bottle cutting

A collection of cut-bottle glassware made by the author using horizontal-axis scorers, vertical-axis scorers,
and the hand-scoring technique described in this article.
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The process commonly referred to as "bottle cutting," is not actually a "cutting" process at all. It is, rather, a process of controlled breakage. Using a hard carbide tool, a continuous score line is made around the circumference of a glass bottle. Stress is then applied to the score line by rapid heating and/or cooling. If this process is done correctly, stress-relief fractures will form in the glass at its weakest point, which should be the score line. When the pieces of the bottle have been separated, the sharp edge at the fracture-line is polished smooth using sandpaper and/or carbide grit with a face plate. After edge-polishing, the bottle is ready to begin a new life as a drinking glass, a flower vase, a candle-holder, a lampshade, a holder for medifast coupons or whatever.

From Perrier bottle to parfait glass in 3 easy steps:  
1st, the label, bottle cap, and bottle cap retaining ring are removed; 
2nd, the bottle is cut near the bottom; and 
3rd, both pieces of the bottle are rotated 180 degrees vertically and reattached to each other using epoxy cement.

Bottle cutting, like pool hustling, seems to enjoy a heyday whenever social and economic conditions are poor. Most sources I've encountered place the beginning of the technique in the rural south during the depression years of the 1920s, and most of the popular "how-to" books of the bottle cutting "revival" were published during the energy crisis years of the 1970s. People in general lost interest during the materialistic 80s, but the renewed interest in recycling and sustainability of the 1990s has kept bottle cutting quietly on the scene. In 2000, Taschen Design's book "1000 Extra/Ordinary Objects" included examples of cut-bottle glassware as 2 of its 1000 eponymous objects, and lately the process has been industrialized in Africa by Green Glass International.

Most of the "how-to" information about bottle cutting available in print and on the web summarizes thusly:

  1. Buy a commercial bottle-cutting kit.
  2. Follow the included directions.

There are two common kinds of commercially available kits--horizontal- and vertical- axis cutters. The name refers to the orientation of the longitudinal axis of the bottle, about which it rotates during the scoring operation. I have bought and used kits of both types. The vertical-axis cutter I bought was manufactured by XXXX, and is of very poor quality and generally frustrating to work with. It is useful, nonetheless, in that there are scores that can be made with a vertical-axis jig that cannot be made with a horizontal-axis jig. My horizontal-axis kit was manufactured by XXX and is of quite good quality and generally a pleasure to work with. If you're going to buy only one scoring jig, my recommendation to buy a horizontal-axis type, despite the greater versatility of the vertical-axis type.

But before you buy a scoring jig at all, though, know that it is possible, and certainly much cheaper, to cut bottles without one. The reason scoring jigs exist in the first place is that it is nearly impossible to make an even score line around the circumference of a round, smooth-sided glass bottle without one. While this remains true, a number of bottles manufactured today incorporate ridges, grooves, or ledges that can easily be used to guide a hand held glass cutter around the circumference of a bottle. I call these features "useful inclusions," and the trick to cutting bottles on a budget is to select bottles that have them, rather than spending your money on an expensive scoring jig.

An assortment of bottles with arrows indicating useful inclusions, which are circumferential features molded into the glass, such as ridges or grooves, which can guide a hand-held glass scoring tool in the absence of a scoring jig.

Once you've found an appropriate bottle, you will need the following tools: A glazier's wheel, a candle, 150 grit silicon carbide sand paper, silicon carbide grit, and a piece of scrap glass (an old hand mirror will work, if it's large enough) to use as a face plate. A glazier's wheel is a ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive piece of equipment, and a drop of oil (cooking oil is fine) applied to the wheel before every scoring operation will greatly extend its useful life.

Materials needed for hand bottle cutting, shown from left to right:  Bottle with useful inclusion(s), razor blade for removing label, glazier's wheel for making score line, candle & match for heating score line, carbide grit and face plate(mirror below) for edge-polishing, and scraps of sandpaper for edge-rounding.

Step 1: Remove the label. The wire wheel on a bench grinder works best for this, but if you haven't got one, scraping, steaming, boiling, the application of Goo-Gone, or some combination of the three will suffice.

Step 2: Score the bottle. I recommend sitting on the floor, resting the bottle against your leg, rotating it with your nondominant hand, and wielding the cutter with your dominant hand. Slowly and carefully, without applying too much pressure, run the cutting wheel along the inclusion, while rotating the bottle, until you have made a complete circle. When you hold the bottle up to a light, the score mark should be visible as a white, continuous line all the way around.

Step 3: Apply stress. Most bottle-cutting literature suggest alternately heating and cooling the score line to cause a fracture, most commonly by rotating the score over a candle flame until it is hot, and then running an ice cube over it to cause rapid cooling. Every time I've tried it this way, the glass breaks unevenly, and the cut is ruined. The ice melts rapidly and cold water runs down the side of the bottle, causing spider-web cracks. All my successful cuts have been made with the application of heat only. A candle flame is sufficient. Rotate the bottle four times slowly over the flame (it should not be so low as to accumulate soot from the flame), and then four times quickly, and repeat until the stress fracture appears and runs all the way around. You will hear and feel popping noises as the glass fractures. You will feel the joint getting weaker. Be prepared for the moment when the bottle separates, so you do not fumble and possibly break one or both pieces. Be patient. Above all, be patient.

