4th Grade Chihuly Sculpture Comes to Life – Steps to follow to make yours happen! (Final Phase 2/2)

4th grader’s preparation is beginning to pay off!  We have been collecting hundreds of water bottles and prepping them for the infamous bottle sculpture that has been seen all over Pinterest, inspired by Dale Chihuly.

As stated in the linked post:

First task: collect bottles.  I have been asking students to bring water bottles in since October.  I would estimate to say we have about 500 bottles and we’ve just about cracked the surface for what I hope it will take to make 2 installations.

Second task: Prep the water bottles – as a collective assembly line, have students tear off labels, cut the bottoms off and secure the lids that we do have.  This took a good 40 minute class period with both sections – but it was great.  We got through about 300 of the bottles and I have 200 more on stand by.

Third task: Paint the water bottles.  We are in the process of this now – first, we’re starting with warm colors not only to present a chance to learn about warm colors…or rather relearn again and again but to also approach the blending of colors in the most successful way.  We will have a day with cool colors and we will use that as a chance to explore how come colors do not successfully mix not matter how close they are on the color wheel.  We will finish the 500 bottles with a day using all colors so students can use what they learned to challenge themselves with what colors will mix outside of the obvious.

So this brings us back to the next tasks,

Fourth task: After letting alllllll of the bottles dry (and there were a lot), we had to spiral cut them.  This is pretty straight forward but is harder than it looks for some.  Have the students angle a good pair of scissors into the open bottom of the bottle and begin cutting at an angle.  Stay at an angle until you hit the neck of the bottle and it looks like a spiral.  Careful not to make the spiral too thin because it makes the splaying of the water bottle difficult.

Fifth Task: Splay the bottles? Say what? Well, plastic holds it form incredibly well so even after you cut them, they don’t really spread out well.  While the class continues to spiral all the bottles, catch up on painting them (kind of stagger the work and everyone will always have something to do), etc – use a heat gun (depending on the grade, the teacher should be doing this) to splay them.  It is a two person job because one person needs to hold the neck of the bottle while you pull the bottle spiral out and melt it.  This is a quick process! I’ve found that aiming the heat gun into the curves of the spiral keep the best form but you can play around with it.  If the heat gun has multiple settings, I would use the low settings so you don’t cinch anything too fast.  The splaying helps the bottles hold their form!  This obviously goes much slower than spiraling because it’s one on one, but have students rotate through this role so everyone gets a chance.  (Clue: Hair dryers are not an effective replacement for heat guns – have students go home and ask parents if they have any available to borrow; be sure to communicate with the parents so that it is clear what the heat gun is being used for.)

Sixth Task: Bundle the bottles.  Have students work in pairs to bundle 3-4 bottles of like colors and like sizes (or not like if you want to approach the color scheme differently) together.  The team work aspect of this is great. I am having them use some strong twine to tie around one neck, tie around another and so fourth.  Once you have enough hanging on the frame, the twine isn’t seen. These bundles are easy to hang on the frame of the piece.

Seventh Task: Hang bottles on the frame.  This bit was given to me by a college from King Elementary, Alyssa Harder, and what a life-saver she was because the idea of cardboard tubes and chicken wire just didn’t seem like the best approach.  She linked me to Home Depot and I purchased 2-3 foot flat steel rods with holes in them and wired them together to make a 5 1/2 long rod.  I could’ve bought a 5-foot rod but they were out.  (Link to rod, here.) I hung this from the ceiling and using “Galvanized Steel Wire, 22 Guage” students helped me wire the bundles and tie them into the punched holes of the steel rod.

From here, we just begin to add more and more bundles in the same manner, by color choice of the students.  You can let bottles begin to hang out farther to make the sculpture even bigger. It hangs from the ceiling with the same wire but will be installed by the district with strong hooks for a permanent display (pictures to come).

Note: As stated in Phase 1, the paint I used was acrylic.  This dries strong and doesn’t flake off when the bottles are splayed. 

Here are the final sculptures – 2 large (6 foot) and 1 small (4 foot).


