Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting

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 thoughts on “Perfect Tiki Bar: The Lighting

  1. 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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.


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