This is How Tiki Mugs are Made
This is How Tiki Mugs are Made
Table of Contents
Telling a Story
Every tiki mug tells a unique and fanciful story. Drinking from a mug can make you feel like Indiana Jones when he narrowly escapes a boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Nathan Drake when he uncovers a lost pirate city in Uncharted. For many people, a tiki mug is a way to feel adventurous without encountering real danger.
Ceramic art is often glorified, but the reality of crafting a tiki mug is not always so glamorous. A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into the design of each mug and a mug must go through multiple stages before being delivered to a consumer.
Every significant mug starts with a great idea. Many artists look to Polynesia for inspiration, while others may find inspiration in a theme park or movie theater. As more and more mugs are made, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to have an original and unique idea. Even still, highly creative mugs are crafted on a daily basis.
Lost Temple Traders found inspiration in an off-the-menu cocktail crafted by Skipper Melissa of Trader Sam’s. The drink, named The Temple of the Forbidden Rye, pays homage to the Indiana Jones Adventure ride found at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It is also inspired by mugs from Tonga Lei and the Cobra Fang, one of Don the Beachcomber’s original go-to recipes.
Anyone familiar with Indiana Jones will know he hates snakes, so naturally a mug inspired by the character would depict at least one slithering creature. The design created by Lost Temple Traders features a giant python coiled around a chalice.
Drafting a Design
Once an idea has manifested itself, the idea is put to paper (or drawn on a tablet). Some potters dive straight into molding clay, but this is becoming increasingly less common in the design of tiki mugs. Most professional mug makers start their design with a series of drawings. A ceramic mug will typically be drawn from six different angles (the top, bottom, and four sides of a mug). These sketches allow an artist to visually perceive a mug before it is committed to clay. Measurements may be added to the drawings to determine size and anticipate capacity. Mugs that are too small or too large may not be well suited for use in restaurants or bars.
Rendering a Model in 3D
Some artists may choose to model the preliminary concept sketches in three-dimensions. Many large manufacturers, including Tiki Farm, use software such as ZBrush to model their sketches on a computer. Other designers may skip this step entirely.
Creating a Sculpt
Sculpting is often considered the most difficult stage of tiki mug design. It starts with a block of clay and the clay is molded and pressed into shape, often by hand. As the structure becomes more defined, the sculptor may use tools to round off edges or carve intricate details into the clay.
Drawing and sculpting are not the same skill set, so sometimes the three stages of making a mug (designing, sculpting and manufacturing) are completed by three different people.
Determining Edition Size
Once the sculpt of a tiki mug has been finalized, an edition size must be determined. The edition size refers to the total number of mugs produced. Several factors go into determining edition size:
- The initial cost of the design
- The cost of materials
- The cost of manufacturing the mug
- The purpose of the mug
- The demand for the mug
- How collectible the mug could be
- The effect the edition size may have on a brand
Some brands produce more mugs than others. For example, Trader Sam’s produces thousands of mugs because it has the means to distribute them. Most tiki bars sell mugs in smaller batches of 100-500 mugs. Smaller batches tend to be more valuable because less inventory exists to meet demand.
Unfortunately mugs can often be damaged in the mail, so some edition sizes may become smaller than they were intended to be. Theft of mugs is also commonplace in bars, which is documented in detail here.
Before a mug can be made from a sculpt, a mold must be made. Molds are typically made by pouring a silicon rubber based material over a sculpt. The silicon rubber is a very flexible material, so a wooden frame is used to keep the rubber in place and prevent it from warping once it has been poured. The silicon is then left to stiffen overnight.
Once the silicon is dry, it can be removed from the wooden frame using an X-Acto knife. The edges of the mold are rounded off and the sculpture is removed from the mold.
The process is repeated to make plaster molds using the silicon mold. The plaster mold is cleaned, sanded and prepped for casting.
The number of molds needed to complete a run of mugs will depend on how many mugs are going to be produced. Each mold is viable for between 15-25 castings. When molds go bad, it is because calcium combines with the deflocculants found in slip, which pits the surface of the mold, making it unusable.
