Brand spanking new

Pictured from left Adam Hillers, Bill Mueller, Frank Asmus and Rick Mueller work on removing a piece of the old lane 1 at River Rock Lanes in Ispheming. (Journal photo by Amy Grigas)


Journal Sports Editor

ISHPEMING — Imagine your very own set of wooden counter-type furniture — a dining set, maybe a nice coffee table.

Or even just a deluxe picnic table that you bring in the garage every fall so it’s not ruined by winter.

Now let your kids — and all the youngsters from the neighborhood too — continually drop 16-, 14- or even just 10-pound granite paperweights on it.

Say about two million times.

That’s what the wooden bowling lanes at River Rock Lanes have gone through in their approximately 30-year life spans.

And it’s why now is the time River Rock proprietors Clay and Donna Sandberg have decided to replace the 16 lanes at their Ishpeming bowling center with something newer, and more importantly, longer lasting.

“This is a once in a lifetime event for a bowling center to do this,” Clay Sandberg said.

These new lanes still have a wood base, but are “phenolic,” meaning they have plastic-like resin backings that makes the material water resistant and much more durable.

Actually, it’s only the first 20 feet of each lane and the pin deck, where the pins stand, that will be fully replaced with the new phenolic. An overlay of the same material about 3/8 of an inch thick will be placed atop the 40 feet between these two sections.

Clay Sandberg figured a “conservative estimate” was that his lanes at the 28-year-old center have each taken about two million hits by bowling balls over their three-decade lives that include a few years prior at the former Miracle Bowl in Ishpeming.

As the Miracle only had 12 lanes, four River Rock lanes came from a defunct center in Oconto Falls, Wisconsin, which had purchased them from a center in Japan.

“That was the two outside pairs of lanes, 1 and 2 and 15 and 16,” Sandberg said of the Japanese lanes. “Those were showing a little bit more wear.”

The new lanes come from Qubica/AMF, each company before their merger a big player in the bowling industry in its own right.

The SPL Select Lanes being installed in Ishpeming are all one piece across from gutter to gutter, kind of like a piece of paneling, with six of them making up one length of lane from the foul line through the pin deck.

Traditional wooden lanes have their striped look because they were made of 39 or 40 thin strips of wood nailed together side to side.

The wooden approaches — where you walk to deliver a bowling ball — will remain as they are since they don’t suffer nearly the wear and tear that an actual lane does.

Of course, just don’t ask Sandberg to count the number of times bowling balls are inadvertently dropped on the approach, hopefully not on anyone’s feet.

But it is the 60-foot length of lane, especially in the first 10 or 15 feet where balls most often land, that the damage is worst on a wooden lane.

Further down, balls do a degree of damage rolling along the softer wood, then damage again increases where 16-pound balls smash into 10 pins each weighing three to four pounds.

Going back a hundred years or more, lanes were coated with shellac, then lacquer, a real fire hazard, and finally polyurethane. That usually occurred once a year in bowling’s downtime of summer in this part of the country.

A lane conditioner, in shorthand referred to as lane oil, has also been applied going back nearly a century to protect wood from the harder material of balls made of rubber, plastic and urethane.

Still, the balls do damage. Also during summers, bowling proprietors like Sandberg who owned wooden lanes would hire crews with specialized knowledge to sand down lanes to the exacting specifications of the U.S. Bowling Congress.

“The USBC says the tolerance allowed is 20 thousandths of an inch,” Sandberg said of the gutter-to-gutter allowance.

That’s 0.020 of an inch, or the diameter of about four to six human hairs.

You can imagine what happens after lanes have been sanded over and over and over. After a certain point, there will hardly be any lane left, considering that the average lane starts out about three inches thick.

“We’re down to about 2 1/4 inches on the outside lanes and 2 1/2 inches on the Miracle Bowl lanes,” Sandberg said after about a dozen resurfacing jobs done in Ishpeming.

Oh, that doesn’t so bad, right? Except that the individual boards of a lane are held together with small nails pounded in from the side.

After awhile, the sanding ends up hitting those nails, and without some work, those nail can be exposed on the lane surface.

“You can see where there are nail marks,” Sandberg said, pointing to a number of what initially looks like scratches on the lane surface. “Those are actually the nails.”

He said sanding at River Rock used to occur every other year, but in an attempt to preserve the lanes, has only been done every third year more recently.

With its last resurfacing in 2016, the center was due for another this summer. Instead, the Sandbergs decided on lane replacement.

Wooden lanes get beat up and deteriorate in other ways, too, as regulars at River Rock could attest in the “beat up” way the first feet of lanes have looked in recent years.

The new lanes look like wood, with alternating darker and lighter “boards” drawn into them.

Sandberg said league bowlers should notice a difference with their scores, too.

“They will probably notice more consistency from month to month in the lane conditions and also more uniformity from lane to lane,” he said.

The glow bowl effect should also remain and maybe even enhanced, he added.

A four-man crew from Mack Lanes Services of De Pere, Wisconsin, started the removal of the old lanes and installation of new ones on Monday, with Sandberg expecting them to be done a week and a half later on Thursday.

“We should be back to full operation on Friday,” he said, meaning summer hours when the center opens at noon from Friday through Monday and at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.

The lane installation crew leader is Rick Mueller of the Chicago area, joined by his brother Bill Mueller from the same area, Frank Asmus of Wisconsin and Adam Hillers of Nebraska.

“We were just on a job in Iowa last week (two weeks ago),” Rick Mueller said, “and I thought we might be going to North Carolina next, though I’m hearing it might be Atlanta.”

Rick Mueller said he has installed lanes for about 40 years, and has also worked on lane sanding for about 30 years.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.