How to make a Bowling Lane Tables by Hand: a 20 Step Process
6” drywall knife in stainless steel slightly sharpened and points rounded.
(2) wide sawhorses or a large heavily built work table.
Lifting mechanism or lots of strong friends.
(2-3) demolition blades for your circular saw
Compressor with hose and blow tip
2” carbide scraper
belt sander assorted grit size belts
6” random orbital sander
Set of plug cutters and countersink bits
Flush cutting saw or fein tool
Grinder with cut-off wheels and grinding discs
Router with 3/8” round-over bit
Assorted hand tools as required
bowling alley lane
1 gallon Mineral spirits and maybe Lacquer thinner
rags and paper towels.
plugs or scrap wood to fabricate them
epoxy with hardener a
acetone( to clean up any epoxy messes.)
1-5/8” spax type construction screws.
boards of sufficient length to wrap table edges.
Turning a reclaimed bowling lane into a beautiful table is a labor of love. I have a few under my belt and it still takes me anywhere from 30-40 hrs per table.
STEP 1. Source your lane.
At the moment, old bowling lanes aren’t that hard to come by. I imagine this will change in the future as we aren’t building bowling alleys using natural materials anymore. As time passes, there will be fewer old bowling alleys being torn down and the solid wood lanes will become scarcer and scarcer. This makes me a little sad but hey, it also means these lovely tables, built to last forever, should only increase in value over time.
STEP 2. Move your lane. Caution Lanes are Heavy!!!
Get some friends or machinery. Bowling lanes are EXTREMELY HEAVY. In general, lanes weigh anywhere from three to five hundred pounds, depending on the length. I’ve build a series of lifting tools that make working on the lanes a bit easier for me (more on that later) but, I'm always worried about crushing injuries every time I move one.
STEP 3. Stabilize the lane.
Bowling lanes are constructed without glue. One maple board is nailed (spiral or ring shank) at random places against the board next to it . Once all the boards are nailed together to achieve the lane width, a steel Tee shaped beam is screwed into the bottom.
To stabilize the lanes, you must first flip them so the metal beams are on top, and the bowling surface is facing down. Ideally you would have a table, sized as big as the lane, but 2 heavy- duty sawhorses will also work. Since I work alone, I fabricated a gantry using pressure-treated, Southern Yellow Pine, from the big box store. I have a 10’ beam that allows me to span across trailers and pickups, and a small beam 6’ for table setups, indoors. The gantry works perfectly under an 8’ ceiling height. Im not necessarily recommending this method, how you flip and move your slabs, is up to you. The slab pictured below is 10’ and weighs around 500lbs.
Once you Flip the lanes, you’ll see the iron T-beams that stabilizes the lanes.
Depending on where the T-beams are fastened, on the lane section that you are working on, you will either cut the dadoes first, or remove remove the T-beam first. Keep in mind that removing the T makes the lane very bendy. If it isn’t well supported from below, it can start to sag or curve, which makes cutting a depth accurate dado impossible.
Remember, what you're trying to achieve is a dado, deep enough to allow you to flip the T-beams into the table. Before you start, you should know that, whenever any cuts are made on bowling lanes, nails will be hit. When cross cutting, like you will be doing in this step, you will be hitting the nails length-wise. This step sucks, it destroys saw blades, and it's dangerous. Wear safety gear. Obviously using an expensive stacked dado blade is out of the question. When cutting lanes always use carbide tipped demolition style blades.
I stabilize the lanes by cutting dadoes around 10" in from on both ends for Tee Beams and I use a 2” x 3/16” flat steel bar in the middle.
The image below shows the T-beams, installed upside down into the Dado. I try to reuse all the fasteners, to keep things as original as possible, but replace any missing or damaged pieces with the most similar screws I can find.
STEP 4: Prepare the bottom.
Pre-drill the leg mounting holes, and Autograph the bottom of the table (optional).
Use the legs, or base, as a template to mark and pre-drill screw holes. I also clearly draw a circle around each mounting hole because the holes can be very difficult to locate later on, since there are tons of other screw holes on the bottom of the bowling lanes.
I also lightly clean the bottom, but try to leave it as untouched as possible. It's part of the lanes character, and no-one ever looks at the bottom of a table, so don't get too crazy unless you really want too.
Below is a picture of a 10' conference table. There is T-beam at each end and 2 flat bars spaced equally between them. Leg mounting holes are drilled and marked, table is signed, anything sharp has been made smooth, and it's been cleaned. This is the checklist I use to prevent having to flip the bowling lanes multiple times (you'll understand once you flip yours the first time. Make sure anything you need to do to this side is done before you flip the slab.
STEP 5: Remove the film
Flip the Bowling Lane to get the smooth (bowling) side up.
All of the bowling lanes that I currently have in stock, and a lot of the bowling lanes that you will find for sale, have a plastic film adhered to the bowling surface. This film was added to the lane to help reduce maintenance costs at the alley, but it will make your life pretty miserable for the next 1-2 hours minimum. Use a heat gun, and a slightly-sharpened Drywall knife, to separate the film from the lane. Go slow, you want to try to avoid damaging the wood underneath. Don’t worry about removing the glue residue at this point. Completing film removal is a milestone with celebrating. I usually stop and take a break.
