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How to Make a Ship in a Bottle: DIY Instructions

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Dawn is a Canadian crafter skilled in textile work, weaving and toy making, among other arts.

Review some instructions and diagrams for creating a ship in a bottle. Discover the amount of effort and fine detail that goes into this challenging craft.

Review some instructions and diagrams for creating a ship in a bottle. Discover the amount of effort and fine detail that goes into this challenging craft.

The beautiful shapes and proportions of jars and bottles we see on a regular basis are often disregarded because they are such common objects. Once the contents have been finished, they are either disposed of in the trash or, hopefully, put into the recycling bucket.

If you are patient and prepared to take the time and trouble, making a ship in a bottle is a rewarding hobby. Once it's completed, you can display it on your mantle as a masterpiece to be enjoyed by generations to come—a legacy, if you will, of time spent in patient concentration.

Creating a Ship in a Bottle

This article will start with a supply list and then go over the following steps:

  1. Cleaning the Bottle
  2. Making the Hull of the Ship
  3. Pouring the 'Sea' Into the Bottle
  4. Inserting the Waterline Section
  5. Making the Sails of the Ship
  6. Building the Ship
  7. Inserting the Ship Into the Bottle
A ship in a bottle is a masterpiece.

A ship in a bottle is a masterpiece.

Supply List

  • One clear glass bottle at least 9½ inches tall by 4 inches in diameter, with an internal neck diameter of 1 inch
  • One 6-inch by ½-inch by ¼-inch piece of balsa wood
  • One 6-inch by ½-inch by 1/8-inch piece of balsa wood
  • Balsa cement
  • Fine sandpaper
  • Fuse wire
  • Bamboo cane
  • Black thread
  • Stiff wire
  • Small straight pins
  • Household cellulose filler
  • Enamel paints in red, black, brown, and gray
  • Poster paints in sea blue and white
  • Tracing paper
  • Adhesive tape
  • Craft knife
  • Small paintbrush

1. Cleaning the Bottle

Always be sure to clean your bottles well before you re-use them. It is usually sufficient just to rinse the bottles with a warm, soapy solution. Soak them overnight if labels prove stubborn to remove.

  • In extreme cases, remove fragments with a pot scourer. I find it easier to put the pot scourer in the bottle and then use the handle of a wooden spoon to scour the inside.
  • Some liquids, particularly wine, can discolor a bottle inside. Add a tablespoon of bleach to hot water and soak overnight to take care of those stubborn stains.
  • A denture-cleaning tablet dissolved in water in the bottle will usually remove all traces of lime. Leave for 48 hours, shaking intermittently.
  • An alternate cleaning solution can be made by dissolving egg shells in lemon juice. It will take the egg shells about 24 to dissolve naturally. Using the same method as the denture-cleaning tablet, leave for 48 hours, shaking intermittently.

2. Making the Hull of the Ship

  1. Draw deck plan X (Figure 1a) on ¼-inch balsa wood, and draw waterline plan Y onto the underside of the same piece (Figure 1b). Also, draw the waterline plan on the 1/8-inch balsa wood. Figure 1 shows the side and top view (profile and plan) of these two balsa pieces that form the hull.
  2. Trim around the deck piece X with the craft knife (Figure 2a), cutting vertically down, and finish shaping with sandpaper to give a smooth curve.
  3. Model the shape, tapering away the underside at stem and stern, so the underside will eventually fit the waterline piece.
  4. Sand away the deck to curve up toward the stem and stern (Figure 2b), leaving the forecastle and poop deck standing up 1/16 inch higher. Use fine sandpaper wrapped around a pencil for modeling.
  5. Cut out waterline piece Y (Figure 2a) in the same way, but omit the modeling.

