The Layout Effect: Myth or Magic?

Understanding layouts, pin placements, and response to friction


Published by Bowling This Month

In our travels, it appears more and more that there is an underlying confusion as to how much effect layouts truly have on ball reaction. In visiting numerous pro shops, bowling forums, and informational websites, it is apparent that bowlers believe there is such a thing as a “magic” layout that can compensate or overcome a bowler’s lack of ability, compensate for a bowler’s lack of versatility, or create certain ball rolls.

We hear certain types of questions posed all the time to manufacturer reps, pro shop operators, and even fellow bowlers just hanging around the pro shop:

• “What layout do you have on your new ball?”

• “What layout should I put on my new bowling ball?”

• “I’m bowling on pattern XYZ. What layout will work best?”

• “What layout will create good length and back end on heavy oil?”

The intent of this article isn’t necessarily to give answers to these kinds of questions. Instead, the intent is to determine if these are in fact the right questions to be asking to begin with. Unfortunately, too many people choose to look at the bowling ball from the inside (core) to the outside (surface), instead of from the outside to the inside.

Before we begin, let’s start with an important disclaimer: when it comes to creating ball reaction, it is best to keep in mind that the largest influence on ball motion is the bowler and his or her attributes. A bowling ball in a static state creates nothing. It is the bowler that creates ball motion and the bowling ball is a tool or enhancer of what is created by the bowler.

To help decipher some of the myths about layouts, let’s look at the basics of what really enhances a bowling ball’s reaction and motion.

Lane conditions

In gauging ball reaction, keep in mind the impact that the playing field creates. The oil pattern impacts the ball’s motion and can mask its true reaction due to the ratio of conditioner to friction, the placement of the conditioner, and the built-in paths created by this placement. The biggest cause and effect relationship between lane conditions and ball reaction relates to the amount of built-in friction provided by the lane condition. This varies significantly between typical house conditions and flatter sport conditions.

Typical house conditions (left) have a larger build-up of oil toward the middle of the lane and a lower volume on the outside boards, creating free hook. Tougher, flatter sport-type conditions (right) have a 3:1 or lower ratio of oil side-to-side, with less oil in the middle and no built-in friction to the outside.

A good analogy to consider is a golf course under normal conditions versus that same golf course with the addition of weather and its effect on the course and on the path of the golf ball. Shots are affected once you add wind to alter direction and distance, rain to alter distance, and speed of turf to alter control.

In bowling, the ball’s distance (the length that it travels in a straight path, or skids), control (reaction vs. lack thereof), and direction (keeping the ball on its desired path) are all affected by the placement of conditioner on the lane (volume, length, and shape in both the front-to-back and side-to-side directions) and by how the condition changes over time as a result of all the bowlers—who all have varying degrees of styles and ability levels—playing on the pattern.

Coverstock, surface prep, and response to friction

Understanding response to friction primarily means understanding how the coverstock of the ball reacts and responds as it transitions from the conditioner to the friction at the back end of the lane.

A slower-response coverstock is one that transitions from conditioner to friction smoother and has a less obvious visual movement when friction is encountered. A faster-response cover is one that transitions sharper and appears more angular.

First and foremost, surface is the largest factor in ball reaction and motion involving the ball itself. Surface accounts for approximately 70% to 75% of reaction and motion, and it also dictates length. Surface has the greatest influence on how and where the bowling ball slows down. And yes, bowling balls do slow down over the course of the lane from foul line to pins, even though they may appear to “speed up” when the ball changes direction at the end of the lane.

The higher degree of surface grit (duller), the earlier or sooner the bowling ball creates traction on the lane and also the slower its response becomes. When there is a lesser degree of surface grit (shinier), the exact opposite happens: the response will become quicker or sharper and can also become hyper-sensitive to the conditions and to friction. If the surface is too smooth (shiny), the ball will amplify the effect of both conditioner and friction, resulting in too much skid in the conditioner (meaning it doesn’t slow down enough) and too much responsiveness to friction.

The easiest adjustment in altering a bowling ball’s reaction (post-drilling) is to adjust its surface. Surface can be altered easily, as grit can range all the way from 80 grit to 5000 grit.

Layouts and core dynamics

Now, keeping the above-mentioned factors in mind, let’s explore how the dynamics of the core influence ball motion/reaction.

The amount of track flare a bowling ball has can affect its reaction either positively or negatively. When the proper forces are applied (supplied by the bowler attributes), a bowling ball will try to change direction. If the bowling ball is allowed to slow down properly (think of a car speeding on ice and trying to turn), then the core dynamics will influence the ball’s reaction. This is why surface is so important: if the ball doesn’t slow down properly, it becomes a lot like a car that is “spinning out,” and its core dynamics become irrelevant.

