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How to Heat and Stretch Recycled Plastic Into Miniature Bottles
Plastic bottles and jars are a popular miniature for display scenes, often needed in fairly large numbers. The following tutorial shows a simple technique you can use to turn recycled or purchased plastic straws and rods into a range of miniature bottle styles. The method can be scaled to a range of sizes. Bottles shown here are in scales from 1:48 to 1:12, but larger and smaller sizes can be made with the same method.
To make your miniature bottles, look for plastic rods and straws with the diameter you need for the basic bottle. The bottlenecks are drawn to shape with gentle heat over a candle flame. Rigid plastic straws and hollow cylinders (pen barrels and other shaped plastic) with thick walls, either colored or clear are good materials for your first attempt. Heavy plastic straws sold as balloon or candy holders work well, but with skill, you can also use thinner plastic drinking straws. Plastic supply houses sell rigid acrylic tubes and rods which can be used as is or colored with fluid acrylics or glass paints. The acrylic tubing and rod may bubble when heated, so practice your techniques on recycled materials before you purchase plastic to stock your miniature wine cellar or pantry.
In addition to your plastic source you will need:
- Files or fine sandpaper or micro mesh sanding pads to finish the edges of your bottles
- Glass paints, glaze pens or fluid acrylics (artist's fluid acrylics, not craft paints) to color your bottles if desired.
- Plastic welding cement if you want to add bases to hollow bottles in order to fill them.
- Warming Candle to gently heat your plastic across a narrow band.
- Razor Saw with fine teeth to cut your bottles or jars free of the plastic residue after shaping.
Note: This is not a suitable craft for children.Continue to 2 of 11 below.
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How to Heat Plastic to Make Miniature Bottles and Jars
To shape the plastic rods or straws (or pen barrels, makeup brush handles, or other sources of plastic) you will need to hold your plastic over a narrow heat source (such as a candle flame) until the plastic slumps or softens. Begin by holding the plastic high above the heat source, then move it down carefully towards the flame, twirling or rotating it so the heat is picked up evenly around the rod or tube. You will feel the plastic soften, and the moment that you do, you should move it away from the heat source. The time this will take, and the distance you will need to be from the flame will be different for every type of plastic. Thin straws will need only moments to soften, while thicker rods may take several minutes of careful working.
Make sure you work only in a well-ventilated area. Keep your candle away from drafts to make sure it has a steady, narrowly directed flame for the best results.Continue to 3 of 11 below.
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Draw or Stretch Heated Plastic to Shape Necks for Miniature Bottles and Jars
As soon as you have removed your heated plastic rod or straw from your heat source, gently begin to pull evenly on either side of the area of softened plastic.
Tip: Keep your fingers away from the heated plastic to avoid burns!
As you gently draw the ends of your rod or straw away from the heated area, the straw or rod will narrow. If you are making a series of bottles which need to be roughly the same shape and size, you will need to draw or stretch your bottles out against a ruler so each section is pulled apart by roughly the same amount. You will also need to start with a standard length of straw or rod. Experiment with your technique, you may need to gently turn the plastic straw or rod as you pull it out, to prevent the neck you are forming from slumping to one side of the rod or straw. As much as possible, you want to keep the narrowed column of plastic centered on the main width of the rod.
When you have drawn the plastic out to a neck length and thickness which suit the type of bottle or jar you are making, carefully hold the plastic under the same gentle tension until the neck area cools and sets in place. When the plastic is cool enough to set, leave it aside to cool, supporting it evenly on both ends.Continue to 4 of 11 below.
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Cut the Base of Your Miniature Bottle Free From the Plastic Rod or Straw
When your plastic has completely cooled, use a fine-toothed razor saw, and possibly a miter box to cut the base of your new plastic bottle free from the rod or straw you used as the plastic source. Make sure you cut the base as square as possible, so it will stand flat on a surface. Instead of a razor saw, you can use a sharp craft knife, but it is more difficult to cut evenly across the bottle base using a knife. If you are using a knife, turn the plastic gently as you cut, so that the cut surface spreads, otherwise, you could risk stressing the plastic and causing cracks.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Finish the Base of Your Miniature Bottle
Lay fine sandpaper or a fine file on a flat surface and hold your partially trimmed plastic bottle so the body of the bottle is at right angles to the sandpaper. Gently rub the trimmed bottle base against the sandpaper or file in a figure 8 motion so it sands evenly on all sides. Test the bottle by standing the plastic on the base to see if the bottle base is square.Continue to 6 of 11 below.
