The Story Of The Tiki Bar
By Ted Doughty
Photos by Safari Thatch
The image of the care-free tropical island has been with us since long before the 1930's. During most of the early 20th century, American kids actually read books, and grew up on 18th and 19th century adventure stories by the likes of Jules Verne, many of which featured tropical islands as their settings. Even Robinson Crusoe used to be considered a children's book, not fodder for college courses.
So, when those kids grew up, the sight of a drinking establishment with actual props such as you would theoretically find in a real-life "tropical paradise" ("tiki masks" and wall-mounted tropical fish) sparked their imaginations. It was the perfect blend of "reality" and fancy. Presumably, the Tiki bars were related to actual Polynesian culture and named after the Maori mythological figure of Tiki, although the connection was pretty tenuous. Add alcohol to the mix, especially fruity "tropical" rum-based drinks with very high alcohol content, such as the Zombie Cocktail, and you have an unbeatable recipe for the ultimate leisure destination.
Post-Modern Tiki Bars
After the 1970's, tiki bars fell out of fashion. They were inauthentic, no longer "cool" or "cosmopolitan." What was once alluring because it was new and faintly exotic became hopelessly domestic and outdated. It became gauche to build a tiki hut or build a tiki bar.
However, gradually, as the 20th century merged into the 21st, the common opprobrium heaped upon the tiki bar lifted. Post-modernity looks with skepticism at any attempt to create an "objective" point of view. It revels in images and ideas that once were fashionable but that now appear "cheesy" and "outdated," in part because these conform its thesis that the meaning of all images is subjective and relative to its time period.
Thus, delightful tiki bar, with its thatch roofs, woven mats, fanciful "tiki god" mugs and fake palm trees, has had something of a renaissance. Now, everyone wants a tiki bar--not just to go to on vacation, but to have in his or her own rec room, basement, or backyard. People who like tiki bars are aware that they might be seen by some as "cheesy," but love them anyway, in part because of the liberation that they represent from always having to be "cool." Build a tiki bar, and you will convey to all of your friends the message of how free-spirited and fun-loving you are.
A tiki bar just isn't a tiki bar without that characteristic palm tree-looking tiki thatch covering every conceivable roof-like surface. Without tiki bar thatch, your "tiki bar" is just some bar that serves tropical drinks. If your home bar has is decorated with tiki masks and boasts a supply of tiki mugs in which to serve tropical drinks, but doesn't have thatch covering at least one surface, it looks jarring.
For an outdoor tiki hut, thatch is even more necessary. With an indoor tiki-themed bar, you at least have the excuse that thatch roofs "aren't really necessary" indoors (although everyone will know you are just making excuses--tiki bars are about looks, not utility). With an outdoor tiki hut, you don't even have that sad excuse.
Covering The Subject Of Thatch
What is thatch? It is only the world's first building material. Straw, heather, and in the Polynesian islands, dried palm leaves, have been layered together and waterproofed to create warm, water-resistant, low-cost, sustainable roofs for thousands of years. People have been making thatched roofs since before they could write.
In the context of a tropical tiki bar, it's practical to use thatch to cover a sun umbrella or palapa (a type of roofed structure held up by four or more poles but without any walls, intended for giving shade). Thatch's great thermal insulation means that, not only will thatched-roof houses stay warm in winter, but people sitting under thatched palapas will stay cool in summer.
The Aesthetics of Thatch
Aside from its cost-effectiveness and its effectiveness at protection from the sun (possibly not as much of an issue, if you're trying to build a tiki bar at home), thatch has great aesthetic properties that make it indispensable to a tropical-themed place of leisure. A thatched roof looks casual and natural. People like the fact that a thatched roof is made out of the same material as things that actually grow in the earth. Why?
Is it because everyone actually cares so much about the environment all of a sudden? Maybe, but the real reason probably has more to do with the basic aesthetic principle of "things must match." People often express an urge to "get away from civilization" because of its perceived artificiality. Civilization clashes with what everyone really perceives to be the true nature of reality--which is, "nature," in the sense of forests and palm trees and plants.
We love nature, but we need civilization. Modern people feel that they are simply incapable of living in nature, without any of the "artificial" incursions of civilization--and they probably are right. Even farming is, to some extent, "artificial." However, when people see that boundary between nature and civilization blur just a little bit--as in the thatched roof of a tiki bar--they begin to relax just a little bit. It is the kind of good, relaxed feeling that makes one want to sit back with a tropical cocktail.
Commerically Available Tiki Thatch
For these reasons, thatched roofs have been an indispensable part of the tiki bar look since tiki bars first appeared. These days, if you want to build a tiki bar, you don't even have to thatch it yourself--you can buy rolls of tiki thatch buy the foot
If you see a Polynesian-inspired grass hut, with its characteristic roof made of layered palm leaves, you will automatically assume think "tropical vacation." If you see a real palm hut, complete with leaves, supported by a handsome cypress or cedar frame, in somebody's patio, yard, or poolside, you will probably be somewhat impressed. Only "real" bars and themed outdoor restaurants get to have a tropical hut, right? Or the very rich?
