August 28, 2005

Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting

Filed under: Perfect Tiki Bar,Tiki — Humuhumu @ 1:44 pm

I am often asked what defines a good tiki bar. It’s a question I love to answer, but it’s not one I love to answer in a brief soundbyte, for there are a myriad of elements that have to come together for a tiki bar to be ideal. I’ll address them individually in my Perfect Tiki Bar series, starting today with Lighting.

A good tiki bar doesn’t have much light. A tiki bar should feel exotic, mysterious… like the visitor isn’t quite sure what he’s stepped into, and even how to step back out again. The room should feel intimate, and yet should also feel like there is no end — low lighting is the only way to make that happen.

The way to achieve this is through the use of flame, low-wattage bulbs, colored lights, and fixtures that restrict much light from getting out.

Flame is a risky endeavor in a tiki bar, where flammable organic elements abound. People who are drinking are not to be trusted with candles, but flames in drinks — now that’s good sport. Some locations have had grand tiki fireplaces, and fire dancer shows are also part of the tradition. Flame-look flicker bulbs can be purchased, but their wattage is so low that they really are not useful for light at all. Disneyland uses special trickery to allow bulbs of any sort to flicker like flame. The electrical controls can be expensive, but someone who knows what they’re doing can tackle the project for under a hundred dollars.

Low-wattage bulbs are the most effective way to produce good tiki bar lighting. 15- or 30-watt bulbs will often do the trick. The key is to have enough light fixtures to make the low wattage work. A good tiki bar will have a ceiling that is nearly encrusted with low-wattage light fixtures.

All these light fixtures would look a bit dull without some variety, and that’s where colored lights and unusual fixtures come in. Any color of the rainbow will look right in a tiki bar, as long as the light level is low. Reds in particular will make everyone in the room look more attractive, and moody spots of green and blue add mystery.

Good tiki light fixtures look unconventional, and give off a restricted amount of light. The most prized tiki light fixture is a glass float — these large round glass balls were used on ships, and used to drift onto shore with their sides nicely blasted into a frosted look by the elements. They were once plentiful, but are now rare, with original floats going for well over a hundred dollars. Today, faux-floats are produced without light fixtures. Drilling one for use as a lamp can be tricky without proper equipment, many opt to instead mount the light on the outside of the float, and mask it with bamboo. Another popular tiki light fixture is the pufferfish lamp. It is not difficult to make a pufferfish lamp yourself, but it can be messy and smelly. Other lamp styles include old fish traps, bamboo bird cages, and frames wrapped in tapa cloth.

When crafting a moody, low-light environment, it becomes especially important to consider how bright light can affect it. Windows of course kill the scene, at least until nightfall. Neon is the scourge of the tiki bar, it’s far too bright and harsh. The worst offender is that mighty false idol, the television set. Nothing can ruin a tiki bar quite like a television set can. Even when showing supposedly tiki-friendly tropical scenes, like an old surf movie or a Hawaii travelogue, the screen is too bright. Even a television showing scenes that are dark is surprisingly bright. Worse, the moving scenes distract the visitor, and remove any sense of the exotic. Savvy tikiphiles are equipped with a device like TV-B-Gone, a small keychain device that works like a television remote, and can turn off virtually any television set.

There are lots of projects relating to lighting that can be done at home inexpensively, and in the future I’ll spotlight some places where you can learn to do that.

9 Responses to “Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting”

  1. Swanky Says:

    I think the Mai Kai is the height of the low light ideal. In the dinner show, they actually hand out flashlights so you can see the menu!

  2. Humuhumu Says:

    That’s fantastic! I should have mentioned my personal low-light fave, The Alibi. It’s in Portland. It’s so dark in there that I’d visited a couple times before I figured out where the back wall is. Every time I enter that place, I feel like I’ve walked into a closet, it takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. They have a good use of mirrors, which trick the eye pretty effectively in low light. They’re open for lunch — it’s great fun to go there in the middle of the day, spend hours there, and then leave to the shock of bright daylight.

  3. Humu Kon Tiki » SimFlame Flicker Lights Says:

    [...] Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting [Humu Kon Tiki] « Tiki Search in Rollyo   [...]

  4. Tiki Amy Says:

    A question for humuhumu – can you advise on where to purchase the “faux-floats” you mentioned, the replicas of the glass float lamps? Thanks in advance, and, great commentary on appropriate tiki lighting.