STEP 6: Bust out the chemicals, and a carbide scraper.
You've removed the film, and now you have a very sticky nasty lane surface. Sanding this gunk off is impossible. I use copious amounts of mineral spirits, or lacquer thinner. I prefer lacquer thinner but, if its hot outside, it evaporates too quickly. So more often than not, I use mineral spirits. Mineral spirits soften the residue, and the 2” carbide scraper makes short work of removing it. An abrasive Bar-B-Q cleaning pad, soaked in mineral spirits, gets the last little bits off the surface. Expect to spend 1-2 hours completing this step.
STEP 7: Restore the bowling surface.
Slabs will have holes from the screws, used to attach them to the subfloor at the alley. They may also have broken boards, from rough treatment during demolition. I won’t get too technical here, but you will want to re-drill any holes to clean the edges, fabricate or buy wood plugs, in the species of your choice, and glue them into the holes. Cut the plugs using a flush cut saw, or fein tool. Dart, or dot, inlays can sometimes be loose, or almost sanded through. These are slightly harder to fix. Anything that looks iffy now, will look iffy later. Major defects can be corrected by chiseling out the damaged sections, and inlaying new maple. The lane I used for a bench had circular saw cuts that disappeared after the repair.
STEP 8. Prepare the edges for wrapping.
Usually, one edge of the slab will have nail heads, and the other side will have nail points sticking out. I use a center punch, and hammer to ensure the heads are well-bedded into the wood, on the side with the heads. Then, I use a grinder to cut and grind all protruding nails points flat on the other side.
Step 9. Prepare the edge-covering boards.
For the most part, I've been covering the edges in rock maple, with contrasting walnut plugs. I have also done darker-wood borders, with maple plugs. Just cut your word down to the right length and width to match your lane. Careful measuring and pre-drilling makes a better finished product than eyeballing it.
STEP 10: Wrap the edges.
Glue and Screw the edge covering boards, plug all the holes. Cut plugs flush. I do not use miters in the corners, because the lanes are almost never perfectly square. I radius the corners, at a later step, and a miter would look weird.
STEP 11: Rough sand lane surface.
I use a belt sander for the initial sanding. Headphones and music help drown out the noise. I rarely use a bag to collect sawdust, as you can see, it doesn't work very well. I always connect the belt sander to a vac to help with dust management, but be prepared It will make a giant mess, which is the reason this step should definitely be done outdoors. Wear a dust mask, always keep the belt sander moving, and always try to sand with the grain. When you finish sanding, blow the slab with compressed air to remove as much dust as possible.
STEP 12: Fill gaps with epoxy.
The idea here is to fill any little voids between the boards that make up the lane. Use a squeegee to push epoxy into seams, and don’t leave any giant globs of epoxy (you'll have to get rid of them in the next step). I use fine maple sawdust, and metal colored powdered pigments to thicken the epoxy, slightly. I love and use the products you see below.
STEP 13: Remove excess cured epoxy.
Use the belt sander to remove all epoxy, except what stays behind in the tiny voids cracks. Again, ensure you are sand only with the grain. This time, the dust that you are producing is ground-up, not-fully-cured epoxy. I strongly suggest you wear a dust mask.
STEP 14: Route the edges.
Use a trim router with a 3/8” round over bit on all edges.
STEP 15: Finish sanding.
Use a 6” random-orbital-sander, starting with 100 grit. Work your way down to 320 grit. Careful not to distort the corners too much during sanding.
STEP 16: Raise the Grain.
I wipe a rag, dripping with mineral spirits, across the surface of the lane. This will also give you a preview of how the finished surface will appear. Pay attention to the preview, in particular, look for anything that doesn't look right.
STEP 17: Correct the surface.
At this point you should go back and fix anything that's not how you want it to be in the end product. Repeat the steps above redoing the inlays, epoxy and sanding as needed to achieve the desired result, ending in the mineral spirit wipe-down. Once the mineral spirits dries, move to the next step.
STEP 18: Stain the wood.
I use Minwax stains, which are very light in color, to even things a bit, and to make the grain pop. Maple is a difficult wood to stain, so test first on a scrap piece to see if you like it before committing.
STEP 19: Apply finish.
I use Minwax Polyurethane in semigloss. I reduce it with mineral spirits by 50%, to make a wipe-on poly, and to ensure it fully soaks into the wood fibers. The diluted poly also has a drastically shorter drying time. I apply the poly with a pad made of old t-shirt material that is lint free. When the poly coat dries, I lightly scuff by hand, using 320 grit. I wipe the dust, using a tack rag, and repeat the process 5 or 6 times.
STEP 20: Apply wax.
I use Minwax finishing paste wax, in natural color. I apply the wax in small circles, using a pad made from old t-shirt material. I let it dry and buff out with a 10” lambs wool buffing pad on a buffer. I repeat this 2-3 times.
If you love the finished product, but don't want to do the work yourself, contact me to order a custom bowling alley wood table, made just for you!