Browse our catalogue of supplies for your Grass Hut
Wrong. A grass hut, such as you would find at a commercial tiki-themed bar, is actually relatively inexpensive to build. "Real" grass huts are relatively inexpensive to build. Think about it: their low cost and ease of construction was the very reason that grass huts were traditionally used in the tropics, where the idea of the tiki bar takes its inspiration in the first place. There's something inexpressibly charming about being able to put together such a low-cost, comfortable, distinctive-looking shelter out of inexpensive, readily available materials.
The easiest way to build a Polynesian-style grass hut for your next tiki party (or if you want to have a permanent tiki bar by your poolside) is to build the frame first, and to build it out of wood. You can get common materials such as pine and directly from your local hardware store. For the parts that require sturdier woods are, such as cypress or cedar, contact a lumber company. Alternatively, you can buy tiki "kits" from online suppliers, which come pre-made with all of the parts you need. Whether you choose to build from a kit, or build by yourself, you can create almost any kind of structure you could dream of--a table shaded by a huge tiki umbrella, a palapa, a hut, a tent, an actual full-service bar covered by a snazzy tiki roof, or even thatch-covered a DJ's booth.
A Thatch Roof Gives Tiki Structures Their Distinctive Look
Once you have a frame in place, it's time to add that which will give your tropical hut its characteristic appearance: a thatched roof. The thatched roof may be "primitive," but it's actually a surprisingly useful building material. It will ensure all who sit beneath it cool under the hot sun, and shelter from rain when it is cold. People don't realize that thatched palm leaves actually offer a lot of water resistance. A well-made thatched roof can last up to 7 rainy winters. For this, you have the option of either purchasing palm leaves and learning to weave them yourself--or buying ready-made rolls of thatched palm leaves. The one advantage that modern thatch has over its ancient predecessor? For your modern tiki grass hut, you can buy rolls of palm thatch that have been treated with fire-retardant chemicals.
If you've already decided to build or obtain a bar from which to serve drinks at home, why stop there? Why not go all-out and put together a bamboo tiki bar in your own home.
Browse our catalogue for everything you need for your Bamboo Tiki Bar
Resurgence Of Tiki Culture
Tiki bars--that is, drinking establishments with a Polynesian motif that involved palm trees and bamboo and thatch furniture--used to be extremely popular in the United States. They went out of fashion during the 1970's, but these days, like all things "retro," they are experiencing a resurgence in popularity.
However, the way in which tiki bars are popular today is somewhat different from the way in which they were popular during the years 1947-1970. In the past, the tiki style was primarily confined to commercial drinking establishments and restaurants, especially in popular resort destinations such as Hawaii. These days, although tiki bars and restaurants still enjoy some of their former popularity, tiki has become an even more popular home decoration scheme. Tiki mugs are collectible items, tiki masks are considered ironically "hip" home decorations, and, in general, tiki party accessories a way to show off your individual good taste--your ability to know that something is "uncool" but to enjoy it nonetheless.
The Home Tiki Bar
Given all of these facts, what is the ultimate home tiki accessory? The ultimate way to show your guests your sense of taste, and a good time, all at once? It is the bamboo tiki bar--not in the sense of a commercial drinking establishment, but in the sense of a little stand with shelves made out of bamboo, with possible space for a mini-refrigerator, from which you can serve exotic, alcoholic, rum-based drinks with names like "Sex on the Beach" or "Death on the Islands" (that last one does not exist--yet!).
The bamboo tiki bar is an extremely versatile entertainment accessory. You can either build or buy these semi-portable structures, ranging in length from 3 feet and 4 feet, to 8 feet, and even to as long as 14 feet. If you properly season the bamboo to protect it from wind and water, you can have an outdoor tiki bar to use in your backyard. This is especially exciting if you also own a pool (warning: be responsible and avoid going swimming after you've imbibed). If you don't have a big enough yard, or simply want to be a little paradoxical, you can build your home tiki bar indoors. It can still have the thatched roof--an homage to the absurdity and delight of tiki culture.
The main two things to keep in mind when buying or building a bamboo tiki hut bar is to, first, make sure that you are using real bamboo and, second, make sure the bamboo has been treated with appropriate chemicals if you plan to keep the bar outside. A tiki bar made of plastic just doesn't have that exciting authentic, festive look of a bamboo tiki bar.
Bamboo wall covering is essential if you really want to ramp up the authenticity of your tiki-themed basement or rec room, or if you just want an attractive, "natural" look for the walls in your house (or outside your house, for that matter). That is because bamboo is perhaps the quintessential construction material of the Pacific islands.
