Building a Ship in a Bottle.




Hello, Building a ship in a bottle was an old form of maritime art. Sailors of the past would often create things in their free time. They also did not have much room for big hobbies, and from this came old treasures such as scrimshaw carvings and ships in bottles.

I have not made one of these for twenty years. But I thought that this could make an interesting instructable. I also knew that I could use this opportunity to show my daughter how I used to make them. So I tried again, I was nervous that it wouldn’t turn out well. But I was pleasantly surprised.

To start with you need a bottle. The shape of the bottle will determine what type of ship you should build. A tall narrow bottle like this is best suited for a tall ship. A big square rigged clipper would not fit. But a topsail schooner fills the empty space inside the bottle nicely.

Step 1: The Basic Hull

I never used a kit. I just use blank pieces of wood that are available at craft stores, and begin with drawing a ship in the size and shape that I want to build. 

Holes are drilled through wood that will form the upper and lower parts of the hull. Toothpicks are then inserted into the holes to keep the wood properly aligned during the rest of the construction. Draw a rough outline on the stacked wood pieces. 

I don’t know how to put this any other way… And I’m not trying to be silly when I say… Now just sand away anything that doesn’t look like the boat you are trying to build. I started on a belt sander for the rough shape. Worked a little finer with a sanding drum on a Dremel tool, and finished with a piece of sandpaper. 

A quick look at the hull next to the bottle. You will be doing this A LOT!

You can see that the hull is already larger that the opening of the bottle. 

That’s why it is not built out of one solid piece of wood. 

Step 2: Adding the Keel and Rudder

Next, the keel and rudder are added to the bottom of the hull. You can buy really thin pieces of wood at craft stores. This saves you a lot of time. A piece of 1/16 X1/16 strip was used for the keel. It was also used for the rail on the top of the deck.

Yeap, it still looks good against the bottle.

Step 3: Paint the Hull

A quick coat of paint to the various pieces. I find this method easier than painting several colors on a single piece of wood once the hull is finished.

At this time the two top pieces and the two bottom pieces are glued together forming the upper and lower halves of the hull.

Step 4: Constructing the Mast

Laying out the mast and booms on the drawing of the boat. You need to keep in mind that you are working with a very limited space.

The mast and booms are all made out of toothpicks. I sanded some of them down in order to make them narrower. A piece of leather keeps your fingers from getting burned. This is a delicate process. It will take you a few tries to get the feel of it.

The bowsprit has been added to the hull.The bowsprit consist of two parts. The bottom stick is inserted into a hole that is drilled into the hull. A top stick is glued to it and two lengths of thread are wrapped around them and glued down. You will also use thread where the two halves of the main mast overlap. 

Once again, things are laid out on the bottle to check the fit.

Lengths of thread are glued to the back of the booms. The thread will act as a hinge later.

A piece of wire is looped through a very small hole drilled into the bottom of the mast. This will be another hinge. You can see that the booms have been attached to the mast by the thread.

Step 5: Connecting the Mast to the Hull

Now you need to drill some holes into the hull. I use very small drill bits, only slightly larger than a needle. I keep the drill stationary and I move the hull into the drill. Small sheets of scrap wood bring the hull up to the height of the drill bit.

There are five holes behind the location for each mast. The shroud lines will go into these holes.

The wire hinge on the bottom of the mast goes into two holes on the hull. It is twisted underneath, and the excess is trimmed away.

One long piece of thread goes through the five holes in the hull and through the mast forming the shrouds.

Step 6: Basic Rigging

Basic rigging. A wood work stand secures the top of the ship during rigging and detail work. It is held in place by a small screw. The lines that will be used to raise the mast are held tight by wrapping them around the nails at the front of the stand.

Each mast has two lines going forward to the bowsprit. One line goes from the hull, to the booms, to the top of the mast and then forward. The other line goes from the area of the top of the shrouds directly to the bowsprit.

Drilling and threading the very tiny holes in the bowsprit takes a steady hand.

Step 7: Little Details

The anchor was made by bending a piece of thin wire into the proper shape and dipping it into paint. Additional detail was added by dipping the tip of a toothpick into paint and dabbing it onto the hull and mast.

Step 8: Inserting the Bottom Half

The hull will rest in the bottle on top of two wood stands. These were made from popsicle sticks and are attached to the toothpicks that hold the pieces of the hull in place. They are not glued yet, so they can rotate and will fit through the opening of the bottle while attached to the bottom of the hull.

Another test fit. I was going to use the popsicle sticks as the only base for the hull, but I found I had a quarter inch of room inside of the bottle to spare.

