The foundation of a great tiki bar is its walls. In an ordinary room a coat of paint is sufficient, but in a tiki bar, you want to remove any vestiges of an ordinary room. You want your visitors to imagine a quiet, moonlit beach on the other side of that wall, or maybe a dark, untamed jungle. There are many ways to do that, no matter your budget:
Made from strips, typically about 1″ wide, of banana plant “bark.” The strips are woven diagonally, making a diamond pattern. Bac-bac matting typically has a lot of color variation within the weave, with strips ranging from pale to dark brown.
Made from the leaves of the hala plant, also called pandanus. Lauhala mats look very much like bac-bac matting, but with a relatively uniform, pale color, and a smoother finish. It looks a bit more polished than bac-bac.
Neou palm panels
These Tahitian-style woven panels, made from two intertwined palm fronds, were more commonly used in the early-to-mid 20th century. They are still available, but they are often cost prohibitive for use in large numbers. They’re about one foot wide and six feet long. If you have the budget and are aiming for a more authentic historic tiki bar look, there’s nothing quite like them.
Abaca is another name for Musa textilis, a species of banana plant. The tough fibers from the leaves are quite thin, perhaps a millimeter wide, and when loosely woven into a cloth, it resembles a non-fuzzy burlap. Abaca cloth comes in large bolts, about 2′ wide and 30′ long, and is particularly affordable.
Abaca, sisal, sennit, palm, bamboo, and other organic fibrous materials can be combined to create mats with a variety of unique patterns and textures.
A common wainscoting trick in tiki bars: use inexpensive bamboo slat blinds, turned sideways. These blinds are widely available at hardware stores, and come in a variety of styles and finishes.
A particularly affordable way to cover a large area, simple reed fencing is also available at most hardware stores. Long, thin reeds are bound together by lightweight wire. It’s a bit rustic, and is more commonly used outdoors, but it can work wonders if you’re on a budget.
The ultimate quick & dirty tiki bar wall solution: fishing nets. Awfully cheap, and quick (though skimpy) coverage. They can be found in many colors; real fishing nets are likely to be a pale gray-brown, but I usually reach for black nets.
Tapa cloth is made from the pounded bark of the mulberry and stamped or painted with ornate designs using natural dyes. It is often considered the ideal tiki bar wall treatment, but it can be difficult to source and expensive once you do. The most common larger pieces you’ll encounter are Tongan. Fijian tapa tends to be found in smaller pieces and commands higher prices.
Where to buy
The place we all love to support is Oceanic Arts in Whittier, just outside of Los Angeles. Oceanic Arts is a wonderland of tiki supplies. If you’re lucky enough to visit their warehouse, come prepared with room in your car, you’ll want to take everything home. Oceanic Arts has been outfitting tiki bars for over 60 years, and we’re so lucky they’re still at it today. You can look through their catalog online, and they ship all over the world.
If having items shipped from Oceanic Arts isn’t feasible for you, do a simple search for these materials and you’ll turn up many alternate options. Landscape supply stores and hardware stores will carry reed fencing, and the latter will also have bamboo blinds.
How to use them
Cutting to size
Most of these materials can be cut with scissors. You may have edges with bindings that could unravel, you can seal those spots with a hot glue gun.
Some of these materials can look a little too “raw” if they’re used without some aging. Experiment with some scrap material. I’ve had success using spray stain, which works a lot like spray paint. A stain & polyurethane combo is another option. I’ve not had great luck using coffee or tea stains as one might with fabric, but it might be worth trying. Whatever approach you use, be sure you let the materials dry out completely before using them in your room—you don’t want mold and mildew.
All of these wall treatments are made of dried plant materials, and have the potential to be highly combustible. Before putting any in place, make sure they’ve been treated with a fire retardant. Some can be purchased with fire retardant already applied (Oceanic Arts offers this). It’s also possible to do it yourself. It can be tempting to skip the treatment step to save money or time, but please take the time to do this. I use this spray in my tiki bar, but there are other solutions on the market (including companies who will come spray your materials for you). Follow the instructions closely, and use liberally. You may have a faint white residue in some spots, where the salt in the solution has crystallized. Don’t sweat it, it’s not likely to be at all noticeable once your materials are up on the walls and the lights are low.
Before hanging, consider painting the wall a dark brown color, so that there won’t be any white peeking through. The heavier mats can be wall mounted using a contact cement, like those used for gluing carpeting. Lighter matting, like abaca cloth, can simply be stapled into place.
The raw edges of your wall treatments will likely be covered by trim pieces. Split bamboo and carved wooden trim are the most common choices—another post for another day!
But what if you’re renting?
I’ve heard a few solutions over the years. Often landlords will okay making alterations to the walls, as long as you commit to patching any holes and painting back to white before you move out. Some folks use lightweight wall treatments that can be tacked up or stapled up, or even hung from a few strategically placed hooks, rather than using glue. Another option is hanging up fabric to cover the walls. A more dramatic solution: consider mounting elaborate wall treatments to large panels that are attached to the walls, and can be taken down when it’s time to move.
What I did at my place…
Honestly, my place is about half finished. I haven’t yet put up trim, for instance. But it’s a start! I turned on some bright lights to take these photos, it’s ordinarily much moodier…
Can you imagine what it would look like if the walls had been left white? The impact wouldn’t be the same.
The walls were first painted with dark brown matte finish paint. Abaca cloth from Oceanic Arts was stained with dark walnut spray stain, sprayed with fire retardant, and stapled to the wall with a staple gun. Dark brown bamboo slat blinds from Home Depot were sprayed with fire retardant and stapled to the wall with a staple gun. Black fishing nets from Oceanic Arts are hung from the ceiling with small hooks. Tapa cloth—lucky scores from years of scouring vintage shops—is hung on the wall using thumbtacks. A little extra touch: I painted a light switch cover brown and glued leftover abaca cloth onto it with Mod Podge, so it blends into the wall.
Wikiwiki, get going!
There is no single thing you can do in your home tiki bar that will transform it as dramatically as the wall treatments. I hope this guide has you inspired and excited to start building the hut of your dreams!