Pin-to-PAP distance

Layouts are best and most easily defined by the pin’s distance to the bowler’s positive axis point (PAP). The ball’s motion is affected by how much track flare it has, and different pin-to-PAP distances create different potential amounts of track flare.

Pin-to-PAP distance affects track flare potential. The initial motivation for the development of pin placement recommendations was to keep the ball from rolling over the gripping holes as it flared.

Layouts are utilized to manage and control track flare by matching flare to the bowler’s rev rate. Controlling track flare is the most important factor in deciding on the most appropriate pin-to-PAP distance for the bowler. In too many cases, pin distances are used that are too strong (meaning that the pin is placed too closely to 3 3/8 inches from the bowler’s PAP) in relation to the bowler’s rev rate. This can often cause ill effects due to the large amount of track flare created. In this situation, too much is not always a good thing.

Expanding on “leverage” layouts (where the pin is placed 3 3/8 inches from the PAP), they create the highest amount of instability or track flare potential, as they place the core at 45 degrees to the bowler’s PAP. As a reference, any movement of the pin away from the leverage position reduces track flare potential and alters reaction shape. Pin placements toward the PAP (0 inches to 3 3/8 inches) tend to create smoother, slower-response reactions. Pin placements toward the track (3 3/8 inches to 6 inches) tend to create later, faster-response reactions.

Too many people believe that the closer to leverage you place a core, the more angular the ball’s reaction will become. In reality, more overall reaction is (potentially) created by using leverage pin positions, but the reaction that is created isn’t necessarily an angular reaction because the strength of the flares will cause the ball to transition to the hook phase earlier. The reality is that the stronger the layout, the earlier the reaction becomes due to more potential traction.

Also, the stronger the layout, the shorter the ball’s hook window becomes, due to increasing its overall potential track flare. When you have an increase in overall track flare combined with the bowling ball slowing down, it can use up its energy too soon with respect to the length of the lane. Too strong of a layout with respect to a bowler’s rev rate creates a “dead zone” in ball reaction by creating over-flaring, which we’ll discuss more in-depth a bit later.

Many of today’s competitive players (such as those on the PBA Tour) tend to migrate to a minimal amount of layouts and rely on surface alterations or weight hole additions to alter their ball reaction. With today’s flatter oil patterns and lower volumes/ratios, a majority of PBA players have migrated to pin-to-PAP layouts in the range of 5 to 6 inches.


Pin-to-PAP distance safe zone

Steer away from 0 to 1 inch and over 5.75 to 6 inch pin-to-PAP placements, as they can sometimes cause inverted track flare. In other words, the flares that normally go away from the gripping holes could actually go the other way toward (and sometimes over) the gripping holes when flares invert.


Controllable flare vs. over-flaring

It is important to make a distinction between what we think of as “controllable flare” and “over-flaring.”

When a ball is flaring controllably, it maintains a stable bow tie and separation between the flares at their widest point. This allows the track to pivot off a stable point (the bow tie) and create proper traction throughout the path down the lane. Controllable flare is created through proper placement of the core in relationship to the bowler’s rev rate and in relationship to the core strength of the ball. In a stable core placement, the track is able to migrate onto a fresh surface as it revolves around the ball, creating proper traction on the lane and a smoother, controllable ball path or shape.

Over-flaring occurs when the core is placed in a position that is too strong relative to the bowler’s rev rate, creating instability in the core. In the case of over-flaring, as the flares begin to migrate, the bow tie becomes unstable and the track no longer has a stable pivot point, creating a “wandering” type of track with oil rings crossing or traveling over earlier oil rings and not exposing as much fresh coverstock surface to the lane.

A ball with controllable flare (left) maintains a stable bow tie. A ball that is over-flaring (right) does not have a stable bow tie, resulting in oil rings that cross over earlier oil rings and cause less exposure of fresh ball surface to the lane.

We refer to the range of pin-to-PAP distances that produce over-flaring as the “dead zone.” As shown in the image below, the higher a bowler’s rev rate, the wider that bowler’s dead zone becomes.

The “dead zone” is the range of pin-to-PAP distances that a bowler should avoid in order to prevent over-flaring. The higher a bowler’s rev rate, the wider that bowler’s dead zone becomes.

In today’s world of bowling, with highly dynamic cores that have differentials commonly in the 0.040″ to 0.055″ range, and with more and more bowlers attaining rev rates in the upper 300s to 400s RPM range, pin placements need to be in safer, controllable areas. This tends to be in the ranges between 1/2 inch to 2 1/4 inches and 5 inches to 6 inches for most bowlers.