Decorating the Hull: Cabins, Davits, Lifeboats, and More

  1. Stick on small squares of 1/16-inch balsa to represent the cabins, etc. (Figure 2c). Make davits from small bent pins and safety rails with 15 amp fuse wire.
  2. Cut small lifeboat shapes from 1/16-inch balsa and stick them on.
  3. Mark mast positions on the deck (Figure 1) and groove the deck to represent planks. Paint the cabins brown and the hull grey and black, with a red line around Y for the Plimsoll line.
Figure 3

Figure 3

3. Pouring the 'Sea' Into the Bottle

  1. Clean and dry the bottle (see step 1 for more specific details on cleaning).
  2. Mix the cellulose filler and add blue poster paint for the sea. Make the mixture wetter than normal so it will flow like thick cream.
  3. Using a piece of stiff cardboard curved in the bottle neck, carefully pour in the filler, raising the bottle neck as little as possible from a horizontal position (Figure 3a).
  4. Leave it alone until it's almost set, then model the surface with a piece of bent stiff wire to simulate waves.
Scroll to Continue

4. Inserting the Waterline Section

  1. Keeping the bottle horizontal, insert waterline section Y (stern-first) while the cellulose filler is still unset.
  2. Place it centrally (Figure 3b above). The best way to do this is to attach the bow of the ship to a piece of 1/16-inch balsa with a touch of glue, then push it in place and press down with a skewer while you gently twist off the bamboo.
  3. Use a fine brush to fleck the sea with white paint.
Figure 4

Figure 4

5. Making the Sails of the Ship

  1. Draw the sails shown in Figure 4 on tracing paper. Square sail 'bank' (c) should be placed on the fold along line X-X.
  2. Cut square sails (c) three times, foresails (a) four times, and spanker sail (b) once. Cut out the sails and spaces. Do not cut right to the outer edges of the sail; the banks of square sails should be in one piece.
  3. Cut slivers of bamboo about 1/16 inch thick for spars (the horizontal pieces for square sails), which should be 1/16 inch longer than the width of each sail.
  4. Taper each spar with sandpaper. Carefully stick on the spars along the top edge of each sail with balsa cement (Figure 5a, shown below). Curve sails out with fingers.
  5. Cut four masts: three 1/4 inch longer than the banks of square sails (c) and one 1/4 inch longer than the spanker sail (b) in Figure 4.

Using Thread to Make the Rigging

  1. Thread a needle with a long length of black thread, and push the needle through the top center of the top square sail and up around the yard, knotting it to the yard and leaving a 12-inch loose end above it. Then, move down to the next yard, knotting it again, and so on (Figure 5b, shown below).
  2. Do this so that the thread between each pair of yards is a fraction shorter than the height of each sail, to hold it in a curve. Leave a loose end trailing from the final knot at the center of the bottom yard. The loose ends at the top and bottom will be used to hoist the sails.
  3. Strengthen the bottom corners of the lowest sail with adhesive tape, then pass the needle through each of these, taking a small piece of thread with it. Tie off at the sail corners, leaving about 3 inches trailing (Figure 4c).
Figures 5 to 10

Figures 5 to 10

6. Building the Ship

Adding the Masts

  1. Sharpen one end of each mainmast to a point that you'll push into the hull. Carefully mark the position of the lowest yard on each mast, then cut a groove all the way around, about 1/8 inch from the sharp point.
  2. Wrap adhesive tape from the point of the lowest yard down towards the sharpened end. Mark where each mast goes on the deck and dab glue on the point of each.
  3. Push the masts 1/16 inch into the deck, taking care that the masts are parallel. When the glue has set, carefully bend each mast right back, holding them firmly between your finger and thumb as near to the deck as possible. They will break and bend back to the deck level without snapping off because of the tape (Figure 6).

Making the Bowsprit

  1. Take a piece of bamboo cane that's 1 foot long by 1/16 inch and rounded to make the bowsprit. Sharpen one end.
  2. Apply glue to the point and drive it 1/16 inch into the hull at the correct angle (see Figure 1 near the top of the article). Then, cut a groove around it 1 inch from where it enters the hull so the surplus can be easily snapped off later.
  3. Bind it with thread behind the groove and tie it off with a loop for the rigging threads to pass through (bs in Figure 7).

