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Putting Land and Sea In a Bottle

By: Greg Alvey


There are many materials you use to create the “sea” and “land” in our scenes and dioramas and every modeler seems to have his or her favorite. While there is no one “best” material to use in all situations, I have seen wonderful ships and scenes made with great detail marred because the material used for the sea or land area cracked, broke or smeared. Worse yet, sometimes the material breaks completely away from the glass destroying everything in the bottle and often breaking the bottle itself.


The material selected may be chosen based on the cost, availability, drying time, ease of inserting and working into shape, just to name just few. Clay, wood, plasticine, Styrofoam, epoxy, plaster can by used and each has its own distinct advantage and disadvantage. 


The material I often use to form the sea and land is regular window putty (also called glazing compound). I like the material because it is relatively inexpensive and readily available at hardware and paint stores. It is designed to stick to glass and mixes well with various types of paint allowing you to create the colors you need for your scenes. It dries slowly giving you ample time to work the material into sea, waves, islands, hills, mountains, and other shapes as desired. It is pretty messy mixing in the paint so be sure you wear rubber or surgical gloves. But the messiest part is putting the sea in the bottle. You need to be careful here because it is difficult and time-consuming to clean the putty from areas where you don't want it to be. 


I use a simple tool that helps eliminate most of the mess and allows me to control the amount used while assiting in locating the putty inside the bottle. The tool can be made in various sizes, but this one is made from a 1/2" PVC pipe about 14" long and a 7/16” diameter dowel about 18” long to use as a "ramming rod." I cut an approximate 30 degree bevel cut on the end that goes in the bottle. The bevel cut makes it easier to extract the clay in the amount and location you choose. You may want different length and diameters depending on the size and opening of bottle you are using.


The tool is used by pushing or forcing 2-3 inches of putty in the beveled end of the PVC pipe at a time. You can get the putty into the PVC pipe by continually pushing the tube into a ball or glob of the putty which forces it into the pipe, or you can push it into the pipe using your fingers or other tool. Rolling out a snake shape can make it easier to push it in with your fingers. Once you have the desired amount of putty in the pipe, thoroughly clean any excess from around the outside of the pipe. Now insert the beveled end into the opening of the bottle and move it to the desired location. It helps to line the inside of the bottle neck with regular or a wax paper to keep any excess from getting on the glass. Next, put the wooden dowel in the other end of the PVC pipe and slowly push it forward until it forces the putty to squeeze out the pipe into the bottle in little rolls. As you are pushing it out you can move the pipe back, forth, or side-to-side to spread and form the shape you need. Continue this process until you have the desired amount of clay in the bottle. 


Use your prefered tool to smooth and form the putty into the desired shape. When it looks good to you make an impression of the hull in the sea before it dries so that the hull fits in the sea after it is inserted in the bottle. This process works well when you wish to create a landscape with different colors, since you can fill the pipe with different colored clay in controlled amounts. You can even used multi-colors in the PVC pipe. If you use different colors be sure to clean the pipe thoroughly between the color changes or use a different PVC pipe for each color.


Be patient and allow ample time for the putty to dry before putting your ship and other objects in the bottle and sealing it.  The putty must be completely dry to prevent moisture or condensation forming which will mar or even ruining your model. Because the drying period can take a long time, I recommend you start working on this part near the beginning of construction. Doing so allows more time for the putty to dry while you are crafting the ship and other items. To speed up the drying time, I have on occasion put my bottle on a floor heating register, or in front of the refrigerator vent. The heat speeds up the drying time but not so fast as to cause cracking or other problems when something dries too quickly. Be sure to cover the bottle opening with a piece of cloth secured with a rubberband. This prevents dust and other foreign objects from getting in the bottle while still letting the bottle “breath” so that it dries normally without moisture or condensation forming.