Other layout and core dynamics “ingredients”

While we’ve primarily only discussed pin-to-PAP distance thus far, there are some other layout and core dynamics factors to also keep in mind when laying out a bowling ball. Let’s take a look at a few of them below.


Up until the early to mid-1990s, differentials were in the 0.025″ or less range and, therefore, pins were often placed closer to leverage (next to or in the vicinity of the ring finger for most bowlers) in an attempt to create increased track flare for increased traction. From the early 2000s to now, increases in differential (0.040″ and higher) have caused pin-to-PAP distances to migrate to the “weaker” 5+ inch range to control or manage flare. This results in pin placements for most bowlers that are between, above, or below the finger holes.

Also keep in mind that the greater a ball’s differential, the more its flare will change with a given change in pin-to-PAP distance. For example, a high differential ball will have its amount of flare affected more with a 1 inch change in pin-to-PAP distance (from 4 inches to 5 inches, for example) than will a lower differential ball.

Pin up vs. pin down

In general, it is understood that pin up balls create more length and have stronger motion downlane. Pin down layouts create earlier, slower responses and have a rounder, more controlled shape on the back end. The reason for these reaction differences comes from the way the gripping holes impact the core.

Picture the pin as the top of the core and the core hanging down from that point. Pin up balls will take weight out from the side of the core and, in effect, create more differential, which therefore increases flare potential by some degree. By drilling holes in to the side of the core, the core becomes “skinnier,” which results in a greater difference between how wide the core is versus how tall the core is.

Pin down layouts take weight out from the top of the core, as the drilled holes are now on top instead of on the side of the core. This effectively flattens the core and lowers the differential and hook potential.

But, unless the pin is 3+ inches apart pin down versus pin up, you probably won’t see a hugely significant difference in the ball’s reaction or response.

Now, as with all that was earlier discussed, pin up and pin down layouts each have their right time and utility. Hook potential is simply that: potential. Used in the right time and place, pin down and pin up layouts both can be successfully utilized and should not be considered solely by their “strength.”

Symmetrical vs. asymmetrical

An asymmetrical core adds a fine-tuning ingredient that you don’t have with symmetrical cores: preferred spin axis (PSA)—also called mass bias—placement. The effect of PSA or mass bias placement is comparable to the effect of adding a weight hole.

The factors necessary to keep in mind when using PSA placement for reaction adjustment are the amount of initial flare created by the pin-to-PAP distance and the ball’s initial asymmetry strength. The higher the asymmetry strength, the more impactful the placement of the PSA can be.

PSA placements at 45 degrees are comparable to a leverage pin-to-PAP distance. And, as comparable to alterations in pin-to-PAP placements, deviating from 45 degrees alters potential flare and shape. Basically, the same properties apply here as with pin-to-PAP placements.


Core size and shape can have an impact, as well. Larger, more dynamic cores that generate large amounts of flare can create more response to friction. This results in less controllability, but tends to produce better results on higher oil volume conditions. Smaller, less dynamic cores that generate less flare can create a slower response to friction, which leads to a more controllable movement. This is optimal on shorter, lower volume conditions and for playing straighter angles.

The shapes of cores can also have an impact. Cores with more mass toward the top of the core tend to be smoother because of the impact of drilled holes on the core, while those with more mass toward the bottom of the core tend to be more angular.


One more thing about layouts: especially in balls with symmetrical cores, layouts should use CG (center of gravity) placement as a means to an end—facilitating the use of a weight hole—and not as a way of altering ball motion.

Optimum ball motion

Too much surface and too much flare can both cause the ball to have a very weak movement downlane. And, too much flare can even cause inconsistent downlane motion as a result of the over-flaring condition discussed above. A bowling ball needs to have both the right amount of surface and the right amount of flare in order to have an effective motion on the lane that results in proper deflection through the pins and effective pin carry.

The bowling ball tells you what the lane is doing…the pins tell you what the bowling ball is doing.

Controlling ball motion and reaction is about controlling the midlane. This is accomplished by complementing the coverstock with the amount of track flare. Remember, core dynamics are only effective once the bowling ball has started to slow down.

Controlling the midlane (35 feet to 45 feet) requires the coverstock matching the condition (or amount of conditioner) and the amount of track flare matching the rev rate. This has an influence on the transition from conditioner to friction and you can enhance the response to friction by increasing or decreasing flares.

A wise old saying in the industry: if a player is needing to “trick” a layout in order to compete, he has already lost.


In closing, as we stated previously, when researching a new bowling ball for a specific condition or conditions, choose the proper coverstock type and surface first and then stay within the safe perimeters for flare. Manageable amounts of flare are always adjustable in terms of overall ball reaction through the use of weight holes.

Think outside in!

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