If home is where the heart is, Ray Wagley’s home is in a bottle.
A glass bottle, that is.
You see, Wagley is an artist. For the past four decades, the 74-year-old Lansing barber has handcrafted miniature houses inside of glass bottles.
Big bottles. Small bottles. Oddly shaped bottles. Bottles that held everything from water to kerosene.
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You’ve heard of building ships in bottles?
Wagley does the same thing, only with homes and shops and other buildings. He creates entire scenes — tiny, realistic slices of life that are not only under glass, but completely inside of it.
And yes, everything Wagley builds goes through the narrow opening at the top of the bottle. There are no secrets, no false bottoms, no tricks of any kind — just the sort of painstaking and meticulous Old World craftsmanship you don’t see much anymore.
If you can imagine it, Wagley can build it with white glue and basswood (which is a little harder than balsa). Hands of a surgeon and the patience of Job. He’ll build one for anyone who wants one.
A surf shack on the water? Check.
An abandoned old barn with a weather-beaten roof? Check.
An Old West scene with a Wells Fargo building? An exact replica of the Truman home? A two-story Victorian with wraparound porch and gingerbread siding?
“There is nothing that I couldn’t build,” Wagley said.
No brag. Just fact.
“How?” people ask with furrowed brows. “How can you do this?”
“Piece at a time,” Wagley says.
He carefully plots out what’s needed. Then he measures, cuts, sands and folds all the pieces, and carefully glues them one by one in the bottom of the bottle.
He didn’t buy a kit. Didn’t read a book. Didn’t learn from a master, though he did take six years of woodworking in school.
“I just kind of stumbled into it, and it started rolling,” he said.
Bill Prelogar Jr., co-president of NSPJ Architects in Kansas City, loves Wagley’s work.
“That is a stunningly beautiful model of a home,” he said of a photo of one of Wagley’s bottles. “Ray must have developed quite an understanding of the ‘critical path’ method of construction in order to get all those exceptionally detailed components into that bottle in the right order.”
Wagley started down this path in 1969, when a friend gave him an old 5-gallon water bottle and suggested he try to build something inside of it. At the time he was doing some miniature work for the old Cushing Hospital in Leavenworth, which was having a miniature show as a benefit.
“So I helped them out,” Wagley said. “I built one for them, and they raffled it off.”
He can finish smaller bottles in six months or less. Big ones can take a year or more. He finds his bottles on the Internet and special-orders other supplies from hobby stores.
His basement workshop is a round table covered with a green army blanket and his tools of the trade: a spotlight lamp, a blue plastic bowl of tiny handmade shingles, flashlights, magnifying glasses, pincers, clamps, rulers, X-acto knives, glue, pens, screwdrivers, paints, coat hangers
and masking tape.
In a long cardboard tube that leans against one wall are his custom-made tools. He fashions many out of straightened coat hangers. One, with a tiny paintbrush affixed on the end with masking tape, is for painstakingly applying glue to small pieces at the bottom of his
To get the pieces down in there he uses an odd-looking pair of metal scissors that are bent at a 90-degree angle, featuring a 12-inch rod with a small pincer at the end. He picks up one of the first bottles he ever made and looks at it with love.
“When I first did this I would watch ‘Johnny Carson’ late at night until it went off the air because I was holding stuff down in there to glue,” he said. “I would hold each piece for 30 minutes to make sure it would dry.”
Sometimes the pieces are too large, and he has to sand them or make them again. Other times they don’t stick, and he has to glue them again. He does this over and over until it’s right.
For Wagley, difficulties aren’t frustrations. They’re fun challenges that he will overcome, no matter how long it takes. His current challenge: make a church inside of a bottle as a gift for a priest.
The problem: how to make little stained-glass windows. He found tiny black plastic church windows online. But he had to make his own stained glass. After several attempts he succeeded, using colored markers and white paper.
Wagley does not believe in shortcuts or in doing things halfway. He is a perfectionist.
His wife, Sue, who has a flair for decorating, helps with the color and the details.
“He does everything,” she said. “I just poke. I say, ‘You need to put something here, and you need to put something there.’”
She helped with the surf shack.
“I said it needs a thatched roof,” she said. “Then he said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do that. I’ve never done a thatched roof.’ I said, ‘Well, work on it. Because it has got to have a thatched roof!’”
He tried dried grass from his backyard, among several other options. Nope. Finally, he bought special grass from a hobby store and cut it up. That did the trick.
“It amazes me how much patience he has with the bottles, where he has no patience at all with me,” his wife joked. “But he’s always liked to build things. I think he should have been an engineer.”
She pointed to a black piece of furniture in their town home.
“Ray built this cabinet here,” she said. “I saw it in a store in Kansas City. I really loved it, but it was $3,000. He took out a pencil and paper, and I thought, ‘Well, he’s figuring out how we can pay for it.’”
