Ship In A Bottle
The ship is obviously much larger than the opening in the bottle. Many
people think the underside of the bottle is cut away; the ship, however,
is made of wood and its sails and rigging are paper and thread. The secret
is that the ship's hull is small enough to fit through the
bottle's neck, but the sails and spars (the masts and sail
supports) are collapsible and can be pulled into position using
The history of ships in bottles is the history of the two major
components. Sailors on ships of all sizes and types have used scrap wood,
cloth, and rope to make model or toy boats to pass long hours at sea. This
model-making dates back perhaps 4,000 years. The Egyptians buried
miniature ships with their mummified masters, and the Phoenicians,
Etruscans, and Greeks produced models that are shown in wall murals.
The merging of model ships with bottles is a much more recent development,
due largely to the poor quality of early bottles. Models of human and
heavenly figures were put in bottles as early as about 1750 and may have
originated in monasteries, when, again, many quiet hours were available
for crafts. Character and puzzle models were put in bottles of flawed
glass and of shapes that help date them. When techniques of manufacturing
glass improved, glass bottles were clearer, less distorted, and free of
bubbles and heavy seams. Today, minor distortions, soft tints, and the
antique appearance of hand-blown bottles are seen as advantages.
Model ships were not bottled until about 1850 when the great clipper ships
plied the seas from port cities in England and America. These ships had as
many as seven masts and many sails for the speeds needed to cross oceans
and deliver products and profits. They were also equipped with guns and
the large crews of sailors for manning the rigging and weapons. The date
of the first construction of a ship in a bottle is unknown; but the
patience needed to fold the masts in the bottle was a challenge, and the
bottle protected the model. Most of the classic sailing ships have been
preserved in bottles and in maritime museums.
The wood for the hull and the glass bottle should be chosen after the
model is selected; the proportions of the ship are better suited to some
bottles, and measurements of the ship parts are controlled by the inner
diameter of the neck of the bottle. Usually, the wood is a hardwood such
as spruce or fir, and it should be close-grained with no flaws. Bottles
with flat sides rest on shelves or tables easily. Three-sided bottles with
"dimples" also display attractively. Round bottles require
stands or supports for stability. Ships with more than three masts look
sleek in slender, elongated bottles. Sloops, schooners, and other ships
with one or two masts fit shorter bottles well.
Other wood supplies include bamboo cocktail skewers or small-diameter
dowels for spars, popsicle sticks that can be carved into deckhouses and
lifeboats, wood matching the hull for a display stand, and larger blocks
of scrap wood for a raised work stand. Sandpaper in grades from about
120-200 for smoothing the hull and other wood is also essential.
Thread, wire, glue, and clear nail polish are used for the rigging, metal
trim like rails, and gluing pieces together (the nail polish is also used
as glue). Beeswax helps seal the fine wisps of thread together. Paint
thinner, model enamels in a variety of colors, and fine paintbrushes are
the materials and tools for painting the ship parts. Medium-weight white
bond paper is cut into the shapes of the sails, and seams are drawn on
with a pencil that is also used to curve the sails.
The "sea" beneath the ship can be made with one of two
materials. Linseed oil putty and artists' oil colors, especially
white, shades of blue, and some green, are the materials for one method.
In the second technique, Plasticene (artists') clay is used to
shape the sea. The clay is manufactured in a wide range of colors, so the
model builder can choose the best sea color or combination and use white
clay slivers for whitecaps.
The method of sealing the bottle should also match the style of the ship
and bottle, and the method dictates the materials. Corks, red sealing wax,
and cotton fishing line tied around the neck of the bottle in
Turk's Head or other sailors' knots are a common
combination. Finally, the underside of the bottle (or back of a display
board) should be inked with white enamel describing the model.
The hobbyist also needs a selection of simple tools like Exacto knives, a
hobby drill with fine bits, and miniature screwdrivers, saws, and a vise.
Some tools have to be made for the specific bottle and model size. These
include wire tweezers, scoops, and tampers for reaching the back of the
bottle and for scooping and tamping putty or clay into place. Clothes
hangers can be cut and shaped into long handles for these tools, and
pieces cut from a tin can should be soldered to the wire to finish these.
The ships that are featured in bottles are historical subjects, and part
of the modeler's skill is recreating a miniature version of the
original including the colors it was painted, the carving of its
figurehead, and the national flag at the time the ship sailed. Design
aspects of the ship are the modeler's choice of which ship to build
and his or her depth of research. Crafters should begin with a simple
model and learn some of the basic nautical terms for sails, rigging, and
parts of a ship.
