DIY

Make Recycled-Glass Wind Chimes

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PHOTOS: DENNIS SIZEMORE
TOP LEFT: Use your bottle cutter to  create glass rings from discarded bottles. BOTTOM LEFT: Glass rings melted into unique shapes. RIGHT: A completed set of recycled glass wind chimes.

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.

Equip Yourself

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.)

Bottle Recycling

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!