Six years ago, when I was first trying to earn a living as a potter in New England, I ran up against an almost insurmountable problem: It seems many other talented people had also decided to make careers in ceramics, and the competition was fierce! Indeed, I spent more time selling my wares than making them . . . and barely broke even at that! I soon started to wonder if my secondhand electric kiln had been a good investment after all.
Then, almost accidentally, I "discovered" a product so unusual that I had absolutely no competition to contend with. The success story began when a friend offered me a bottle cutter for which she had no use. I almost turned her gift down, but luckily I recalled reading about a craftsperson who had—with the help of a kiln—made glass wind chimes from bottles . . . so I decided to experiment.
A Surprising Success
It took a while to figure out the process, but I was soon able to produce the melody-makers at an astonishingly rapid rate. Better still, my raw material could be found littering any roadside, beach, or picnic area . . . so I knew I'd be able to offer my goods at attractively low prices.
The shiny, translucent, colorful chimes were beautiful, too . . . and the clear, melodic ring they made as they struck each other was delightful! I didn't know, however, whether a market existed for the products. There was, of course, only one way to find out: I made 50 of the pretty breeze bells in various sizes ... priced them from $5.00 to $15 . . . and took them to a fair. There, I put up a display and a sign that read "Recycled Wind Chimes", and—though the festival was a two-day event—I was sold out by the end of the first day! It seems people were particularly attracted by the fact that my handiwork was made from what would otherwise have been unsightly trash.
Greatly encouraged, I made the rounds of local craft stores and discovered that the chimes could also sell very well in the wholesale market. Indeed, my product would just about market itself!
At first, I had to work five days a week to bring in $100 in profits (it took me four days to make the chimes and one day to sell them). Now, however, I deal exclusively wholesale, and my markets are so well established that I don't have to sell at all ... I just fill orders. Therefore, I have to work only four days a week for my $100, which leaves plenty of time for other crafts, including my pottery.
For five years now—probably because I still remember the competition that brought about my lean New England days— I've jealously guarded the secrets of my craft. I was afraid, you see, that too many chimemakers would flood the market and put me out of business . . . but I've finally decided that this area of ceramics has more than enough room for others. So, if you'd like to try your hand at a creative craft and help to clean up the environment while you do so, here's how to go about it.
First, I strongly recommend that you buy, borrow, or barter for an electric kiln. A gas, wood, or coal burner can be used for the process, but—with such a device—you'll have to bake in a muffle (an inner chamber which protects the glass from flames and gases). Fortunately, your kiln doesn't have to be a particularly costly unit, because it has to reach only 1500°F (pottery requires higher temperatures). You'll also need several shelves and some four-inch posts . . . which can be cut from soft firebrick.
And, while a kiln may cost you a bit of money, the only other piece of equipment needed is a bottle cutter. I was lucky enough to be given an electric unit made by American Handicrafts, which—I'm sorry to say—is no longer produced. There are, however, still a few stocked in some stores, so you might want to write the company for a list of its dealers. (Since the tool is a discontinued item, you may be able to purchase it for less than the regular $17.95 retail price.) Otherwise, you can simply buy a manual bottle-cutter kit at most any crafts store for around $10 or $12.
(If you do happen to get hold of an electric glass cutter, your hot-wire will—eventually—burn out. It can be spliced back together once by twisting the two broken ends tightly around each other. When it burns out a second time, however, get a new one ... some outlets have put the wires on sale for 39¢ apiece. Occasionally, you'll also have to take the cutter apart and clean the electrical connections, but the job can be avoided if you replace all the nuts and bolts with noncorroding brass parts.)
Then, besides the free-for-the-gathering bottles, you'll need a spool of 12-pound-test monofilament fishing line to tie your chimes together with, and calcium carbonate (also known as "whiting") to prevent them from fusing to the kiln shelves as they're fired. The powdery substance can be used over and over again indefinitely, and is available from stained glass suppliers. (For example, Whittemore-Durgin sells two pounds for $2.31 plus postage.)
The first step in making wind chimes, of course, is to gather up bottles ... soak 'em in hot water . . . and scrub away the labels (make certain that you remove all the glue under the "wrapping", too, or your glass will have a frosted appearance) and dirt . . . although I find it's easier to finish cleaning the inside of the containers after their bottoms have been cut off.
Actually, you don't really "cut" the bottles ... you just make them break apart, and—no matter what kind of kit you're using—the principle remains the same.
Wearing work gloves to avoid burns and cuts, use a diamond-tipped tool to score a line around the bottle at each point where you want it to break. Space the scored rings approximately one inch apart, except for those made on champagne and other very thick wine bottles ... which can be as close as half an inch.
Then, with a candle flame or other heat source (in the case of my cutter, a hot electric wire), you heat up the score line . . . apply ice water with an eye dropper . . . and the sudden change in temperature will cause the glass to crack. All you have to do then is grasp that section and break it off. (Sometimes the cold liquid makes the glass fracture so suddenly that a ring will pop off by itself, so be alert and ready to catch the piece if this should happen.)
Once the bottom is off the bottle, you can wipe the dirt from the inside with a rag or paper towel, but be extremely careful, because the sharp edges can give you a nasty gash!
Load and Fire
With your rings cut, it's time to cover the kiln floor and all the shelves with a good layer of calcium carbonate. Next place the glass doughnuts in the kiln . . . making sure they're about 1 1/2 inches apart in all directions and the same distance from any posts and from the shelves' edges. Because hot air rises, the bottom of the kiln will stay a little bit cooler than the top, and—since brown glass will "slump" (or melt and collapse into the appealing shapes shown in the photos) at a slightly lower temperature than other colors—it should go on the floor and lower shelves ... clear glass should then be placed in the middle ... and green up above.
If you want to fuse two or more pieces together (as I often do to form the top segment of the wind chime), place one glass ring so that its edge overlaps the rim of another (of either the same or a different color). Double-ring combinations must—in order to fuse the two pieces—always be placed on the very top shelf ... as should any extra-thick circles.
Now you're ready to fire your glass. Unlike pottery, which must be baked slowly with the temperature rising gradually, bottle glass tends to be weakened by slow heat. Therefore, turn the kiln up to "high" right away.
It'll take between two and three hours to complete this firing operation, and visual inspection—via the kiln's peephole—is the only way to tell when the load is "done". (It's best if you can see the rings on the kiln floor, since they'll be the last to flatten.)
Always remember to let the kiln cool completely before you open it. As a general rule, the cooling process takes three times as long as the firing. At that point, remove the rings and dust off as much of the whiting as possible. (I always unload and reload in one operation ... to save time.)
Once you've washed the little gems, they're ready to be strung in whatever fashion your imagination conceives. You can, for example, use two or three fused rings for the top of the wind chimes . . . or employ lengths of driftwood, branches, bamboo, etc. for this purpose. The glass circles can also be used as Christmas ornaments, and they add a distinctive touch to macrame. (I supply one woman who works the rings into glass-and-macramé lamp shades.)
I use about 120 bottles a week to make my hot-selling chimes, and I wish I could say that I'm close to running out of material. Unfortunately, there are so many litterbugs that I always have a fresh supply.
I bet there's a bunch of bottles cluttering up your neighborhood, too, just waiting for some clever recycler to turn them into tinkling wind songs . . . and cash!