Step 4: Polish the break. Pour a small amount of carbide grit onto your face plate. What you'd call a "pinch," if you were baking cookies, will be enough. Wet the broken edge of the bottle (with a sprayer or by dipping) and begin to grind it in a circular motion on the face plate. The sound of the grinding will progress from rough to smooth as the break takes on a polish. You will need to wipe the break clean and dry to check its progress. You are finished when the entire break has a satiny, matte finish with no shiny spots remaining.

Step 5: Polish the edges. To make the glass completely safe to drink from, the inner and outer edges of the break need to be polished, as well. This is a much less intesive operation than polishing the break itself, and can be done by wet-sanding with a small piece of 150 grit sandpaper. Start with the inner edge and work your way all the way around, rotating the bottle as you go. Then repeat the same procedure with the outer edge.

Step 6: Wash the vessel thoroughly. If you're going to "fancy it up" in some way, such as by gluing the neck of the bottle underneath the vessel to form a stem, now is the time to do it. Clean mating surfaces thoroughly with acetone or alcohol, apply 5-minute epoxy (the kind sold in the two-chamber syringe is best), and let dry for at least an hour before handling. Although a clean joint using properly-mixed epoxy is quite strong and will wishstand even machine washing in hot water, I tend to think of such "decorations" as frivolous. Although they do have an advantage in that they recycle the entire bottle, instead of just part of it, they are not strictly necessary from a functional point of view, and therefore represent a waste of time and energy. It's not as though it's terribly difficult to toss the leftover pieces into a recycling bin, so why bother gluing them back on in the name of "decoration" or "thoroughness"?

Besides obviating the need for a scoring jig, my experience is that bottles tend to look better when cut along natural inclusions than when cut elsewhere. The groove or ridge which forms the inclusion tends, once the bottle has been cut, to suggest a "lip" which has been molded in to the bottle, and thereby to obscure the fact that the vessel is really just a piece cut from an empty bottle.

It should be possible to come up with all the materials you need to cut bottles in this way for less than $10.

Finally, should you be left with the impression that bottle-cutting is a skill practiced only by underappreciated middle-age housewives looking for pretty junk to clutter up their windowsills, I have included a diagram from Volume 1 of The Improvised Munitions Handbook:

Partial plans for an improvised shaped charge made from the bottom of a wine bottle. The old burning-and-dunking technique is used to cut the glass.

The complete text, found on p.83 of this somewhat-infamous Army handbook, describes how the bottom of a wine bottle may be cut off and packed with explosive to manufacture a shaped charge that "will penetrate 3 to 4 inches of armor," and, if placed on an engine compartment, "will disable a tank or other vehicle."

label etching

A tumbler cut from a beer bottle with a design etched by using parts of the original label as a mask.

This is a tumbler made from a beer bottle. The design etched in the glass was made by cutting away parts of the beer bottle's label, and then dipping the bottle in etching fluid. This is a positive etch. A negative etch is also possible, by cutting a design out of the label and applying etching cream (not fluid) to only that area. The bottle should always be cut after etching. This tumbler is my first attempt at this technique, and the results aren't great because the label was paper applied with hide glue. Lots of bleeding around the edges of the mask caused a hazy etch. I expect better results with a negative etch on a liquor bottle having a plastic sticker-style label.

more label etching

Here the label-etching process described above has been improved by using a bottle having a sticker-style plastic label (as opposed to a paper label), and by using a negative etch with etching cream (which is easier to control and apply than etching fluid).

The empty bottle and label.

First, a suitable bottle was selected: This is an empty bottle of Smirnoff "Vanilla Twist" vodka, which has a cool twist pattern in the middle and (more importantly) the necessary plastic label. This is easy to tell because the label is clear; there's no such thing as a clear paper label.

The design drawn freehand on the label with a permanent marker.

Second, a design was selected and drawn freehand on the label with a black permanent marker. The ink did not adhere to the plastic very well but it was good enough to work with. The design selected is a Japanese heraldic symbol, chosen mostly because its sprial motif works well with the twist in the bottle.

The design cut from the label with a razor blade.

Third, the areas of the design to be etched were cut out of the label with a razor blade and peeled off. The tacky adhesive which remained beneath was removed by wiping with a bit of lighter fluid (naptha) on a paper towel.

Etch cream applied by dabbing with a brush.

Fourth, etching cream from the craft store was applied over the label by daubing with a disposable brush. The etch was left in place for 5 minutes, then washed off under running water.

The finished product.

With the etch complete, all labels were removed from the bottle, first by peeling, and then by the generous application of lighter fluid while scrubbing with steel wool. The bottle was then cut, as per the above article, right above the twisted section in its middle and the cut edge polished.