Have you ever wondered what makes those bowling pins withstand such immense pressure from the balls thrown at them at a bowling alley?
If your guesses are plastic, stone, metal, or something else, then you will find this article very interesting—because none of them are used to make a bowling pin.
Manufacturing a resistant bowling pin requires picking just the right materials and a lot goes into it.
Now, this wood interest you.
When we launch a heavy bowling ball at the pins at high speeds and wait for the ball to smash them, it is not some metal that holds the pins together and makes them so durable.
It is, in fact, wood. Hard rock maple wood.
Newbies or experts, many would not have guessed it to be wood.
How Bowling Pin Materials Evolved
In the 1800s, bowling pins were made from a single block of hard rock maple wood. The wood was precisely cut and it was pretty easy to manufacture them.
However, there was one drawback.
Because the density of wood was inconsistent, the weight of the bowling pins also varied. Some were heavier than the others, and that affects the game.
There were also no bowling pinsetters back then. After every game, young boys in the bowling alley rushed to reset the lanes.
To address these problems, bowling just had to evolve.
In 1946, American Machine and Foundry patented the technology of automatic pinsetters. These automatic machines were manufactured to work for longer hours without a lane reset.
While this development made the life of bowling alley managers (especially those young boys’ lives) easier, there was again one new problem.
Compared to those boys, these pinsetters were hard on the bowling pins. As a result, the pins cracked and splintered, and these splinters began fouling the machines in return.
Then came the final solution which is still used today: Vulcanite.
In 1954, a company called Vulcan Manufacturing started making bowling pins by gluing smaller pieces together. Because they were lightweight and more resistant, they soon became a popular choice.
By 1961, solid wood pins completely disappeared from the alleys.
These lightweight curvy pins were finally laminated and lacquered with a hard plastic sheath for that extra shine and fine finish.
Fast forward to today, the technology behind pins hasn’t changed for 60 long years!
Bowling Pin Materials, Today
By now, you know that you are smashing your bowling balls at nicely-crafted pieces of hard maple wood.
But, that is not all. Not any hard maple wood is good enough for this job.
Inside the Pin
Only brand new, sound, hard maple wood blocks are used to make a pin. To top that, only the wood from specific locations is picked.
Why? Where the mineral concentration is higher, the wood density is lower. Such high quality, low-density wood is used for manufacturing these pins.
There were times when particle lumber and polypropylene-fiberglass were also tried and tested. Though the durability results were excellent, the point-making (scoring) was very poor.
Who would want to play a game where you cannot make a point, right? So, these were rejected and what was good continued to be produced.
Outside the Pin
The most challenging aspect of choosing the exterior paint was to ensure that the weight of pins isn’t increased too much. Since an automatic pinsetter picks these pins thousands of times, the exterior durability is also equally important.
Ethylcellulose solved both these problems.
Coating the bowling pins is a 7-layered process.
The first coat seals the wood pores. The second provides a better adhesion. The next 5 finish the coating process.
Two coats that are used today are nylon and DuPont’s Surlyn.
The Bowling Pin Design
Let’s face it, everything boils down to the design. If it works, everything else works.
For bowling pins, design dictates the durability, scoring, and sound factors.
The durability of a pin depends on both the core wood as well as the painting job.
Since the pins are handled by pinsetter machines, several materials were rejected because they couldn’t succeed on this front. Then came along the ethylcellulose coating process which yielded great results.
Since hard maple was resistant, the core’s lifetime was much better than the rest.
If the pin doesn’t fall, there’s no point in playing the game. The scoring aspect is the key and it is dictated by the core used for these bowling pins.
Before hard maple wood, several other materials like steel, metals, and other heavier woods were used. Though the pins were resistant enough, the scoring was poor and that resulted in unreliable bowling scores.
You may not have realized this yet, but the sound of pins getting hit and falling is a major satisfaction factor in bowling. No other material could generate that exciting sound the way hard maple wood does.
Bowling Pin Quality Check
There are strict standards that are followed for every aspect of a pin. Like height, weight, thickness of coating, moisture of wood, center of gravity, etc.
Every manufactured pin must pass durability field tests.
These tests are not just conducted on the finished product; they are implemented right from the start of the process when manufacturers choose the wood to be used. Wood with even slight knots, cracks, irregularities or mineral deposits are straightaway rejected.
While one pin can last for 6 months without a retouch, after that it is sent for maintenance, which involves patching, recoating, etc. These pins are monitored for the next 6 months after which they eventually break—usually at the neck area which takes the maximum pressure on being smashed.
While manufacturers continue to experiment and search for better materials, until now there is no better core material than hard maple wood.
Maple tops every aspect of bowling—durability, weight, resistance, sound, scoring, and the overall experience. No other material, including steel, aluminum, plastic, magnesium, or other woods, could come close as a competition.
No wonder bowling pins have been made of maple wood for the past 200 years.