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updated: 8/20/2013 1:37 PM

Poring over some new uses for old bottles

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  • This contemporary bench was built out of identical blue bottles and topped with a clean granite slab.

      This contemporary bench was built out of identical blue bottles and topped with a clean granite slab.
    SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

  • The bottles facing the west wall light up on cue at sunset every day.

      The bottles facing the west wall light up on cue at sunset every day.
    SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

  • Your wine-loving friends may already have a stash of bottles to get you started.

      Your wine-loving friends may already have a stash of bottles to get you started.
    SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer

 
By Maureen Gilmer
Scripps Howard News Service

During the Civil War, Hostetter's Stomach Bitters was sold to Union soldiers heading south to the battlefields. It was touted as a "positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous." The stuff was shipped west, too, where miners suffered their own spates of dysentery.

In Tonopah, Nev., William Peck discovered that Hostetter's relieved his aches and pains, too. Evidently, he consumed about 10,000 bottles at the turn of the last century. It's no wonder, because, when analyzed, Hostetter's was 90 percent alcohol and 10 percent opium. We believe he consumed this much because he built an entire house out of Hostetter's bottles and concrete.

Building with bottles originated in the deserts, where so many mining towns rose up amid Spartan ecosystems. Miners' tents were soon in tatters and they had to find a new building material because shipping lumber by mule train was quite expensive. Those who had not yet struck it rich were left out in the cold. Literally.

Mining towns, however, had one thing in abundance, as you might imagine: bottles. Bars did a roaring business -- and so did the peddlers offering patent medicines. Bottles accumulated all over the place, so it was just a matter of time before they were pressed into service as building materials.

Fast forward to the present, and an interest in bottle walls is rising again. Rather than being lugged to the recycling center, bottles can be reused in the garden. Think layering bottles, just like bricks, onto wet mortar.

A few things to consider if you want to work with bottles.

First, leave the labels on because they'll be hidden by the mortar.

Second, collect bottles that are all roughly the same size. This is really helpful for newbies who are still learning this art. Similar-sized bottles stack cleanly and hold together better than do bottles of various sizes.

Third, use bottles of the same shape. The square shape of Hostetter's bottles made them easy to stack without rolling. Rounded bottles mixed with square ones will be more challenging.

Fourth, consider using bottles of the same color. Consider using all blue bottles or all green ones -- or just amber beer bottles -- for a powerful design statement.

While bottles were commonly used in Nevada for houses, walls might be a better option today. The shorter the wall, the more stable it remains.

A great starter project is creating a bench out of bottles using wood or a stone slab on top for a comfortable seat.

Consider how light shines through such walls in the morning and at sunset when the sun is low. Your wall, accordingly, could lighten up on cue for cocktail hour. Another option is to arrange your landscape lighting to illuminate the back of the bench or wall so the bottles glow all night long.

The best place to learn how to build stuff with recycled bottles is on YouTube. How-to videos there will help you get started. Consider a bottle wall for part of your greenhouse or solarium. Many folks fill their bottles with water and seal them before stacking into a wall for a low-cost thermal mass to keep a solar greenhouse warmer.

Reusing bottles in masonry is one of the most beautiful ways to avoid trips to the recycling center and limit expenditures at the home-improvement store.

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