26 responses to “4th Grade Chihuly Sculpture Comes to Life – Steps to follow to make yours happen! (Final Phase 2/2)

  1. Hi. I love this and thanks for the step by step. I just started collecting bottles so I won’t be doing this until next school year. Question: What did you hang the metal rod with or to? We are not allowed to hang things from the ceiling but this is a great solution!!!

    • We will hang it by a cable to the ceiling but I have seen people make a free standing one with cardboard tubing, secured to a 2×4 base that had holes drilled into like the rod so that it could be placed on the ground. Maybe that would work for you? We aren’t suppose to hang stuff either but because it will be a permanent installation, facilities considers it exempt from those rules.

    • For all three sculptures, I estimate that we collected approximately 500 bottles, yes. I would guess that a little over 200 were used on the large sculptures and a little less than 100 on the small. Hope this helps!

  2. Thanks for the info. Why did you paint the inside of the bottles? Also, do you think that if I used glue dyed with food coloring to color the bottles, would it crack from the heat of the heat gun? Thanks.

    • We painted on the inside for a few reasons, one it was less of a mess – students could hold the bottle and swirl the paint with no issues of getting the paint anywhere; two it let the outside stay smooth and shiny, when we did paint one on the outside it dried matted and didn’t resemble glass at all. I think your idea with glue is interesting but I think it very well could become sticky or crack as you heat it but also when you spiral cut the bottles, I fear it would begin to chip and break off because it’s such a solid substance once dried. I’ve seen acrylic paint and sharpies both be successful.

      • Thanks for your reply. We are now ready to heat gun. How bad were the fumes?

      • Considering how quickly you move through them, not noticeable. You don’t want to melt them – just heat them enough (a few seconds) that the plastic firms in place (spread out). It should take only 5-8 seconds per bottle and the bottles should cool within moments of being done. Hope this helps! Can’t wait to see results!

  3. Thank you for this tutorial, I am wondering if you should add white glue to the bottle before painting and let it dry, or if the acrylic paint sticks to the bottle with no need for a previous prep.
    I plan on making a christmas tree with all the elementary school.
    thank you from Mexico city

    • It stuck without glue. I haven’t had an issue with the acrylic paint peeling or flaking off so I don’t see a value in doing the step with glue! 🙂 A Christmas tree sounds great – my school strays away from holidays but that’s a great theme!

  4. Hi! Love these bottle sculptures! I love using recycled bottles for crafts also – wreaths, door hangers, etc. I have mostly used a Styrofoam wreath form or block as the “base” for my bottle creations. I also use acrylic paints & have had no problems. I like to add glitter to mine but I don’t like the forever and ever after glitter fallout so I mix the glitter with Mod Podge & paint it on the bottles once the paint dries.
    I can hardly wait to make one of these using the metal bar – great idea!
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. I hope you can help me. I have been doing different projects with all types of water bottles and I can’t find what kind of paint to use on them with out it cracking or flacking. Could you help me out with this problem. I been trying the sharpies but it takes a while , so I hope you can help me. Thankyou for taking your time to read this and hopefully help me.



    • I am so sorry I didn’t see this comment and was of no help at the time. I have been internet-mia all summer due to other obligations. I use acrylic!! It doesn’t flake or crack so long as it’s not too think. Tempera is awful to work with. Again, I’m so sorry!

  6. I saw some teachers used permanent markers….also works. But need patience. My students are 7th and 8th

    • I’ve seen this as well. Personally, I didn’t like the outcome of them as much as the color because the sharpies fade over time. The acrylic allows the colors to last much longer. I’ve seen some teachers paint the acrylic on thin to provide the same effect.

    • Yahoo! They love this. We made one this year for an organization that sponsors our school and they kids are completely obsessed with the process. So much fun!

  7. I would really like to somehow attach a string of battery operated lights to our finished project. Do you think it would work and how would you suggest doing that? Thanks in advance

    • I don’t see why it wouldn’t! Love the idea. I’m sorry I didn’t respond until now – I took a hiatus from blogging for personal reasons.

  8. As a recently retired High School Math teacher, I’m very impressed with the exposure you and your school district are giving to Dale Chihuly. Your detailed description of each step is so clear! Your students are so lucky to have you! I can’t wait to try it myself!

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