The Struggle Of Keeping A 1950s Candlepin Bowling System Working

When we hear the term ‘bowling’, most of us think of what is known as ten-pin bowling, yet this is only one of the many variations. Candlepin bowling — so called because of the distinctive pin shape — has been around since 1880, yet is mostly played within the US New England and Canadian Maritime provinces. Because of how relatively uncommon it is, candlepin bowling alleys such as the one that [Autumn Mowery]’s family runs is struggling to keep the system working, much of it due to a lack of spare parts.

On [Autumn]’s YouTube channel she goes through many of the behind the scene details at the Ellsworth, Maine-based bowling alley, the repairs and the scavenging of spare parts from the sacrificial bowling lanes that are used to keep the other lanes going for as long as possible. With the mechanics of the installed candlepin bowling system dating back to the 1940s and having been use constantly since the 1950s, it’s an every day struggle to keep the system from breaking down, with no spare parts available for sale.

Although the financially responsible approach might be to give up on the system and have a readily available tenpin bowling system installed instead, there’s a lot more to this form of bowling than the difference in pin shape. Differences include the much stricter rules, the use of a smaller ball without finger holes, lower chance of hitting a pin, and so on. This, along with the historical significance of the sport and this particular system would make it appear to be something that’s right up the (bowling) alley of our audience.

How’d you keep a 1950s-era bowling system up and running?

Thanks to [Tara Calishain] for the tip!

44 thoughts on “The Struggle Of Keeping A 1950s Candlepin Bowling System Working

  1. 3D printing and desktop CNC. Every part that breaks can be examined, measured, documented, and re-made on a small scale, now that the original factory is gone. I assert.

    They could be remanufactured by hand, but by taking the time to model them in even the simplest CAD software means that they are accurate and reproducible.

    We’ve had these capabilities for a while, but it’s only recently that the software has become so powerful, accessible, and easy to use, and one-off fabrication techniques are similarly versatile and ubiquitous.

    At least, that’s my opinion, and how I would do it.

    1. Life is simple. Every problem is easily solvable.
      Ahh, I miss the optimism and arrogance that come from being young and ignorant.

      3d printers are awesome and I love that people keep pushing the boundaries of what they can accomplish. But they can’t do everything.
      A lot of stuff is going to wear out really fast if not break immediately if reproduced in 3d printed plastic!

      I’m all for the model everything you can in CAD approach though. Even if you can’t print it today that file can still be there ready to use as technology progresses. At the very least it can serve as a guide for manual fabrication.

      1. Life IS simple and almost every problem is easily solvable if you have the imagination. And I’m not young, nor ignorant. However I agree, 3D printers are over-hyped and a desktop CNC won’t cut most items there.

      2. From my experience, 3D printing has been incredible helpful. I’ve printed so many different replacement parts, many times lasting longer than the original’s they replaced.

        For things where plastic/nylon isn’t suitable, 3D printing can be a good stand in to ensure you have the proper dimensions and fit before sending off to a 3rd part to either be printed with a more suitable industrial material, sent off to a machine shop, or as mentioned using some sort of Desktop CNC.

        Hacker Spaces are also a source of bigger machines (CNC / metalworking) and knowledge.

        There are times where replacements for metal parts can be fabricated from plastic if the design is modified to handle additional force or friction, or they may be used until a suitable part can be located or machined.

        Something i’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t tackled yet, is using 3D printing for “lost wax” casting. You need a furnace and a bunch of other skill to approach something like this, but Hacker Spaces have been doing this all over.

        1. Also, 3D printing patterns to send to a foundry can be really useful.
          But, even I, as someone brought up my my dad and using a lathe at 7, was not in that place at 20. By that point I had barely discovered CAD. (to be fair CAD had barely been invented :-)

      3. If it was made by humans it can be re-made – or to quote Feynman, “What one fool has done, another can”

        I’m fairly sure a machine made in 1880 contains nothing that’s beyond modern capabilities although the economics of some of the technologies may have changed – you may want to fabricate things by CNC machining or welding together rather than casting, for example, but I’m fairly sure this would be within the ken of local makers / fabricators.

        Hell they’d probably get a pretty good Youtube series out of it all.

