Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lives of a Bowling Pin

For wood destined for use in a very American sport, it is ironic that it started out as a tree in Quebec.  When the maple tree was almost a hundred years old and approximately thirty inches in diameter, it was harvested for wood.  Besides bowling pins, the wood would also be used in baseball bats, pool cues, and the best recurve bows.

Bowling pins have changed dramatically over the course of the last two millennia, but until recently they seem to have always been made solely of wood.  While pins have usually been wooden, bowling balls seem to have been made of everything imaginable—wood, stone—anything available.  The Egyptians used leather-covered bags of grain and fanciful explorers claimed—in almost certainly apocryphal tales—that several violent cultures had warriors who bowled with human skulls.

While bowling dates back at least to the Egyptians, the first written records indicate that Germanic monks bowled in religious ceremonies, knocking down pins as a symbolic gesture of destroying sins.  These 'Holy Rollers' used pins and balls that were all made of wood.

The religious rituals quickly morphed into a game that became popular--perhaps too popular—for Edward III banned the game because it was becoming a distraction for his soldiers.  He far preferred that they practice their archery to their picking up spares.  (I have similar conversations with my wife about bowling's being neither a useful nor a practical skill.  Honestly, this is not exactly a survival sport, since I have never heard of anyone 'Bowling for Meat', nor can I imagine a tropical island castaway saying, "Thank God I have my bowling ball—now we'll never starve!"  No anthropologist has yet asserted that a caveman brought down a mastodon by trying to spare a 7-10 split.)

Henry VIII was evidently addicted to the game, but decided that it was not suitable for the working class:  Not only did he ban commoners from playing, but that law was not repealed for three hundred years.  The only exception was a provision allowing the help at manor houses to play on Christmas Day—in front of their lords. 

Sir Francis Drake was evidently bowling when the Spanish Armada was sighted coming up the English Channel.  When told the invasion fleet had been spotted, he replied, "We have time enough to finish this game and beat the Spanish, too."   (Though I like the game, compared to his fanaticism, I'm on a drinking team with a bowling problem.)

When King James banned bowling on Sunday but allowed archery practice, the Puritans became so enraged that they burned copies of his decree.  Of course, everything angered the Puritans.  Like several religions today, the Puritans lived in constant fear that someone, somewhere was having a good time.  Contrary to popular belief, the Puritans did not leave England to escape religious persecution, they came to the New World to start religious persecution, Puritan style.

Bowling grew in popularity and spread all over the world (despite the efforts of the English monarchy and religious bigots) and today there are about as many different forms of the game as there are countries.  In the United States, bowling became more or less standardized in 1895, when the manager of a New York bar held a meeting with rival bar owners in an attempt to standardize the rules.  This was the beginning of the American Bowling Congress.  Women were not allowed to join the men's organization, so they formed their own group and (eventually) the two groups merged (only 200 years later!) in 2005 to form the US Bowling Congress. 

Pins used to be made of solid, hard rock maple, a suitable block of which was put into a lathe and, following a guide, was shaped into a pin exactly 15 inches tall by 2 1/4 inches wide at its base.  One problem with this arrangement was that (depending on the grain of the wood) there was no consistency in weight.  Worse, every time the ball struck, the pin was stressed all along the grain of the wood until, finally, the painted pin would split.

The first solution tried was sawing the pin in half along the long axis, then gluing a thin strip of maple in between the two halves, reversing the grain of the wood.  At the same time, part of the center of the pin could be drilled out to achieve a uniform weight.  There was actually a little science involved with setting the weight of the pin.  Physicists determined that—to achieve the highest uniform scores—the pin should weigh 24% of a standard heavy ball, which is fifteen pounds. 

After World War II, the price of labor went up and—just as today—as wages rose, mechanization took over.  In the past, bowling pins had been set up by hand, but the new pin-setting machines were fast, efficient, and accurate.  They also chewed the wooden pins to death and the resulting wood splinters fouled up the machinery.  Several different solutions were suggested at pretty much the same time.

First, the basic construction of pins was changed to use multiple small blocks of maple glued together, so that the wood grain alternated in each block of wood.  Once assembled, the blank of the pin could then be turned on a lathe to the proper size.  The resulting pin was much stronger, less prone to splintering, and cheaper to construct.  Most of the wood used today is actually left over scrap from the flooring industry.  People prefer lighter-colored wood for their floors, so the darker pieces are cut off and "recycled" to make bowling pins.

The pins still splintered occasionally, so companies began experimenting with plastic coatings.  A theoretically better solution, of course, would have been to simply make the entire bowling pin out of some form of miracle plastic.  There are two good reasons why this is not done:  First, any sane man would rather have a nickel's worth of wood than a dollar's worth of plastic.  

More important, plastic pins just don't sound right!  There is something deeply satisfying about rolling a good hard strike.  (Or so I have been told—Personally, I bowl a great golf score.  Come to think of it, my handicaps in both games are fairly close to my age.)  I'm sure that somewhere, some moron is trying to fit a plastic pin with speakers so it can imitate the sound that wooden pins make.  Perhaps—even worse—some have predicted that, eventually, wooden pins may be replaced with aluminum pins, much the way that aluminum baseball bats are replacing their wooden counterparts.

Once manufactured, each pin is individually inspected, and if it passes, it is then shipped to a bowling alley.  After six months of grueling punishment, the pin will be chipped, partially cracked, and scuffed.  After reconditioning, the pin will have, perhaps, another six months of useful life, then it will be removed from service.  Most bowling alleys have several sets of pins.  On league nights, they use a new set of pins; on most other occasions, they use an older, reconditioned set.

If you go to most bowling alleys on Friday or Saturday nights, you will find the regular lights turned off, regular pins have been replaced by aging pins that have been painted to glow in the dark, and music (supposedly) is blasting from every corner (some bowling alleys even have laser lights and fog machines!).  This is date night for most of the bowlers, and the flower of American youth (blooming idiots) are far more interested in each other than in actually bowling.  On such nights, the pins used are old enough to drive, vote, and drink (as opposed to most of the bowlers, of whom the exact opposite is true).

Finally, after being hit by heavy balls traveling an average of sixteen mph over a thousand times a week for a year, the no longer new bowling pin will be spray painted red or blue, given away at a child's birthday party, and spend the rest of its last life—forgotten in the back of a closet.  You may even have one yourself.

This closet is the cemetery for bowling pins:  Their wood is probably more than a century old, it has traveled several thousand miles, it has been hit by a bowling ball at least 100,000 times, and now those pins rest among aging, outgrown tennis shoes, forgotten toys, and unwanted Christmas presents—a sad end for noble veterans.


  1. Also fun to use for target practice.

    1. I've done that and it is surprisingly hard to knock them down. What's-His-Name and The-Other-One never missed the pins I stole from their closet.

  2. Available on YouTube:
    (How bowling pins are made--fascinating!)