Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Ships in Bottles
Displaying ships in bottles is a comparatively modern idea. Although some antique examples date from the eighteenth century, the craft came into its own in the nineteenth century, largely as a result of the mass production of glass bottles. Before this, bottles were expensive and the glass was usually opaque or dark. Once cheaper, clearer glass became available, this nautical pastime became more popular.
The evolving shape of ships also played a part in the
development of the craft: the short, squat ships of earlier times did not
fit well into bottles, but the long, sleek hulls of the newer clippers
were set off beautifully by a long, clear bottle.
Today this curious craft is so refined that you can see a ship in a bottle smaller than a hen’s egg or a ship constructed with as many as 32 individual sails, some no larger than a thumbnail.
The shape and size of the bottle has to be carefully
considered at the planning stage, as it dictates the maximum height and
width of the ship.
When a rectangular bottle is used to display a ship, what was once the side becomes the base, so that a rectangular bottle offers more width but less depth than a round bottle. This places a constraint on the height of the ships masts. However, a round bottle will need more ‘sea’ to give a reasonable wide, flat surface for the hull. An advantage of a rectangular bottle is that it can stand alone, without a wooden stand.
A useful rule of thumb to remember is that the internal height of the bottle, when lying flat, dictates the height of the ships masts; the width of the bottles neck dictates the depth of the ships hull. These two taken together determine the length of the ship to keep it in proportion.
The model maker must also plan how to construct the sails so
they can be collapsed to enable the ship to pass through the bottle neck.
In addition, the ship and bottle must complement each other
visually. A long, slim bottle demands a ship with a long, sleek hull,
while a flatter ship with a large number of sails requires a wider,
rounder bottle. Pictorial scenes, including busy harbour or distant
headland are sometimes included in the composition.
Maritime museums and books on ships are invaluable sources of
reference when it comes to choosing what type of ship to model. From a
detailed drawing of an authentic ship, the craftsperson makes an accurate
sketch to scale and then selects the appropriate bottle to suit the ship
he wants to make.
An assortment of tools is used to make the model and many can
be found around the home. A Stanley knife, scissors, razor blade, small
drill bits and sandpaper are the basic necessities. Materials include a
small block of fine grained wood for the hull, 1/16 inch birch dowel,
cocktail sticks and wire, and paint, varnish and paper for the decorative
The sea – Putty coloured with oil paint is manipulated
inside the bottle using a piece of wire curled into a small spatula at one
end. The putty should coat the bottom of the bottle as it lies flat. An
indentation is made for the ships hull, with ruffles around this to
imitate waves. The putty or plasticine is left to dry thoroughly.
The ship – This usually comprises the hull; the spars
(which include the masts, bowsprit and the various sail supports); the
rigging (the ropes – or thread in the case of the model – that brace
the masts and bowsprit); the sails and the deck fittings and any sailor
- is carved first and then a cocktail stick is used
for the key piece, the bowsprit. This takes the tensioning threads (used
to pull up the folded masts) up to the spars, and is attached to the hull.
If there is to be a deck with fittings, that too is carved out. It is then
sanded down and painted, normally in black. Some parts of the hull may be
- are usually fashioned from 1-2mm birch dowel –
cut into a number of separate sections, which, when collapsed, will lie
almost flat along the length of the hull. The dowel is split lengthways
and sanded down until it is once again round.
To enable the model maker to pull the masts up into position
once the folded frame is inside the bottle, waxed, brown thread has to be
threaded through every section of every mast, from top to bottom.
Short pieces of dowel are cut for each individual section,
usually two or three to each mast. Tiny holes are drilled in each section
where they overlap, so the pieces can be threaded together.
The base of each mast is fixed with a U-shaped wire threaded
through the holes in the deck and twisted underneath to form a collapsible
hinge arrangement. The masts are then braced in three directions by the
rigging in brown thread. This is passed through tiny drill holes in the
masts. The masts are thus braced in the same way as tents and their main
poles are braced with tiny guy ropes.
At this point the skeleton of the ship is complete with hull,
spars and rigging all carved and fitted. The model now needs the sails and
deck fittings to be put in place and to be given the final coats of paint.
Some crafts people put on the sails before folding down the
masts and rigging and pass the entire folded ship through the bottles
neck, while others prefer to fix the sails on once the skeleton is in the
bottle. There are pros and cons to both methods and with practise, trial
and error each crafts person arrives at the method that suits them best.
Each sail is cut out of white bond paper and curled around a
pencil to give the impression of a billowing sail. Each one is fixed in
authentic fashion to its spar. Any finishing touches of paint and varnish
required are then added.
At last comes the moment for the ship to go in the bottle.
The inside of the bottle is first cleaned with turps on a swab fixed to a
long piece of wire to remove any smears of putty or plasticine. The
indentation in the sea is then coated with glue to hold the ship in place.
The masts and rigging are carefully folded down, making sure
that the key threads are free to be pulled once the ship is inside, so
that the masts and rigging can be raised. The folded ship is passed
through the bottles neck.
It is most important that the threads are not pulled before
the hull is stuck to the putty sea, but it is also essential that the
threads do not become glued down or it will be impossible to erect the
main masts and rigging. So, the rigging threads are teased out very
carefully as the glue starts to set and are finally pulled through the
neck only when the glue has set hard.
Once the glue has set and the hull is firmly embedded in its
sea, the threads are pulled carefully and the ship stands upright in all
its glory. Trailing threads are snipped off and the bottle is sealed with
a cork cut flush and red sealing wax. A Turk’s head knot worked in twine
around the neck adds the last touch.
The completed ship in a bottle provides a lasting tribute to the great age of sail and the ingenuity, the painstaking patience and the artistry of its maker.
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