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calendar   Thursday - February 06, 2020

Clean Warm Balls Are The Best

A bowling experiment, phase 1

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Rejuvenation On The Cheap, And Getting Baked At Home



[ TLDR: this machine is NOT for plastic, rubber, or old school urethane balls. They do not absorb oil. Just wipe them down with alcohol, Windex, or your favorite ball cleaner ]


Bowling balls, plastic foam, and alley oil
Today’s crop of high performance bowling balls use a surface material commonly called reactive resin. This is a kind of open cell plastic foam. Similar to a Cheeto™ but much harder and finer. Similar to pumice or tufa, but much softer. The air pockets in the reactive resin are so small that you can’t see or feel them.

The idea of bowling a hook, which is what these balls are all about, is to skid-roll the ball down the front part of the lane where all the oil is, then get it to get traction in the dry part of the lane, where friction and the off center weighting of the ball will cause it to turn in and hit the pins at a sharper angle. That angle of contact is where strikes come from. Generally, the more traction the ball can get, the more it will hook, and the greater the contact angle the higher your chance of getting a strike.

The thing is, the open cell foam nature of these balls means that they absorb oil. Lots of it. There are all kinds of cleaners, but even used to obsessive excess all they can do is get the dirt and oil out of the first few layers of foam bubbles, perhaps a millimeter deep on the surface of the ball. The oil can be absorbed all the way through the coverstock, which is the bowling term for whatever the outside of the ball is made of.

Bowl enough with one of these balls and it dies; it becomes saturated with oil and hooks a whole lot less. You have to get the oil out somehow. But how? Heat. Getting the ball toasty warm opens up the foam cells, and all the oil rises to the surface where you can wipe it off. This is commonly referred to as baking your ball.  People who want to sell you a product or a service call it rejuvenation or revitalization.


Paying somebody else vs buying your own vs DIY methods
Every bowling alley has a ball guy working there. He’s the mechanic of the pro shop, who fits and drills your ball for you, and helps you maintain the thing. Most alleys have a “rejuvenator” machine in the back, which is a very expensive gizmo that will do the job, but you’ll pay for it. The thing is an industrial strength combination of hair dryer, wiping pads, and a 3 axis turntable. They cost $1700. No matter how much you wipe down your ball, if you bowl in leagues you’re going to pay them $25 at least 3 times a year to have your ball treated. That’s just how it is.

There are a nearly infinite number of posts online for DIY designs and methods. Some are simple, like putting your ball out in the summer sun, or leaving it in your closed car on a hot day. Or soaking the ball in a big bucket of hot soapy water. Or sticking it in the oven. Some of these work to an extent, some are weather dependent, and others (oven method) are very risky. Designs for heating machines run from “use a hair dryer and heat and wipe one small area at a time” to complex sous vide methods inside a modified picnic cooler.

There are also a fair number of personal ball reviver units for sale. These are generally of the bucket design, using a lid that has a hot air blower on it, and a container beneath it where the ball sits. They work pretty well, and cost somewhere between $190 and $250. So they pay for themselves in about 10 uses, compared to paying the pro shop. But most of them have shortcomings other than the expense. Some have no temperature controls. Some have no timer. Some don’t even have an ON/OFF switch. None of them lets you see the process in action, and few make it easy to get the ball out. Trust me, trying to lift a hot greasy bowling ball out of a deep narrow bucket is a challenge. You can buy a steam cleaning machine for $699.

The other downside to these devices is that they may run too hot. If you heat soak a bowling ball it will crack in half like an egg. The material in the middle of the ball expands thermally at a different rate than the stuff on the outside of the ball. Expose the ball to too much heat for too long, and it shatters. Period. Been there, done that. Some of these devices run at 135°F, which is a very effective temperature for oil removal, even though all the ball manufacturers warn you to never get the ball hotter than 125°F. Paint stripping guns and steam are much hotter than that. So you have to be very careful.


Bored yet? No? Good! On to the good part!
The ball reviver devices you can buy are all based on food dehydraters. Seriously, they’re the same device, except perhaps for the bucket part. Except the thing sold as a ball cleaner costs many times as much.

So I went and found a food dehydrator that is big enough to hold a bowling ball, has a timer, a temperature control, an ON/OFF switch, lets me see the ball, and is easy to get the ball in and out. It cost me $78. And it works like a charm.

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I took out all the drying trays, put a dinner plate in the bottom to catch any drips, put the ball on a spray can cap and had a go. I put the probe to my precision grilling thermometer inside just to check, and found their temperature settings were accurate enough. At 112° the oil started coming up, so I wiped it down after 15 minutes. At 122°F the oil really came up, so I wiped it down, gave the ball a rubdown with alcohol, let that dry, then used a spritz of my favorite ball cleaner. Wiped that dry and gave it another go in the unit. After about 50 minutes total, not much more oil was coming up, so I called it done and gave the ball a good buff with a microfiber towel. And it’s now clean.

