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Restore Your Bottles

By: Greg Alvey


The following article is not a “how to” on restoration but rather a guide on when to restore, what type of restoration to consider, and problems you will often encounter in restoration.

Let’s start with the question should you restore the bottle yourself or have it professionally done? To decide, ask: is the bottle too important to restore it myself? Some bottles just hold too much historical importance and value because of who made the bottle, when it was made, and how it was made to be restored by a non-professional. Remember, you are working with an original work of art and with any important historical piece; hiring a professional may be the only appropriate way to have it restored.

Next question, should I clean or restore it? There’s an old saying that goes “when in doubt, don’t.” That may be the best philosophy to consider when deciding whether or not to restore or work on a bottle. Bottles are always most desirable and valuable when they are in good shape and in original condition and should be left in that condition whenever possible. However, there are times when a bottle must be cleaned or restored. Perhaps the bottle is broken, pieces are missing or loose, or you can’t see in the bottle.  When these conditions or similar conditions exist restoration may be a necessity.

The most difficult part of the restoration may well be solving the riddle on how to get inside the bottle to do the work. This can be a problem with any type of bottle but more often than not, it is the non-ship bottles that are the most difficult to deal with. These bottles were often made with a trick stopper which had a cross piece going through the shaft inside the bottle making it impossible to remove the stopper.  The first decision you need to make is can you remove the stopper without irreparably damaging the bottle or stopper; and, can you get it back in after the restoration or cleaning has been completed.

If you can get in the bottle, although skill is certainly required, cleaning or restoring a bottle is many times less about skill or experience as it is care and patience. There are some key steps to take in the process: carefully study the bottle to insure you know where everything goes; take your time with the process; and, have the right tools capable of letting you do what you need to do inside the bottle. Remember to take many pictures before you start. These will serve as valuable references as you do your work, as well as, great “before” shots of the bottle. 


If a bottle is extremely dirty, making it difficult to see inside; or, if the bottle has excessive glue, smudge, paint, water vapor, or other distracting elements, then it’s probably a good candidate for cleaning.  Usually the best tool for cleaning is wire in various diameters from coat hanger size to small piano wire. A bottle of Windex or a similar glass cleaner, and paper towels torn in long strips are often all you need.  If the bottle is just dirty, that may be all you need other than patience.  But is there are smudges, whether from glue, paint, “sea,” and the like, you may find yourself needing a blade to scrape the material from the bottle, and occasionally, a glue dissolver, paint thinner, or similar chemicals may be required.  Work slowly and realize that it does take time.


If a bottle has loose, missing, or broken parts and pieces then it will probably need to be restored. Restoration is where skill is important and if you intend to restore the bottle yourself, the following a just a few of the many questions you need to consider:

  • image001.jpgHave I made my own ships, whimsy, or folk art in bottles?
  • Have I do this before? How were the results?
  • Do I have any related experience in this type of process?
  • Do I do other forms of modeling or crafting?
  • Do I have the tools required?
  • Am I sure I know where to re-glue or place the pieces?
  • Do I have someone to be a “log sitter?” (someone to help you)
  • Can I make pieces that are broke or missing that look just like the original?
  • Can I get materials, i.e., fabric, beads, etc. from the right era or timeframe?


If the bottle is broke or damaged beyond repair it may be still worth your while to re-build the scene in another bottle. Whether or not to re-build may depend on whether most if not all the pieces of the folk art or whimsy are still there and the condition they are in. If you do decide to re-build then you should begin to find another bottle to build in. Obviously, you want to use the exact same bottle type originally used whenever possible.  If it seems likely that you can find an exact bottle, then patiently set the project aside until you have acquired the new bottle.  If the bottle is unobtainable, or the cost can’t be justified, then a different bottle may be required.  If you must use a different bottle, at least choose one from the same period as was the original.  Spend a lot of time measuring and “dry fitting” the pieces to insure they will go in and that there will be enough room for everything. 

Results?  Good restoration can give you this! 

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