    1. One of my hobbies is keeping 100+ year old vehicles running, and I agree. You have to take a step back up the supply chain and start making the parts when you can’t buy them.
      This is easier the older the system is, so it will be a bit harder with 1950s tech than with 1900s tech. There are likely to be more sheet metal pressings, for example.
      But, the parts will have been designed to be simple and cheap to make (in the main) so can be re-made in-house as long as you don’t examine the price of your own time too much.

    2. My first job ever was with a small in-family busisness that operated pinball machines.

      Even in the 80’s manufacturers were dropping like flies, and half my job was reverse-engineering parts. Especially because, in our market, a certain style of 40’s/50’s gambling machine called a ‘six carder’ was still very popular and every single part was now at least 30 years old.

      In fact, we got so good at making parts that eventually more money came in from selling maintenance services to the other operators that we made from our own machines.

      Probably what got me into engineering.

  2. there is nothing in that set up that me and my buddys cant
    its going to be the same down in maine,quite litteraly
    just walk up to a rugged indivualist,equiped with mad max
    truck and wonky dog and strat talking gears and wheels
    and things that go around and around
    I can take you to places where there are water powerd mills
    running,privately,rope factorys running ancient machinery,
    shingle mills,oar and handle mills,and farm machinery,all
    use the same basic mechanisms and many common parts
    the rest can be fabbed
    that and some persistance doing online searches to find
    parts,will keep you running
    oh and a complete woolens operation,raw flieces to blankets under one roof
    And all in all,if someone wants to,it is possible to
    bootstrap any purely mechanical operation from scratch
    ,the 3d design tools and cnc equipment we have now
    get better every day

  3. Having actually read the article, it is worth noting that the whole thing is being kept going by a single 20-year old who appears to also be a college student at the same time.
    At 20 nobody knows how to make everything from scratch.
    And It seems unlikely that there is enough money coming through the door to pay for parts manufacture.
    But, perhaps she needs to learn to weld, if she can’t already.

    1. Yes, I’m not entirely sure where they got their information.. they never did an interview with me and it’s not family owned either.. I can weld and have already made some easier parts. The machine parts I have have been rigged and neglected for 30+ years. I am just saving money at this point for the next steps and trying to keep the ancient machines working. It’s really the wiring that needs to be redone. Each part needs to be replaced but can be done so with time and money. This article is unfortunately quite inaccurate.

  4. I’m pretty sure that the problem isn’t the technology, but the direct and indirect costs. Making every part a project is possible, there is no need for modern technology to make replacement parts… but modern technology or not, who is going to pay for it all? And the main question is, is the whole thing worth it. Most likely not or there simply is just no now way of funding it.

    Anyway, as long as it keeps running, it will make money, so squeeze every last bit of live out of it as long as possible.

    But although it might be a struggle to keep this machinery alive, I’m pretty sure there is also lot’s of technical fun and creativity involved to keep it alive. And somebody is putting in the love-and-care as soon as that stops it’s game over…

    1. Keeping things running gets exponentially more expensive over time. There is a point where new machine would be cheaper than next repair to old and things will go only downhill from there.

  5. My parents would tell stories of candlepin bowling from when they lived in Boston, early 1960s.

    Here in the Annapolis/Baltimore, MD area we have duckpins. Much smaller pin with a ball about the size of a softball. Lots of fun.

  6. As Andrew mentioned, just start CAD-ing the parts. Use SendCutSend for the sheet-metal pieces, and do the rest with basic tools from Horror Fright (or directly imported to save even more). Time is likely more of a hindrance than money.

    1. Having worked with manufacturing documentation and all the 3 letter acronyms starting with C and D soon 20 years one just simply does not “start CAD-ing” and purchase replacements though webshop and replace the part and end up with fully functional equipment.

      I’d prefer finding reliable metal workshop nearby. When the part still does not work as intended on first try even with experienced people working on it, that can be fixed relatively quickly. That would probably be the most cost effective way in the long run even when the price is higher than cheapest option. I presume functional equipment is the only thing bringing revenue to the business.