One thing I did notice, that while overall the ball’s coverstock was fairly evenly heated, the side that faced the hot air fan was a little hotter. Duh, right? So I’m going to pick up a little heavy duty powered turntable and put that in, so the ball will get perfectly even exposure on all sides to the heat. That will be Phase 2 of the experiment, as there are a couple of different powered turntables on the market, and while a small tall one might bring the ball up to just the right height in front of the fan and leave lots of room for air circulation, a larger lower turntable might be more stable and durable in the heated environment. Plus I have to build some kind of stand for the ball that’s sturdy enough to take the weight in the heat, open enough to allow the hot air to get to every inch of the ball, and small enough to not get in the way. Best price would be free, with zero work. I’m thinking an upside down “pizza table” might do the job, or 3 short vertical dowels mounted to a thin disc of wood. I have some take-out chopsticks around here somewhere. Phase 3 might be figuring out how to mount the turntable inside permanently, with some kind of IEC power socket or one of those snap together zip cord grommets.


Bottom line: I think I can put together off the shelf parts and make my own ball rejuvenation oven for about half the price of the ones sold, which will do a better job and have none of the shortcomings. That’s a win in my book.



Minor update: At a risk of a fate worse than death, I ran her ball through the process. After taking off quite a bit of oil at the 112° and 122° levels, each 30 minutes long, I did a 45 minute cycle at 131°, turning the ball every 15 minutes. And 2 or 3 tablespoons more oil came out, some dripping right off the ball. That’s an incredible amount, given that dressing an entire bowling lane only uses about a shotglass full of oil. She had an entire lane’s worth hiding deep down. And I probably could have taken more, but I got nervous. If I split her ball in half the day before league, I’d never hear the end of it. PS - I didn’t know that lane oil was purple. Huh.

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Phase 2: Positive Rotation

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I got the Homend 10” powered lazy susan turntable from Amazon. It fits inside the New House Kitchen 9 Tray Dehydrator Machine just fine. The power cord is fairly flat, and fits under the door well enough so that I don’t think I’m going to bother to modify the NHK machine in any way to run the cord through the wall. According the the Homend papers, the turntable should not be used in situations warmer that 45°C - 113°F - but I ran it for 2 hours last night at 131°F without any problems at all. [ perhaps the dinner plate provides some shielding, or the table’s low height keeps it under the air flow ] It rotates the ball about once every 45 seconds, so the ball gets very evenly heated. I set the cycle time to 30 minutes, and gave the ball a quarter turn clockwise every 10 minutes, just in case it was much hotter at the top of the chamber. It isn’t really, but I’m playing it safe. The dinner plate catches any oil that might drip, and the spray can cap works so perfectly that I don’t think I’m going to build an open 3 post support out of dowels. There’s no point.

I want to point out that the additional expense of a powered turntable only adds a moderate amount of effectiveness and hardly any additional ease of use. In other words, if you reach in the cabinet every 15 minutes and give the ball a little spin clockwise and a third of a turn horizontally, then there is no need to spend the extra money on the turntable. If you go that route, I would suggest making a taller ball support than just the spray can cap on a plate. Getting the ball vertically centered in the air stream seems like a smart move. Maybe you can find a short bit of 3” PVC pipe lying around, or make a stand with some 1/2” dowels and a bit of board. Go this minor DIY route and you can save $110 compared to the least expensive machine on Amazon. Just make sure to give your stand a large base plate (use a $2 nylon tiny cutting board perhaps) because the drip tray that comes with the dehydrator is not built to carry a heavy load in a small area. Spread the weight out and it’s stable and secure.

With this latest set up, the ball is almost perfectly centered in front of the heating fan in the back of the cabinet. Overall this combination works beautifully, and I was able to extract a good bit more oil from my ball. Since oil will quickly come up even at the lowest heat settings, and I’ve now deep cleaned both our strike balls, my plan is to use this thing for 15-30 minutes at the 113° or 121° setting after every league night. A quick wipe down with paper towels and alcohol, into the machine for a quickie, go over it with a fluffy microfiber towel, and another wipe with alcohol. And the ball should stay really clean. Which means it should hook at its full potential.

Final Bottom Line: No DIY work needed at all. I put together 2 existing inexpensive products with no modification. Added a dinner plate and a spray can cap. The result works as well or better than any machine you can buy, is easy to use and fully adjustable, and I still saved $75 compared to the least expensive rejuvenator on the market. Win. Done. Buh bye!


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Posted by Drew458   United States  on 02/06/2020 at 01:02 PM   
Filed Under: • Bowling Blogging •  
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