpless Lane Vac that vacuums the lane and the gutters at the same time.
Here we are doing some repairs; sometimes there are cracked and fractured boards. We are using patch stock here, although you could also make your own. In this photo I’m trying to chisel out a nail that was coming through the board sideways. Doing repairs on the floors is just like doing an inlay on a regular floor—after chiseling out the area you run a router to make the bottom smooth and then glue down the new board with epoxy.
The buffer we’re using is a 19-inch Brunswick buffer. It’s big enough that if you take four passes with that both ways, you are done with the alley. Since the cross-sander goes across the grain, you need the buffer to get out those cross-grain marks.
This is a product I always called oil-dry. It is kind of like cat litter and is designed to get all that lane oil dressing, which shows up as black between the boards, out of the floor. Usually you leave it on overnight; you can sweep it up and even reuse it.
We coated the approaches with water-based finish. The approach is coated separately from the lanes because the approaches have a slipping agent in the finish to help the bowlers slide.
We waited for the approaches to dry, then covered them with a paper that’s like butcher’s paper, and we taped that to the foul line so we could coat the lanes.
Here Mike has a 42-inch applicator and he’s pulling the waterborne finish toward him. When he got to the end he pulled the excess finish onto the paper, and I grabbed the paper and threw it in the trash.
Here are the freshly coated lanes. This job took Mike and I a full week to do the eight lanes, which isn’t too good; back in the early ’80s when Mike and I were in the bowling business there would be three or four of us doing about 32 alleys in a week, although you’d be there long hours because they didn’t want the lanes shut down too long.
The Dutch settlers of Manhattan Island brought bowling with them. In 1732, a vacant space of ground near what is now lower Broadway was an open area used for parades, markets, meetings and bonfires, and a portion was slightly enclosed and used for a bowling green; the area still bears the name Bowling Green. By the 1840s, it was one of the most popular games in town, with bowling alleys on almost every block. In 1875, the Nation Bowling Association (NBA) was formed. An expert committee reviewed the almost non-existent rules and specifications, resulting in specs for the wood lanes, the size of the wood pins, and the ball weight. Much of the early research was used in the founding of the American Bowling Congress (ABC) in 1895. By the boom of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, some people would bowl four to five times a week. During this era many baseball players, including Gill Hodges, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Garagiola, and Stan Musial, were bowling proprietors.—P.B.