Apart from the ship, other aspects of the display are the crafter's
choice. These include the type of bottle and display stand or wall mount,
decorations like rope edging and sailors' knots, and other touches
inside the bottle.
Bottles may be chosen for size, shape, color, character, or eccentricity.
Sizes can range from 3 in
) to 2.7 qt (3 l). A ship can be finished in a large bottle with a
companion version in a tiny bottle. Pairs of identical bottles and ships
have been sealed together mouth-to-mouth and mounted on an elevated
display stand to emphasize the unusual construction. Ships have also been
sealed in light bulbs from large, clear globes to Christmas tree bulbs.
Ultimately, the most successful designs balance creativity and
faithfulness to historical accuracy and realism. Small vessels should sail
on green or greenish blue near coastal water, rather than the deep blue of
the open ocean. Similarly, ships do not confront violent seas in full
sail, so the modeler needs to show restraint in painting whitecaps.
Proportions of masts and rigging to hulls, deck houses, lifeboats, and
flags should be as true as possible because some errors will be obvious
even to someone who has never seen a ship in a bottle before.
When the ship and its bottle have been selected, all measurements of
both should be checked and double-checked. The ship and its collapsed
parts must fit through the neck of the bottle and must not hit the top
or sides of the bottle when the masts are erected. The modeler cannot
forget to add in the thickness of the planned sea under the ship. The
bottle should be cleaned and dried.
If the sea is to be made of putty, this is the next step. The putty is
mixed with oil paint in a shade suiting the sea; partial blending of
several colors will create the right tint and add variety to the
The sea should also be dark so the ship and waves are visible. The
crafter uses a custom-made scoop to spoon the putty in the bottle. A
wire tamper is then used to spread the putty and shape some waves and a
flat area for the base of the ship's hull. Smudges should be
cleaned from the sides of the bottle, and it must be left open until the
putty is dry. Whitecaps, wakes, and waves should be touched with white
paint when the putty is dry. If putty is used, the sea should be made
before the model is carved and finished; if Plasticene clay is the ocean
water, the same process should be followed after the ship is constructed
and when the crafter is ready to tamp the ship into the clay.
Construction of the ship begins with carving the hull. The block of wood
should be gripped in a vise until the basic shape, curved sides, and
deck are cut out. Chiseling out the extra wood makes raised parts of the
deck and the bulwarks around the edge of the deck. The bow and stem
(front and rear ends) of the ship are shaped next, and the hull is cut
away from the host block of wood. The hull should be sanded with
increasingly fine sandpaper and coated with clear nail polish that will
seal the wood and "varnish" the deck. The outer hull is
then painted with two coats of enamel of the correct colors. Thread is
used to mark straight lines showing gun ports and other lines.
The deck is finished, but details can be added by cutting lifeboats,
hatches, and deckhouses from wood skewers or popsicle sticks. Other trim
like metal rails, stanchions (posts), and davits supporting the
lifeboats can be made from wire and inserted in holes drilled with a
fine bit. Clear nail polish again glues these details in place and coats
the wire. Tiny hitches can be tied on the stanchions.
The wooden supports for the sails are collectively called spars. The
spars include masts, the bowsprit (a single spar projecting from the bow
or front of the ship), yards (spars that hold square sails and cross a
mast), booms (spars along the bottom edges of fore-and-aft sails), and
gaffs (spars along the top edges of fore-and-aft sails). The spars and
rigging must be true to the ship being modeled or the model will not
appear authentic. Spars usually have to be on the order of 0.06 in (0.16
cm) in diameter. Birch doweling or bamboo skewers are used to make the
spars but are larger in diameter and should be sanded to be more slender
and round. Masts are larger in diameter than other spars and, ideally,
should taper from bottom to top. Completed spars are coated with clear
nail polish to prevent the wood or bamboo from splitting and to add a
glossy finish. Holes for rigging lines and holes at the bases of the
masts for wire pivots are drilled next.
