Choosing Tiki Bar Lights: The Complete Guide

Choosing Tiki Bar Lights: The Complete Guide

    When a tiki bar is properly lit, it will evoke a spirit of mystery and exploration and transport guests into a tropical oasis. However choosing the right lights for a tiki bar is not always easy when there are so many different options.

Choosing Tiki Bar Lights

    Before deciding which lights to use, it is important to know what options are available and how those options can impact a bar’s atmosphere. Lighting can be broken up into three major categories:

Polynesian

Lighting inspired by Polynesian carvings, materials or implements

Nautical

Lighting derived from maritime culture, seafaring tools or aquatic animals

Contemporary

Intelligent lighting that can enhance or help integrate tropical themes

    While each category is unique, most modern tiki bars incorporate elements from all three categories.

Polynesian Lighting

    This category of lighting has very little historical basis in Polynesian culture despite being inspired by it. Even still, it has become a mainstay in tropically-themed bars. It often features bamboo, rattan and thatch, and may incorporate primitive illustrations or carvings.

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Bamboo and Rattan Shades Lights

    These lamps are typically suspended from the ceiling and are designed to look primitive using a combination of bamboo and rattan. Light passes through the slats and holes of the shade.

Palapa Thatch Shade Lights

    Palapa thatch shade lights are designed to look like mini dwellings with thatched roofs made of palm trees. They can add an extra level of detail to your bar, but they tend to be high maintenance.

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Tapa Cloth Lights

    Tapa cloth is a plant-based cloth used for decoration by the Pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. It can be dyed, rubbed, smoked or stamped, and is typically painted with repetitive patterns and/or images of animals. The tapa cloth is thin enough for light to shine through it and it is often stretched over geometric shapes to add dimension to lighting.

The Tiki Torch

    Many folks might be surprised to learn the infamous tiki torch does not originate from ancient Polynesia. While Polynesians did use fire for lamalama fishing, their torches were made using strings of kukui nuts and would not have resembled the torches found in modern tiki bars today. Instead, the tiki torch we know was first manufactured in Wisconsin in 1956 and was made from aluminum.

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Nautical Lighting

    What better way to transport guests 20,000 leagues under the sea than with some nautically themed lighting? These lights are either made with authentic maritime materials or inspired by them (it is worth noting that decor inspired by pirates, albeit nautical, seldom appears in tiki bars).

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Bamboo Fish Trap Lights

    Ancient Polynesians used woven fish traps to capture small shallow-water fish and shrimp. These traps could be as large as five feet in diameter and three feet deep, but they tended to be much smaller. Women would place them under leaves in streams. Nowadays fish trap reproductions are made using bamboo and are outfitted with lightbulbs and hung as wall sconces or suspended.

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Glass Float Light

    No tiki bar is complete without at least one floating glass light. Made in a variety of colors, these lights are made of translucent glass and are suspended in rope netting. While inexpensive versions sometimes utilize plastic balls instead of glass ones, they are actually more authentic. Cutting a hole in glass was difficult and thin glass did not hold up against the beatings of an ocean, so other glass-like materials were more commonly used.

Glass Float Lights

    No tiki bar is complete without at least one floating glass light. Made in a variety of colors, these lights are made of translucent glass and are suspended in rope netting. While inexpensive versions sometimes utilize plastic balls instead of glass ones, they are actually more authentic. Cutting a hole in glass was difficult and thin glass did not hold up against the beatings of an ocean, so other glass-like materials were more commonly used.

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Pufferfish Lights

    Pufferfish can quickly ingest large amounts of water when they sense a predator as a defense mechanism, making them largely unpalatable. When they do this, their outer skin is stretched thin and becomes translucent. Consequently pufferfish are often taxidermied in their engorged state and outfitted with a light before being suspended from a ceiling. Antique pufferfish lamps tend to have glass eyes, while newer versions utilize plastic googly eyes.

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Sea Shell Shade Lights

    Sea shell shade lights are lights made using natural shells found in the ocean. These lights incorporate organic materials, so they are often translucent and allow light to pass through them. They can be as varied as the shells they are made up of.

Sea Shell Shade Lights

    Sea shell shade lights are lights made using natural shells found in the ocean. These lights incorporate organic materials, so they are often translucent and allow light to pass through them. They can be as varied as the shells they are made up of.

tiki-bar-lights-sea-shell-shade

Contemporary Lighting

    Contemporary lighting is often a cheap, efficient and easily controlled lighting solution, but it does not contribute any cultural authenticity to a tiki bar.

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Neon Lights

    Dubbed “liquid fire,” the first neon light was displayed in Paris in 1910. Neon lights are made using glass tubes between 4 and 8 feet in length that are heated by lit gas and forced air. Their popularity soared after World War II, the same time soldiers came home from the Pacific after being exposed to tiki culture. The neon lights used in tiki bars often highlight tropical imagery such as palm trees, hula dancers and parrots.

Projection Lights

    Projection lights cast whole images onto a surface and can be used to achieve special effect lighting, like making waves on a canvas painting appear to cascade, but they should be used selectively and not overused. The brightness of a projector can be blinding, so placement is key. The closer a projector is to it’s targeted surface the brighter and smaller the projected image will appear. Projection lights may need to be specifically engineered for an environment, so they are less user friendly than other lighting options.

Smart Lights

    With the advent of the smartphone, smart lights have become commonplace. Philips HUE lights are frequently used by tiki aficionados in their home bar construction and are available as both light bulbs and light strips. With over 16 million different color options, they are perfect for accenting or illuminating tiki mug displays and can be controlled using a smart device over wifi. 

Specialty Bulbs

    Standard light bulbs can be replaced with specialty ones to add authenticity to a tiki bar. The most popular bulb replacements are flicker bulbs, which are designed to imitate the sporadic nature of candle flames. Other bulbs may be unique colors or stained-glass.

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Stringed Lights

    Stringed lights may be kitschy, but they also have a place in the home tiki bar. They are often used outdoors and strung along the top of thatched roofs. Plain white stringed lights are the most common, but sometimes colorful casings are placed over the bulbs to incorporate exotic designs, such as flamingos.

Choosing Tiki Bar Lights' Placement

    How lights are positioned in your bar can be as important as the lights themselves. Tiki bar lighting should look unintentional… it should be displayed haphazardly. 

    Hang lights, such as floating glass balls or pufferfish, from the ceiling at varying heights. In some cases it may help to tie lights together. Avoid hanging lights near open windows or doors as many Polynesian and nautically themed lights are fragile and can be broken down by wind over time. Suspending lights above tables and counters can help preserve counter space and make a bar easier to clean.

    Use bamboo and rattan sconce shades to increase visibility along indoor pathways.

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Haphazard Lights On Display At Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco

    Stringed lights can be used to accent thatched roofs or bar overhangs. Leave some slack in the cords to allow stringed lights to disperse for a more natural look.

    Bookcases and mug displays are best accented with LED strip lighting. Fasten strips above each shelf to hide strips from view. If a shelf is above the average person’s eye level, a strip can be fastened to the bottom of the shelf to hide it, but the amount of light it provides will be reduced. Drill a hole through the back of the bookcase to hide power cords from sight.

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A Collection of Trader Sam's Tiki Mugs Illuminated By LED Lightstripping

    When using tiki torches for outdoor bars, use them to line pathways and frequently trafficked areas. Avoid placing torches near flammable materials such as building structures and plants. Check with local town ordinances for restrictions and fire codes and in some extreme cases permits may be required.

    Now that you know what lighting options are available, how do you plan to incorporate lighting in your home tiki bar? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to share this article if you found the information useful!

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