  7. I’ve helped a friend work on his CandlePin bowling alley as well and it’s not simple. There’s different control systems (early 1950s to more recent 1980-90s electronic stuff) and of course the bodged together wiring over time. The next step is all the mechanical parts. It’s maybe not hard if you have the tools and know how, but if you’re learning, or all you have is basic hand tools, it gets hard to do. The place where I helped was originally pin-boys doing the setting, but just for a year or two in the beginning, it was automated pretty quickly. It is a marvel to watch in action, just make sure you don’t get your fingers or toes near the machinery!

    It might be simpler when you have as many lanes as they have, since you’ll have more options for canibalizing other machines. And I’m sure they’ve bought up old alleys and stored the parts out back in a shed, since that’s usually one of the easiest ways to get parts. These alleys aren’t lasting, especially the smaller ones. Though there have been some new-build alleys where they put in both 10 and candlepin lanes, which is encouraging.

  8. I enjoy reading HD because I always learn something unusual. I have never heard of Candlepin or even Duckpin bowling until now. I had to watch some videos and it looks more challenging and fun than even Bocce or bar shuffleboard. I have done regular bowling but always enjoyed more the old school arcade game with the metal flip up “pins”, the shuffleboard like puck and the clunk clunking of the scoreboard.

  9. Woof. Not a job I would chose to do lightly.

    This is definitely a case where I would reach out to mechanical engineers and or machinists, maybe start a crowd funding campaign.

    The article is light on details but this kind of problem has been solved in the past. What usually ends up happening is (in my limited experience) is that a business winds up buying all the specialized tools they need to produce their own parts, and eventually that becomes a side hustle to the rest of the businesses using the same equipment. I’ve seen more than one small town factory with its own machine shop do production runs of parts for local farms and mechanics. If you ever get the chance to go to an old tractor show, go talk to the “old guys” running early 1900s machines. Some of them go so far as to set up their own sand casting molds to replace parts.

    It’s easy enough to say “Just buy a 6 axis bench top CNC mill and learn to weld.” but there’s a significant amount of training that goes into running that kind of set up cost effectively, and welding is a skill that takes a lot of work hours to become proficient at. Time is something she apparently does not have a lot of.
    I would at the very least have someone who is mechanically inclined come in and identify all the parts that can still be bought on McMaster Carr and similar vendors. Then catalog all the ones that have to be fabricated and start working through what can be easily made with inexpensive hand tools on site, and what will take trained hands to fabricate. From watching the videos it doesn’t look like she’s cutting new gears or fabricating cam or crank shafts so she may only need a little training and a decent acetylene torch.

    Hell, reach out to a university with an engineering program and get them involved as sponsors.

    Finally, there is also the question of how important the original machinery. Is it critical to the tradition of candle pin to use the original pin setting hardware, or would she be willing to use more reliable modern equipment? Could a mechanically inclined engineer design and build a candlepin resetting machine from COTS components without breaking the bank?

  10. Watching her videos, it seems that she runs the place. That is evident when she tells the story of how she injured her hand working on the equipment (basically her own fault).

    I think her personal efforts to keep the place alive may bigger than than “…family runs” would tend to imply.

    Based on what is portrayed in her videos, she seems to be an impressively talented and motivated young lady.

    I subscribed to her YouTube channel to see any further (mis)adventures of a bowling center operator.
    (It’s quite possible that I’m under the influence of my current binge watching of the old TV show “Ed” about a bowling alley lawyer.)

    1. Thank you. I do run the place by myself at this time, I’m not sure where this article got its information and why it says family owned. I was the lane mechanic for previous owners. They had rigged and neglected the machines. At this time I am just saving up to get my machines rebuilt and rewired. I’ve run into other issues although. First of all I’ve never run a business before and am learning a lot and making a lot of mistakes. My first week of taking over I had a flood that ruined a lot. I had a power surge on New Year’s Eve that started an electrical fire and caused damage and more water damage just this past week. I have to pay for all of these things and tried to get insurance to cover. What I was told is that because I didn’t install the equipment, it wasn’t covered in my insurance… I’ve been struggling nonetheless but keeping my head up for the love of this sport. I know how to weld and started out with only 4 out of the 12 lanes working. I stripped one lane to fix as many others as possible. I am just stuck in place as I fix things damaged by water, fire, replacing pipes, heater and water tanks, etc. my machines are indeed from the 1950s but am in contact with a guy that is able to help me rebuild these machines. I am doing the best I can and have been doing it for 4 years now! It’s just a waiting game!