Browse our Bamboo Wall Covering
As a construction material, Bamboo has been renowned in East and South Asia, and the Pacific Islands, for millennia. It is relatively light, durable, and--most importantly of all--it grows at a super-fast rate of as much as 3-4 feet per day. That kind of growth is is almost visible to the naked eye. Bamboo is also extremely hardy. It can also grow virtually anywhere, whether high in the freezing Himalayan mountains, or in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. It can grow as far north as Sakhalin (latitude 50 degrees N) or as far south as Chile (latitude 47 degrees S). What that means in practice is that residents of the warm Pacific Islands could (and still can) afford to make basically every building out of bamboo.
Outside of the Pacific Islands covering your walls with bamboo will give your interior that subtle but unmistakable look that is associated with the South Pacific. Visitors entering an interior with bamboo-covered walls may find themselves calmed and thinking of the tropics without quite knowing why.
Bamboo is an extremely versatile building material, and bamboo wall coverings come in several forms. First, you can purchase flat slats or bricks that are made of bamboo. These can be up to 9 feet in length, and are usually supposed to adhere to your wall with glue. You can also attach them to the wall with molding going along the wall's top and bottom. Covering your wall with bamboo slats is similar to having a brick facade, except, of course, the facade is made out of bamboo.
Second, you can buy actual half-sections of bamboo trunk. The insides of these half-sections is filled with foam. These pieces of bamboo trunk are then nailed, glued, or screwed to the wall.
However, all the above options take a long time to install, and may look too "formal" for a fun, tiki bar setting. For a tiki bar, the best wall covering option is to buy woven bamboo mats by the foot. Mats? Yes. Bamboo can be cut into flexible strips that are then woven to make a sturdy, flexible, yet basically impenetrable barrier. After the mat is woven, the bamboo strips are treated with a variety of chemicals to make them water and fire-resistant. Bamboo mats are economic and versatile. They can be ordered in any size, and be made to cover your wall in a matter of hours. They also look truly casual, yet authentic--perfect for a tiki bar. Thus, for tiki bars, woven bamboo mats are the best kind of bamboo wall covering.
The atmosphere of infinite leisure and pleasure that you would find a tiki bar can actually be created easily, with the purchase and proper arrangement of the right tiki accessories. The delight you and your guests will feel at finding yourselves in a tiki bar may intangible. However, it is brought about through the proper combination of very tangible, physical props. Building a tiki bar is all about applying Gestalt principles: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The Basics: Thatch, Weaves, and Bamboo
The basic components of a convincing tiki bar that will surround your guests in the proper atmosphere are palm-thatched roofs (such as you would see on traditional Polynesian roofs), woven bamboo mats, and bamboo poles. These are the "brick and mortar" of putting together a tiki bar. Any surface that goes on top of where people are sitting or standing, such as the roof of a the bar area (if you're building a little "tiki shack") or a sun umbrella, should be covered in palm thatch. Fortunately, that doesn't mean you have to pay contractors to thatch the roof of your bar. Thatch is available in easy-to-install rolls that you can just unroll and use to cover a basic skeleton structure made of wood. Woven mats go great on floors, as a kind of tropical rug, or on walls. They are comfortable to touch and let in a little bit of warm, tropical breeze while keeping out the wind. If you don't live in a tropical climate, don't worry. You can buy woven mats by the foot and use them to line an ordinary wall. The woven mats that you can buy commercially are made with thick-woven strips of bamboo--much like the traditional ones you would see on a Polynesian island, except treated with various substances to make them stronger and more durable.
Bamboo is an excellent construction material because it can come in another form. What could be an aesthetically superior complement to a woven bamboo mat than a sign held up by a bamboo pole? The sign could be simple-looking, perhaps wooden, and hand-painted to fit in with the tiki aesthetic. "[insert your name]'s Tiki Bar," it could say. But don't stop there! Bamboo poles, in combination with woven bamboo, could also be used to make delightful tiki furniture for your bar. This, too, can be purchased commercially. Is there anything more playful than the combination of rustic and modern found in a bamboo CD holder, containing, perhaps, your collection of marimba music?
Get Fancier: Tiki Masks And More
Once you have established your tiki bar's underlying structure of bamboo and thatch, you can really start the best part of decorating: choosing individual tiki accessories. You must, of course, start with the classics that have existed in tiki bars since the 1930's: tiki masks. According to Maori legend, Tiki is actually the first human being on earth--similar to the Judeo-Christian Adam. Tiki masks are originally inspired by traditional Polynesian woodcarvings. To "western" eyes, they tend to look imposing and exotic, and they are an indispensable part of tiki bar decor. Many "tiki masks" today aren't really masks--just giant woodcarvings. You can use tiki masks creatively: buy a couple, put a board over them (preferably made from the same type of wood), and you've got a tiki bench.
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