Actually, he was figuring out how he could build one himself.
“It looks exactly like it,” his wife said. “Exactly!”
So how much did the “exact” replica cost him?
“About $50,” Wagley said with a smile.
Born in Morrilton, Ark., a small town northwest of Little Rock, Wagley married his wife, a hairdresser, in 1959. They moved to the Kansas City area soon after and opened a beauty salon in Leavenworth called the Strawberry Tree, where she cuts and styles women’s hair, and he
takes care of the men. They’ve been in their current location for 45 years. He doesn’t bring any of his bottles into the store.
“Oh no,” he said. “I don’t want nobody handling them. Kids come in there.”
Wouldn’t want one to break. Because that can easily happen.
Jo Abshire, a friend now living in Florida, has one of Wagley’s larger creations, roughly 31/2 feet tall.
She first saw one of his bottles about 20 years ago, after a mutual friend introduced them, and she asked him to make one for her. She then brought him a picture of a two-story white Victorian house near her Denver home.
“It had lots of gingerbread and lattice work,” she said. “In other words, it was going to be a real challenge for him.” She wasn’t sure he could pull it off. Boy, did he ever.
“I was amazed!” she said of the $1,000 bottle. “It is absolutely a work of art. My friends just can’t believe it. I told him I have things from around the world because I travel a lot. But whenever someone comes over, all they want to talk about is this house in a bottle.”
For the next six years, Wagley’s home-in-a-bottle was one of her most prized possessions. After moving to Arizona, she put it on the floor next to her hot tub. One day, while vacuuming, she knocked it over and broke it.
She couldn’t stop crying. And for a long time, she couldn’t bring herself to tell Wagley. Finally, she swallowed hard.
“Can you fix it?” she asked sheepishly.
“Maybe,” Wagley said. “I’d have to see it.”
The neck of the bottle was broken, but he managed to fix it.
When another friend broke her bottle (in another vacuuming accident), he made more extensive repairs.
“I took a jeweler’s saw, and I took it all apart, piece by piece,” he said. “And I had to replace some pieces that broke. Then I re-glued it all down in the new bottle.”
Today Abshire safeguards her new bottle as if it’s a priceless masterpiece — which to her, it is.
She asked him once why he doesn’t sell his bottles online.
“He said you can’t ship them very well. Could you imagine? They’d be all upside down and broken.”
Last year, another friend, Peggy Heckenkemper of Oklahoma City, asked Wagley to make her a bottle with an Old West Wells Fargo theme. She got it in March, and it was way more than she expected.
“It’s got horses, and there is a broken-down stagecoach with a broken wheel lying on the side,” she said. “And then it’s got people at the front door.”
She paused for a moment, searching for just the right words.
“The stories that each bottle tells is just phenomenal. The craftsmanship, the minute detail. I mean in the bottle that I have he has horses tied up to a railing, and he has the reins tied up around a little fencepost. Inside the bottle! Now you tell me how he did that?”
Wagley charged her $700. She thought that was ridiculous.
“With all the work he puts into them I thought that was way too cheap,” she said. “He is just so talented.”
Talented enough, she thinks, to have his own show in a museum.
While Wagley has never had his own art show, he has had people who know what they’re talking about praise his craftsmanship. He once loaned his 21/2-foot replica of the Truman home (in a bottle) to the Kansas City Toy & Miniature Museum. The experts liked it so much they
kept it on display for six months.
“I like to never got it back,” he said in his thick Ozarks accent. (That museum is now closed for renovations and will reopen early next year as the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.)
Wagley made an old filling station inside a foot-tall bottle for Heckenkemper’s nephew, Troy, who lives in Rogers, Ark.
“It’s got two of the old-style glass pumps in it,” Troy Heckenkemper said. “And I’m a Ford man, and it’s got a 1927 Ford pickup truck. There are two attendants, there’s a Falstaff sign on there, and a Coca-Cola sign on one side.”
He can’t believe the amount of work it must have taken.
“I’m a craftsman myself,” he said. “I build everything from boats to airplanes, and I know how much time goes into that. And I would never ask him to make me one of those bottles.
“It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.”
Wagley was happy to do it. This is more than his hobby. It’s his passion and in many ways, his life’s work. The bottles are an extension of himself — of his talent, his character and his love. He pours every ounce of himself into them.
What does he get out of it? It’s relaxing. A stress killer.
“It’s therapy,” he said.
He loves it so much he’s always a little sad when he finishes one.
“I know I’ll miss it,” he said. “I just don’t want to give it up.”
TO LEARN MORE
Want a home in a bottle? Ray Wagley says he’ll make one for anyone. Prices and times for completion vary widely. For more information call Wagley in the evenings at 913-727-1710.