  5. Humu Kon Tiki » Perfect Tiki Bar: The Drinks Says:

    [...] Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting [Humu Kon Tiki] « Storytime with Aunt Bungy   [...]

  6. Humu Kon Tiki » Lamps by Orchids of Hawaii Says:

    [...] There’s an excellent thread on Tiki Central about Orchids of Hawaii lamps, thanks largely to tikijackalope, who travels to and photographs tiki bars nearly/perhaps as much as I do. Most are familiar with Orchids of Hawaii’s many mug designs, but OOH was also used by Polynesian restaurants for other elements of decor, most notably the lamps. OOH produced a broad variety of designs, many using bamboo, tapa, shells, and brightly colored resin panels. Tikijackalope has acquired many lamps, and has also posted scans of an old Orchids of Hawaii catalog showing some of the designs they had available. Another Tiki Central thread also has great OOH lamp images; recently, the Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio got rid of much of their remaining decor, including a number of lamps. Many of them have been posted on Tiki Central by tikiskip. Today, Orchids of Hawaii is no more, but similar designs can be purchased from Oceanic Arts in Whittier, California, and several crafty folks have made their own. Lamps of this sort are exactly the sort of light fixture I had in mind when I wrote my Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting article. [...]

  7. Humu Kon Tiki » Blog Archive » Perfect Tiki Bar: The Music Says:

    [...] Perfect Tiki Bar: The Music Filed under: Tiki, Music, History, Perfect Tiki Bar — Humuhumu @ 11:54 pm The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter, a CD compilation (out of print) This is the third installment in my ongoing series on what makes the Perfect Tiki Bar; my earlier entries addressed The Lighting and The Drinks. The Music… this one’s a bit of a tougher nut to crack. [...]

  8. Bahookahuna Says:

    Oceanic Arts in Whittier, California, also sells excellent hut lamps, and their inventory seems to change frequently, so it’s worth repeat visits if the perfect lamp isn’t found on the first visit. While the iconic Leroy Schmaltz carves onsite, I have no idea where most of the noncarved stuff — like the hut lamps — comes from. They also sell great pufferfish lights in different sizes starting at $42 (those, I know, come from the Phillippines), fitted with simple Christmas bulbs; it’s easy to try out red, blue, green, or whatever until you find the best color for your space, or for ongoing variety.

  9. Humu Kon Tiki » Blog Archive » Deluxe Custom Lamps by Kahaka Says:

    [...] of Hawaii lamps, Kahaka’s lamps are very much in line with the lamps I mentioned in my Perfect Tiki Bar: the Lighting article; unlike Orchids of Hawaii, which is long out-of-business, Kahaka’s lamps can be [...]

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About Humuhumu
Humuhumu is the creator of several tiki websites. She is a designer and programmer based out of San Francisco.

- Website Design and Programming

- A Worldwide Guide to Tiki Bars & Polynesian Restaurants

- Tiki Mugs & More: Track & View Collections




Arkiva Tropika
Mimi Payne’s massive Polynesian Pop collection

Barefoot Bloggin’
A surfin’, ukein’, freewheelin’ monkey boy

Beachbum Berry
Author of Grog Log and Intoxica!, and one of my dearest drinkin’ buddies
Blog from the user interface designer extraordinaire

Worldwide Guide to Tiki Bars & Polynesian Restaurants

Dumb Angel
A look at the 1960s Los Angeles mod, pop, surf, and music scene

Eye of the Goof
Pop culture with a tiki tinge

Forbidden Island
My Wednesday hangout, the Bay Area’s best tiki bar

Humuhumu’s Life in Photos
Pictures of my adventures
I build websites

Junkyard Clubhouse
Random interesting things from Humuhumu & Hanford Lemoore

Kevin Kidney
Kevin loves tiki, I love Kevin, you will too

Tiki links galore

Mai Tai Online
Montreal-based tiki ‘zine

Tiki Mug Collection Organizer

The Jab
Follow the way of the jab

Tiki Bar TV
Public Access meets Modern Drunkard

Tiki Central
Community forums

Tiki Magazine
Periodical publication covering the wide world of Tiki

Tiki Talk
Hot Lava’s Tiki Blog