Most molds are designed to break into 3-5 sections, or pieces, with some complicated molds utilizing as many as 11. This is often referred to as tooling. When designed correctly, these sections should be easy to assemble and break apart.
When producing large runs of tiki mugs, most manufacturers will create multiple molds. This allows them to pour slip all at once and bisque fire multiple mugs at the same time. This saves energy, because a kiln will use the same amount of electricity or gas firing a single mug as it will firing a dozen mugs.
Once a mold has been made, slip is added through a hole in the top of the mold and allowed to dwell. Slip can be purchased in stores, or it can be made by combining slip mix, soda ash, barium carbonate, and Darvan 811, which is a deflocculant. Before slip is added to a mold, it is strained to remove unwanted particles. Once the slip has dwelled, it is ready for bisque firing.
The Importance of Bisque Firing
When the production run of a mug has been completed, molds can either be saved for future editions or destroyed to prevent future castings.
Ceramic mugs are typically fired twice. Before a tiki mug can be glaze fired, the water and carbon need to be removed from it. Otherwise the clay will be wet and the glaze will not take. This is accomplished with a process known as bisque firing. Bisque firing essentially cooks a mug at a low-fire range between 1700 and 1900 degrees F.
Bisque firing takes multiple hours and increases temperatures gradually over time, but it also reduces the likelihood a mug will crack or break later on. A tiki mug will typically be bisque fired for around two hours on low heat, two hours on medium heat and finished on high heat, though every kiln and clay material will have different requirements.
The resulting mug will be firm but remain porous enough to accept a glaze. In some cases this may be the final stage of a mug, but for most mugs this is an intermediate stage. Going one step further and glaze firing a mug will add color to it and make it impervious so that it can be used and cleaned repeatedly, which is important for any mug that will be used in a bar setting.
Choosing a Glaze
A glaze is what gives a tiki mug its color and glass-like appearance. Without a glaze, the mug will feel and appear chalky. A glaze is made up of three main components:
The structural material of a glaze that can turn into glass when heated
Substances that lower the melting point of Silica by preventing oxidation
A stiffening agent that prevents a glaze from running when applied to a mug
Before a glaze is applied, a mug is sanded to remove any rough edges and cleaned with a sponge to remove all dust and depris. Once the mug is sufficiently clean, it is ready to be glazed.
Most glazes will be a pastel color when applied to a mug, but will darken significantly when fired in a kiln.
Creating a glaze is not an exact science and may require experimentation. The two most common categories of glaze are glossy and matte. Glazes can be applied to a mug with a brush or by dipping the mug, and applying a glaze often requires patience. A mug may require multiple glazes to differentiate colors and/or create a desired effect. In-between coats the mug must dry, so mugs with multiple colors will generally be more labor-intensive than monochromatic ones and cost more to produce.
Many potters will test different glazes before settling on one. They may practice using the glaze on ceramic tiles, or they may test the glaze on some of the mugs themselves (these are often sold as Artist Proof editions). It is important to note that once a tiki mug has gone through its glaze firing, the glaze cannot be undone. Multiple prototypes may be produced and in some cases these prototypes become more valuable than the final glaze does.
Once a glaze has been chosen and mixed, it is either strained or sieved to remove any particulates prior to application. The glaze is then applied to the mug, allowed to dry and fired in a kiln. The end result is a completed tiki mug!
After a mug has been glazed it must pass one final test: the court of public opinion. It’s unfortunate when a mug receives a lukewarm response after such a long and trying incubation period, but it can happen. When Trader Sam’s released their holiday Nutcracker mug in 2019, social media quickly nicknamed it the “Gorton Fisherman” and the mug remained on sale months after the holiday season ended.
To avoid this issue, many local artisans have begun holding pre-sales for their mug designs. This gives mug creators an opportunity to gauge demand for a mug and mitigate financial risk. Reducing start-up costs of mug production can also help lesser-known artists pursue their passion.
Creative risks often pay off and many mugs find quick and loving homes. Tiki enthusiasts are vocal collectors who often pay a premium for well crafted ceramics.
Now that you know how your favorite tiki mug was made, what upcoming mugs are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments and share this post if you found the information helpful. The photos in this article were supplied by Lost Temple Traders.