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The Craft of Ships in Bottles

The Craft of Ships in BottlesShips in Bottles Introduction

The nautical craft of displaying miniature ships in bottles exercise the skills of the model maker to the full. It takes detailed planning and some tricky construction work to come up with a ship which will pass like magic through the neck of a bottle.

Origins of 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.

Nautical Crafts Basic techniques

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 finish.  


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 figures.  


The hull - 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 varnished.  


The masts - 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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