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Cut the Bottle (Jar) Top Free of the Plastic Rod or Straw
Examine your plastic shape carefully, measuring if necessary to determine where to cut the neck of the bottle free from the base plastic. Use a razor saw with fine teeth, cutting the same way you did the bottle base. Take care when cutting the top as the plastic is much narrower and may break easily.Continue to 7 of 11 below.
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Shape the Neck or Lip of the Miniature Bottle or Jar
Many styles of bottles and jars have distinctive rolled necks or lips. To shape the neck edge of your bottle, soften the neck edge in your flame, then quickly press the top of the bottle or jar squarely onto a flat metal surface (you can use the blade of a table knife). The more firmly your press your bottleneck into the metal, the wider your lip will be. Be gentle with your shaping to avoid completely collapsing your bottle at this stage.
When your neck is the correct shape, use your sandpaper or a fine file and micro mesh or other automotive finishing pads to polish the top of the bottle to finish it.
The bottle being shaped in these photos is a miniature milk bottle, with a short wide neck and thick rolled edge.Continue to 8 of 11 below.
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Polish or Finish a Miniature Bottle
The miniature milk bottle is shown here hollow with no base. If your bottle has scratches you can polish the bottle with automotive sanding pads, like the micromesh pads. Alternatively, you can coat the bottle with a thin layer of clear acrylic floor polish to fill in any small nicks or scratches.
Experiment with various types of plastic, you can make bottles from colored plastic for baby bottles, or from white plastic, they can be colored with glass stains to make them appear transparent. Cracks in clear bottles may be due to pressure applied to the plastic when cutting it free of the main stock. Bubbles may be due to your method of heating the plastic, you may be heating it too quickly or too much.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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Add Bases or Caps to Miniature Plastic Bottles
At this point, you can finish your miniature bottles with caps or stoppers and leave the bases open, or you can cut or punch a small circle of recycled sheet plastic (clear or colored to match your bottle) and glue it to the base of your bottle using plastic cement.
Test your glue on scraps of your material before you use it on your shaped bottle. Some glues will "craze" or fog clear plastic, ruining your bottle finish.
To make simple paper and foil caps, you can use a suitably sized paper punch on card or foil and glue your paper cap into the opening of your bottle, or across a solid bottle at the top of the neck. A 1/8 inch (2mm) circle punch and lightweight card were used to make a plain bottle cap on this milk bottle.Continue to 10 of 11 below.
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Creating Colored Miniature Bottles From White or Transparent Plastic
Realistically colored soda and wine bottles can be made using fluid acrylic paints, glaze pens, or glass paints. The Pebeo Vitrea 160 markers are easy to use and lay down sheer even coats suitable for all scales of bottles. If you don't have access to these, Jelly or Glaze pens, like those used for miniature stained glass work well, as do artist's fluid acrylics in colors which do not have a chalky white base (craft paints have too much pigment to be realistic). Test your paints or markers on leftover scraps of your materials before attempting to use them on finished shaped bottles. Make sure your bottles are free of oil from your hands before you attempt to paint them. Alcohol wipes are an easy way to clean the surface.Continue to 11 of 11 below.
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Make Miniature Wine Bottles From Thick Plastic Straws
As you make miniature bottles using the heat and stretch method, you may find materials you didn't think suitable for a particular purpose work well for the shape but are the wrong color. The 1:24 scale wine bottle in this photo began life as a section of the type of thick plastic straw used as a handle for a balloon. With their thick walls, these straws are easy to shape, but as they are almost always white, they don't seem ideal for making colored bottles.
In this case, a toothpick was inserted into the neck of the finished bottle and dipped it into Golden Fluid Acrylic Paint in Phthalo Green (Blue Shade) color. This high gloss colored finish gives the white plastic bottle the look of a deep green glass wine bottle. A round toothpick, cut and inserted into the bottleneck gives me a suitable 'cork' effect. All the bottle needs now is a paper label.
Experiment with this technique to enlarge your miniature bottle collection. You may find sources of plastic in odd places, like makeup brush or toothbrush handles, plastic picks, or other items. This is one of the easiest ways to make bottles in smaller scales for 1:48 scale displays.