3/11/2010

building a better bottle wall


Have always admired bottle built walls and windows, a time honored folk art way of laying bottles up as masonry with grout. Poor man's stained glass. The bottle village in California is even on the national register of historic places. I've seen whiskey bottles used, beer bottles, coke bottles, wine bottles, even embalming fluid bottles in an old ghost town in Arizona. A bottle house in nearby Wimberley built entirely of coke bottles laid in patterns is a beautiful example. I had the idea to build a large window into the bathroom out of bottles and jars over the tub; it would form one long side of the shower and can shed water as well as glass block. The tub may actually end up perpendicular to it now because of a plumbing situation with the composting toilet we've selected but it will still serve the same purpose. Started with a healthy frame of full 2x material for weight and adequate depth well anchored to the 2x6 stud exterior wall. The bottles are laid up with a bed of mortar leaving exposed ends inside and out that will then be grouted with tile grout after we get all the bottles in. The inherent problem with bottle wall construction is if a full bottle is used then one side or the other is going to have an open neck. I've seen them alternated, with the necks pointing in, or the necks pointing out which makes for the prettiest exposure through the butts from the inside but makes for a great place for bugs, dirt, and moisture to accumulate. If one were able to cut them in half, turn two ends together so that there is a butt inside and out it will solve the open end problem and admit the maximum amount of light in the process but it means using twice as many bottles and lots of cutting. The benefits are worth the trouble though, the resulting "brick" is not argon filled low-e by any means but a 7-1/2" deep dead air space is pretty damn good insulation. Trial and error (and error) gave us an efficient process for making consistent clean cuts. Ronco sold a miracle bottle cutter over the TV when I was a kid, it was a piece of junk and didn't yield us a cabinet full of free drinking glasses, windchimes on the porch or flower vases for Mom but I seem to remember I had fun with it for a day or two. It was basically a jig to hold a glass cutter head a certain distance up from the base of the bottle, spinning the bottle with practice makes a nice even score around the bottle , a bent wire tapper inserted down the neck will finish the break. Sandpaper the sharp edges and Voila! - you just made an ugly drinking glass. I made a plywood jig half the height of the depth of the wall, attached a new glass cutter with screws and with practice it yields a very straight cut. Forget the tapping; the ringing of a bottle is of a deafening frequency and the break lines tended to wander. I have cut bottles before with an alcohol soaked string tied around the jar: light it and let it burn out to heat the glass at a precise line followed by a quick dunk in cold water. The temperature shock shatters the glass in a surprisingly clean line. Neat trick but no good for mass production. We tried holding the score over a candle and dunking in water; meh. Mixed results. More heat! More cold! Yin and yang, fire and ice. Spinning the score line over the low flame of a propane torch followed by a spin on an ice cube snaps that sucker right off. Any broken edges can be cleaned up with nippers. The halves are matched up for size, cleaned, left to dry and then taped together using adhesive stainless steel tape used for duct sealing, one of my new favorite essential materials after duct tape, baling wire and queso. The subsequent sealed joint is buried within the depth of the mortar bed. Mixing colors from end to end - half brown, half clear - gives us more of a color range to work with. Old Evian bottles from our stock at the gazebo are a great turquoise blue, the cobalt blue milk of magnesia, square ice blue gin bottles, lime green rolling rock and olive green wine bottles, and oversized brown Clorox bottles mix nicely. The light transmission is better than hoped for. We have no shortage of jars and bottles yet plus my beer selection of late has leaned towards the bottle color over brand in anticipation of this project. The son-in-laws have filled in the gaps with lots of green, clear and brown beer bottles. Road kill provided us with a large wine bottle and a stop at a BBQ joint turned up gallon jalapeno pepper jars that will let in a lot of light. Random sized round bottle ends form an intended visual connection with the mesquite log ends we will be laying the bathroom floor with. Now we have the family gathering bottle caps to grout down as a tiled vanity top for a similar theme at a smaller scale.

8 comments:

  1. What a beautiful window! You are doing an awesome job on your place. Can't wait to visit you again!

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  2. Hi
    How do you ensure the bottle wall/mortar/grout is waterproof?
    Thanks

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  3. Annie, we had a little condensation inside a few bottles after we got them in the wall but it has since dried out. We grouted the inside of the window with tile grout so it will be as waterproof as any other tile wall but I plan to use a shower curtain surround to keep direct spray off it anyways. There is a deep overhang on the outside but plan to use a silicon type waterproofing there too for insurance. Thanks for the question.

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  4. what a great use of bottles, i love the light and colur they provide. i want to use them as a wall for my shower but am intrigued as to how to make the wall strog as only one edge will be against a wall, although it will go from floor to ceiling.any tips? what do you use to stick bottles together (as mortar) and finally what sort of grout as im worried mould may be an issue? thanks for your time. fergus

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  5. fergus; the bottle wall is plenty stout using this technique. you can also cut the necks off wherever you want to make the wall thicker and more stable, this one is about 6" thick. If it is a open ended shower wall like you say it would probably be strongest if it were capped off with a frame of some sorts like maybe find a stiff piece of metal you like the looks of; perhaps aluminum that wouldn't rust? or stiffen it up by curving it for better geometry, might look really nice. we used normal masonry mortar and then grouted it with sanded tile grout, you can seal it with a silicon type brush-on waterproofing.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your project!
    3.5 years later, how is it doing? I am investigating making some bottle walls in Alaska. I am concerned about the cold weather... any thoughts on practicality of a bottle wall in a harsh climate?

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    1. so sorry I missed your comment last year, have been lax in the blogging alas. The bottle wall has functioned perfectly well and we've had no problems and noticed no change since it was new. Planning on building a greenhouse soon and it will also use bottles along with cordwood construction on the lower walls. Build on and good luck!

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  7. Hi, I'm also considering using bottles for small opening in the conversion of my stone barn. Like the question above I was wondering how your window was holding after a few years. I especially like your bottle cutting machine and double bum out approach!

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constructive comments or serious questions and inquiries are welcome.