No. 30 gauge wire is fed through the base of each mast and bent in a
U-shape with the two arms projecting down to construct a pivot. After
the pivot ends are fastened into matching holes on the deck, the pivots
will act as hinges to lower the masts and raise them again inside the
The bowsprit is the first spar that is glued or drilled into the
foredeck. The threads that will be used to raise the masts will surround
the bowsprit, so it has to be fixed securely to the hull. A fine drill
point is used to drill holes through the spars for the rigging. Sewing
thread tipped with nail polish to stiffen the ends is appropriate for
Each mast with its set of spars including yards, gaffs, and booms is
assembled as a unit. Types of knots have to be chosen carefully because
some lines of rigging run fore and aft and others side to side. Rigging
that is tied in the wrong direction, with the wrong knots, or too
tightly will prevent small and fragile pieces from folding to fit into
the bottle and from being erected inside the bottle.
After each mast and its spars are complete, its position on the deck
should be marked and holes should be drilled for the pivot wire or
hinge. The pivot wires for all masts should be inserted in the holes and
checked to confirm that the masts will lie almost parallel to the deck
and that the spars will also turn to parallel to the long axis of the
ship. When the spars are proven to move freely, the masts can be glued
in place. Later, after the sails are fixed in place, the tips of the
spars will be painted white for visibility.
The stays or controlling lines that will be used to raise and lower the
spars, rigging, and sails are tied to the masts using clove hitch knots
or running them through
holes and the masts, hull, and bowsprit. All of the knots and holes
must be positioned above other spars on the masts so the lines will not
hang up on the sails. The lines have to extend at least 18 in (46 cm)
below the hull and bowsprit for enough working length to erect the masts
later. This excess should be tied to hooks or tacks in the work stand
supporting the model.
The ship is constructed outside of the bottle, then gently placed
inside and raised.
The masts are stabilized on the sides with shroud lines that are
attached to the bulwark, which is the rail-like edge of the hull
extending above the deck. The shroud lines have to extend from
immediately to the sides of each mast or to the bulwarks aft of the
masts so they will not prevent the masts from being folded aft to pass
through the mouth of the bottle. An 18-in-long (46-cm-long) piece of
thread is knotted at one end, pulled through the inside of the forward
hole on the starboard (left) side of the bulwark until the knot stops at
the hole and further threaded through the hole in the mast. The thread
is then run outside the port side of the bulwark, through the outside of
the forward hole to the inside then wound on the inside of the bulwark
through to the next hole on the port side and back through the mast.
This process continues until the shroud lines are complete, the mast
stands at the correct position, and the lines are tight. Nail polish is
then painted on the thread on the inside and outside of the bulwarks;
when the polish dries, the thread should be cut. Shroud lines are
attached to each mast by the same method. Enamel should be painted over
the shroud line holes on the hull to blend with the existing paint.
A square-rigged vessel requires further rigging called lifts and braces.
They are tied to the ends of the yards and passed through holes in the
masts. Each lift rises from one end of a yard through a hole in the mast
above the yard and back to the other end of the yard. Each brace
attaches to one end of the yard, passes through a hole in the mast
behind the mast supporting the subject yard, and is tied to the opposite
end of the yard. In other words, the lift rises perpendicular to the
deck, and the brace parallels it. This rigging allows the yards to be
raised and lowered and moved fore and aft, like those on a true
square-rigger. All rigging knots should be touched with clear nail
polish to seal them.
Medium-weight bond paper is excel-lent for sails because it can be
easily marked and curled. Cloth can also have weaves and thicknesses
that are too large for
the scale of the model. Soaking it in tea or coffee, drying it, and
ironing it can "age" the paper. The sails should be drawn
on the paper to match the dimensions on the plan. After cutting out the
sails, each one should be held in position against its spar to confirm
the fit. The seams and reef points (short lengths of rigging that pull
up the bases of the sails) are drawn on the sails with a sharp-pointed
pencil. The pencil is also used to curve each sail by wrapping the sail
around it. The sails are glued in place with clear nail polish, but some
are glued along one side only so the mast and other spars will fold
back. The edges that should be glued must be carefully checked.
As noted in Step 2 above, the "sea" in the bottle can
either be made of putty before the ship model is constructed or from
Plasticene when the ship is finished and ready to be pressed into in the
bottle. Plasticene has the advantage of providing its own adhesive
effect. If Plasticene is used as the sea, it should be added to the
bottle at this point in the construction process. Otherwise, the bottle
with the putty sea should have glue placed on the flat pad prepared
earlier to hold the ship. It will stay wet in the confines of the bottle
until the ship is collapsed to fit in the bottle.