Fastening the Sails, Shrouds, and Yards to the Masts

  1. Reinforce the bottom and top front corners of the spanker sail with tape and fasten the front bottom corner to mast 4 using thread (Figure 7).
  2. Take the thread up and tie it to the top corner with a length 2 feet long. Leave it trailing. Bind another length of thread several times around the top of this short mast and tie it off with a small loop (Figure 7). Cut it off.
  3. With the masts upright, take the long loose thread from the top of the spanker sail with a needle through the loop at the top of the mast, then tie it firmly to the top of the next mast, again tying it off with a small loop. Do not cut the thread, but take it on to the top of the next mast, loop and tie it, and proceed to the foremast, taking the thread down to the end of the bowsprit and through loop bs there.
  4. Now wind the thread several times around the surplus bowsprit (do not tie it) to hold the masts up temporarily. Check that all the loops are well-made and that the thread is tied to the masts at the right places.
  5. Tie on the shrouds as shown in Figure 8a (five on each main mast and two on the after mast), passing the thread right around the hull. Stick on the shrouds with tape to hold them in place.
  6. Fix the bottom yard on each bank of sails to its mast by firmly tying the length of thread hanging from the center point to the mast (just below the shrouds) and cutting off the loose end (Figure 8b). The yards should cross the deck at the angle shown in Figure 8c.

Ensuring That the Sails Will Rise Correctly

  1. When all of the yards are set, drive a small pin into the deck on each side about 1 inch behind the mast and fasten 'ropes' trailing from the bottom corners of the lower sails tightly to the pin on the appropriate side (Figure 8b and 8c) to ensure that the sails set correctly when raised.
  2. Pass the thread from the center of the top yard on the front mast through loop 1 at the top of that mast and down through loop bs, then pass the thread from the top yard on mast 2 through 3, 2, 1, and bs (as a reminder, Figure 7 shows the mast numbering).
  3. Attach the foresails (Figure 5c) together with thread as shown and tie the lower ends to the bowsprit, and tie the upper thread to the center of the third yard down mast 1.
Figures 5 to 10 again (also used for the instructions below)

Figures 5 to 10 again (also used for the instructions below)

7. Inserting the Ship Into the Bottle

  1. Fold the five top sails on each mast down against the bottom sail in accordion fashion, making sure no yards are caught behind the masts (Figure 9).
  2. Fold the masts right down backwards, carefully coaxing the sails into the correct position so they do not protrude too much at the sides of the hull—but are also not caught so they will not haul up.
  3. Get someone to hold the bottle firmly. Smear adhesive thinly on the underside of hull X, then, holding the still-unshortened bowsprit in one hand, insert the mizzen mast, the top of the next mast, and the stern very carefully into the bottle, adjusting each sail's position as it goes in (Figure 10).
  4. With a long skewer, press the hull down on the base, using the bowsprit to ensure that the placement on the bottom section is accurate. Let the glue set.

Raising the Masts and Sails and Removing the Surplus Bowsprit

  1. Moisten the binding and loops bs with glue, then find the thread attached to the spanker sail on mast 4 (Figure 6) and gently haul. This will cause all the masts to rise so that the shrouds are tight and the spanker and foresails will assume their positions.
  2. Pull on each of the other threads in turn until all the sails are hoisted. When you are sure that all the threads are held by set glue at bs, gently twist the bamboo cane until the surplus bowsprit breaks off. Cut off the threads as close as possible to the bowsprit.
  3. Close the bottle with a stopper and proudly display it.

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle: A Huge Piece of Art

© 2013 Dawn


Rewan on May 26, 2020:


Charla Puccino on February 06, 2020:

Love the rings

Lukas Mauch-Bailey on March 21, 2015:

The most awesomest site that you don't have to buy THANK YOU GUYS

Bubbi on February 13, 2015:

It's good to see someone thinikng it through.

Natasha from Mississippi on March 26, 2014:

So cool I always wondered how they made these. It seems a little hard but I will for sure have to try this.

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