I have always tried to make the ship fill as much of the bottle as I could. So, I cut, sanded, and stained two additional blocks of wood to put under the ship in the bottom of the bottle. This will raise the bottom of the hull from the glass, and I believe it will give the entire ship a more balanced look.

These were then glued into the bottle. The small piece of tape was used to mark the spot where the glue would go to secure the first piece of wood.

A drop of glue is used to secure the original stand to the bottom of the hull.

The stand is then rotated parallel to the hull in order to fit into the bottle opening.

Using long rods. (One is just a bent piece of wire. The other is some medical probe that I got at a garage sale.) … I spun the base planks until they were even and then glued them down onto the two pieces of wood already in the bottle.

Here I had accidentally touched the side of the bottle with glue. I cleaned it up using a cotton swab sprayed with window cleaner.

Step 9: The Sails

To create the sails. I first soaked a piece of typing paper with coffee then let it dry overnight. It was then marked with light parallel pencil lines roughly a quarter inch apart.

Plain typing paper was cut to size in order to make a pattern for the sails.

The coffee stained paper is then cut to size, and additional light lines are drawn to create borders. The sails are then secured to the mast or booms. Only glue down one edge of a sail as it has to allow other parts of the rigging to fold away from it.

The rest of the sails are secured. A flag and a couple of pendants are added. Then two deckhouses are placed on the deck. They are NOT glued down at this point!

Step 10: Now, the Magic!

Some glue is put on the top of the hull. You are now committed to inserting the top half of the hull within the next few minutes.

Loosen the rigging control lines.

Lower the back mast.

And then the forward mast.

Carefully roll the paper sails around the hull and start slowly feeding the top half of the ship into the bottle.

Once the rest of the ship is in the bottle. Pull on the control threads and PARTIALLY raise the mast. You are just trying to get them out of the way while you rejoin the two halves of the hull.

Once you have the two haves together, let the glue dry, and then slowly raise the mast. You may need to reach in and untangle some threads… Take your time.

The rear sail had become misshapen. The masts were slightly lowered and the sail was secured to the bottom boom.

Step 11: Deckhouses

Two deck houses were built. The top half of the ship would not have fit into the bottle with these installed.

With a little slack still in the mast, the deckhouses were guided to their position.

They were pushed back a little further, and then a drop of glue was put on the deck in front of them.

The deckhouse is edged forward onto the glue.

Step 12: Securing the Sails

For ease of identification, the control lines were numbered with dots of paint in relation to their position on the bowsprit.

With a little slack in the rigging a drop of glue is placed where each line will pass through the bowsprit.

The lines are then pulled taught and secured to the bottom of the bottle with a piece of tape.

The sails are then secured to each other with a small dab of glue.

It’s a tight fit in there!

When all of the glue is good and dry, a razor blade is used to cut the control threads from the BOTTOM of the bowsprit.

Step 13: Cork It!

Add a cork… Clean the outside of the bottle… AND YOU ARE DONE!

It seems I’ve really rambled on during this instructable. I’ve tried to tell you as much as possible without writing an entire book. Even then I’m sure I left some things out.

Thanks for looking!

Step 14: Shaping the Hull. (An Added Mini-instructable.)

Hello again. After I published the original instructable, I wished I had posted better instructions on how to carve the hull out of the blank block of wood.

So I am adding this “Mini-instructable“. I broke down the entire process into the individual steps that I use to shape the hull. Since this is just a demonstration model I did not worry about getting the dimensions exactly right. (Or this would be a really short and fat little boat. This is also a larger scale than you would use if you were putting it in the bottle.) I just wanted to focus on illustrating the technique.

NOTE! Although I used a belt/disc sander for this illustration, I used to do the entire process with just the sanding drum on a Dremel tool. In fact, if you are carving a smaller hull to use in a standard sized bottle, the Dremel type tool is a better choice.

#1. Draw the basic side profile and top outline of the hull onto the block of wood.

#2 & #3. Sand away the front of the block to form the profile of the bow.

#4 & #5. Sand away a little from the bottom of the stern. You have now completed the profile.

#6 , #7, #8 & #9. Form the top outline of the front of the hull. You are just making flat shapes, keeping the block level with the sanding disc.

#10 & #11. Rock the bottom of the hull on the sanding belt. This is your first curve. You are just trying to round the bottom of the hull, so that it looks like the letter “U” when viewed from the front or back.

#12 & #13. Remove the sharp edges on the front of the hull that were created by the earlier sandings. Just blend everything together.

#14, #15, #16 & #17. Using the sanding drum on a Dremel tool. Shape the area where the rear of the hull narrows down to the area of the rudder.

#18 & #19. Using sandpaper smooth everything out. Notice that I had the sandpaper flat for the soft curves of the bow, and I folded the sandpaper over to create a shape that matched the area of the stern that needed sanded.