  11. Sounds like a great opportunity to partner with a local technical school (Hancock County Technical Center maybe?) to involve students so they can learn while designing and creating the needed parts.

  12. For the $25,000.00 per lane (per a video) to upgrade to more modern equipment (I think 12 lanes), I would speculate that someone with the right connections (machinists, fabricators, CAD designers, hackers, etc.) could probably have parts manufactured to keep the antique equipment going for quite a while. Presumably, even fairly major part redesign/build would/could/might be incremental, rather than having to swap out the entire works of a lane all at once.

    Then again, that $25k per might be inclusive of all labor required for the upgrade which would surely have some appeal to someone as busy as I think she probably is.

    With any luck, the upgrade equipment would have a lot of parts in common with the more familiar “ten pin” equipment. That’d make life easier for a candlepin operator.

    1. Unfortunately ten pin and candlepin are completely different machines. They do not operate the same. Hopefully in the future, they can start making them more alike.
      The 25k in my videos does include labor. I did immense research to get that number. It includes the entire machine with all its parts, rebuilt and rewired. As well as new cameras for the scoring system, new wooden lanes replaced and the labor of it all.

      1. Can you reach out to a few makers on youtube – Blondihacks, This Old Tony, Abom79 and all the hundreds of similar ones doing machining, fabrication, 3D printing, etc.?

        I’m willing to bet a fair few would respond favourably as it’s an interesting project and worthy cause, and there’s likely nothing made 100 years ago that isn’t re-producible today.

        There’s a fair few hobbyist folks who’d possibly even do small production runs for a project like this – lots of folks doing home-casting and machining and the like. Model engineering societies and maker spaces would be a good call, but even offbeat stuff like 4×4 clubs have guys who are well equipped for welding & fabricating stuff and who may help out a community project.

  13. Miracle is that she can run an entire business like that solo at all. Managing finances, collecting money, paying bills, insurance, keeping the darn lights on and all that on top of even trying to fix century-old equipment is an accomplishment. How does one 20 year old end up in that place without, like, a family member or something? Uncle gives an orphan a bowling alley and promptly dies? Even with zero other employees, you need to keep track of money and stuff, and zero practical education on that topic is given to kids these days.

    1. I was working as the lane mechanic for previous owners. Covid hit, there were only 4 out of 12 lanes left working, and the landlord couldn’t find anyone willing to take over or anyone who had the knowledge to. I got a tremendous deal to take over since if I didn’t they were going to demolish the place. I used money I had saved up for a truck since I was 6 and Covid stimulus to take over.

  14. Yeah, the article talking about the problems in this video are old.

    My son and I run a candlepin repair/maintenance business, and we have been working with the owner to improve and upgrade her machines.

    The problem with people like this is that they buy a bowling center from someone who doesn’t have any institutional knowledge to pass on. Then the new person is left to flounder on their own, believing that the parts aren’t available and no one can fix the machines.

    The parts are still made, and we sell them. Of course, knowing how to ADJUST the machines properly is just as important as upgrading them – and we’re teaching her that as well.

    We’ve been working with her for a few months now, and are planning on spending more time with her as her budget allows.

  15. Hello all. This article has some incorrect information. They never did anything for a interview in me so I’m not sure where they are getting everything they did. Newer parts are available for candlepin machines they are just out of my budget. My lanes are indeed from the 1950s and I struggle day to day with breakdowns. My goal is to rebuild and require these machines that have been rigged greatly. I’ve been working with Scott and Cam Moore with planning on getting my machines and parts rebuilt. Lost things can be 3D printed but that doesn’t include everything, and I also s have to get the lanes rewired. When I took over I only had 4 lanes left from previous owners and stripped one lane to fix as many others as possible. I was taught incorrectly on a lot of the things back there by previous owners as well and had to relearn by myself until getting in contact with Scott and his son Cam. This place will take quite a bit of work but can be done.

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