To collapse the ship, the controlling lines attached to the work stand
should be untied. Beginning with the aft (rear) mast, each mast should
be lowered, and the spars should be turned to parallel the masts. The
sails will extend over the bulwarks and should be wrapped around the
hull. The stem of the ship should be inserted in the bottle first. When
most of the ship is in the mouth of the bottle, long tweezers should be
used to support the rest of the model to guide it into the bottle. With
the model gripped with the tweezers and well inside the bottle, the
lines (extending outside the bottle) should be pulled gently and in the
correct order to raise the masts from fore to aft and to align the
spars. The model can then be put on the pad of glue or Plasticene and
pushed down with the tamper. The rigging may have tangled during the
lowering and raising of the masts and can be untangled when the hull is
stuck in place. Similarly, the sail alignments can be corrected. The
whole process of inserting the ship in the bottle and unfurling and
correcting its parts must be done carefully so the sails are not torn or
other damage is not done.
After the sea dries, the masts should b e fastened in their permanent
positions. The stay or controlling lines should be pulled and taped to
the outside of the bottle. They should be secured to the bowsprit with
drops of nail polish, then the tape holding the lines should be removed
to test the security of the masts. If they keep their positions, the
lines can be cut where they pass through to the underside of the
bowsprit. Final corrections can be made to the rigging and sails.
The bottle is sealed with a cork, but this can be cut off flush with the
mouth of the bottle or left partially extended. The bottle can be
resealed with its metal screw-on cap, if appropriate. All seals can be
anchored with sealing wax. Cotton fishing can be tied into a
Turk's Head knot commonly seen on ships and nautical items. A
sequence of knots forms a line that can be wrapped around the
bottle's neck. The modeler's name, date of construction,
and the type and name of the ship can be written on the underside of the
bottle or engraved on a metal tag.
To provide the finishing touch, a wooden display stand or wall mount can
be constructed to complement the model. The ship in the bottle must
remain the focal point, and, ideally, the stand will consist of rope,
wood, or "period" materials rather than modern choices.
The range of possibilities is large, but some research and woodworking
techniques are useful in selecting a stand and finishing it elegantly.
Displaying the model at eye level and lighting it attractively should
also be considered.
The final impact of a ship in a bottle depends on the crafter's
skill in every step of research, planning, selecting the bottle, modeling
the ship, finishing all details including rigging and sails, erecting the
model inside the bottle, and displaying the finished work of art. A ship
in a bottle is a work of art and should be treated like the revered craft
it is. If a model builder has any interest in learning this craft, he or
she must emphasize quality throughout, including the process of checking
and double-checking plans and measurements.
Building ships in bottles produces almost no waste because of the small
features of the models and the limited amounts of materials required. Some
wood trimmings may result and are easily disposed.
The artist's safety is also reasonably secure. Chisels, hobby
knives, pins, wires, and other sharp tools may cause the occasional cut.
However, the tools are small and are generally familiar to those who
become fascinated with this hobby. Other materials like nail polish and
modeling enamels produce fumes, but these are also minor. Adequate
ventilation and lighting are best for the hobbyist's safety.
The hobby of building ships in bottles is not for everyone. Love of
research, ships and sea lore, history, woodworking and other skills, and
minute details, as well as considerable patience, are required. The
finished models are surprisingly durable and are treasured possessions to
leave to children and grandchildren. Competitions are held around the
world and opportunities to display models, including museum exhibits, are
plentiful, so many people can enjoy these creations and purchase and
This nautical craft thrives because parts can be produced in numbers and
sold in kits for hobbyists of all skill levels. The temporary nature of so
many modern collectibles and mass production on a far greater scale than
the ship-in-a-bottle kits have also encouraged crafters to pursue this
relatively unusual interest. Those who appreciate ships in bottles are not
likely to grow to huge numbers, but they are intensely loyal to the blend
of skill and mystery in these models, insuring a small but stable future.
Where to Learn More
Ships-in Bottles: A Step-by-Step Guide to a Venerable Nautical Craft.
New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971.
Modelling Ships in Bottles.
Wellingborough, England: Patrick Stephens Limited, 1985.
The World of Model Ships.
Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1979.
Nautical Gift Shop Web Page.
December 2001. <
Langfords Marine Antiques Web Page.
December 2001. <
Uptown Sales Web Page.
"Authentic Ship-In-A-Bottle Kits." December 2001.