#20 Finished!

I hope this helps answer any questions that you may have had about shaping the hull. Just take your time, break the process down into simple steps, and you can make this happen!

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102 Discussions


Question 8 months ago on Step 5

"One long piece of thread goes through the five holes in the hull and through the mast forming the shrouds."

LOVE the article. Please clarify this statement. How does one oiece of thread go through all five holes in the hull and through the mast? Are the holes in the sides drilled all the way through? If so, (remember you said ONE piece of thread) what keeps a massive bulge at the top of the mast occuring where all the threads intersect?

1 answer

Answer 8 months ago

The holes in the hull are drilled all the way through. The hole in the mast is larger that the ones in the hull. A single thread goes through the mast five times, and once through each hole in the hull. It starts at the mast and ends at the mast. I hope this helps.


1 year ago

Very beautiful and artistic


2 years ago

I have made a few over many years. My high point was putting a nail through the stopper at right angles inside the bottle. That resulted in a puzzle for many. Sadly my grandson dropped and broke the lot. Sad memory indeed.


2 years ago

Love your explanation, wonderful instructable!


2 years ago

When I was about 13 or 14, I made a miniature Spanish galleon in a plastic aspirin bottle. It was nowhere near as elaborate as this, but it drew a few compliments and puzzled looks. I made the hull out of balsa wood and shaped it so that it could be angled through the fairly wide mouth of the bottle, even though it looked like it would never fit. I made the masts out of toothpicks with the booms just short enough to fit and put them in place with tweezers.

All the various parts of it looked pretty primitive, but as a whole it did give a nice illusion of a miniature ship in a bottle.

I always wanted to try making using one of those miniature alcohol bottles. I made a schooner hull that fit through the neck, but that was as far as I ever got.


4 years ago on Introduction

First… Let me thank everyone for their very kind comments!
I cannot believe that it has been almost four years since I made the ship and posted this instructable. It was the last on of these that I have made. Although I have not built one of these for some time, I find that I am constantly on the lookout for suitable bottles, and I have just found one!

I recently purchased a bottle of “Big House” Bourbon. This bottle does not have a screw top cap, and the opening is slightly oversized. So I think that it may be a good choice for your first attempt at putting a ship in a bottle.

When I am finished putting a ship in this bottle, I will post a photo for you.
Thanks again for looking at my instructable!

3 replies

Thanks for this instructable. Could you append a list (with pictures if possible), of the various tools you used? Are they custom built tools (i.e. the stuff you use to work inside the bottle? Coat hangers perhaps?


4 years ago on Introduction

Hi, the detail on your work is commendable, but do you have a comprehensive list of materials needed? I noticed that you mentioned the necessary materials only during the corresponding steps, which makes it hard for a first timer (me) to compile the needed items.


5 years ago on Introduction

This is such a well done 'ible, I might actually be able to do this. First, I need to find a suitable bottle. I've searched through thousands of old apothecary bottles on ebay but most have very narrow mouths. How large (tall) a bottle is typical and how wide a mouth can be found on bottles like that? I was hoping to find a bottle about 8 or 10" tall with a mouth at least 1" diameter. Any suggestions as to what kind of bottle would be like that? Liquor bottles? Medicine bottles? Thanks!


5 years ago on Introduction

Quick question. Once you get the ship in the bottle and the masts raised do you glue the other edges of the sails? Or, do you just leave the one edge glued? Also, what kind of glue do you use for the sails? Thanks!

1 reply

Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

If the sails stayed where I wanted them to, I just left the one edge glued. If they tended to curl at an odd angle, I glued them to something nearby, such as a toothpick boom or one of the thread ropes. (See step 12)
Also I just used Elmer’s all purpose glue for the entire project.


5 years ago on Introduction

It would really be awesome with blue water (putty) under the ship, instead of a wooden stand. FYI


5 years ago on Step 13

Nice Work, congratulations!

Would your like to know how to get a ship in a 34lts bottle?, I have been working on it... I have already deal with 64 in total.... Now I am catching the big fish. Keep working on your projects it is a really nice thing to do.... I just got me this page randomly. Now I am a member because of you, ahoi for that.
I do not use any mashines (anything with electric power/at least on the two last projects), just the old methods... it takes longer but I think it has something special.
I got me from Spain a glas baloon. It is a really crazy project if you think about, that I am making also the skeleton for that....
I usually do not spend money to getting bottles... but that one is like more that I can eaven imagine...

I hope you are doing great, lets get in contact...



5 years ago on Step 10

This is a great Instructable! Very impressive! i can't wait to try this out. Thank you for putting it up.