Basement Bar Design #9: Tiki Bars

Tiki Bar TV cast and set
Some accessories are harder to come by than others….

The essential nature of Tiki is that it is so much more than just the drinks. Tiki is an experience. It can take you away from who and where you are, and give you permission to be someone else. With it’s pagan overtones and pre-civilized vibe, Tiki is inevitably naughty. Going to Tiki world carries with it an implicit permission to misbehave. Whether you do or not is actually irrelevant, the feeling that you could can be liberating. I understand this psychological effect pretty well. My murder mystery party business, though not Tiki-related, provides that same, “permission to be bad” for guests. Stepping into another identity will set you free.

In this and prior Tiki Months, I’ve written about small and easy ways to slip into the Tiki world. The shirts. The Music. The Mugs. But right now, let’s talk about the big Magilla: How to outfit your own Tiki (Basement) Bar. Nothing will more fully immerse you in the Tiki world than actually being able to physically enter it. So mix yourself a Mai Tai and let’s discuss the many ways you can construct your own magical wardrobe.

To start with, a Tiki Bar need not be a permanent beast. After all, while the Tiki Gods may shake the Earth at the thought, not everyone is prepared to establish a permanent rum-soaked shrine to Polynesian idols, rattan, and kitsch in their homes.


“We are unamused.”

Sorry, guys. But many people just want to have a Tiki Bar for that special event. Others want to have an outdoor focal point for a Summer of Tiki. (Or a refuge in February from a Winter of Snow)
If all you want is a Tiki bar for a quick party, it can be cheap and easy. (If you aren’t interested in the low-end portion of this discussion, skip to here) Take a normal table, set it up in the Living Room, and decorate it with a kit like this one from Century Novelty:

Yes, it is cheap and tacky. So what? This is entry level, one-off, throw it away when you are done stuff here. Serve enough high-quality Tiki drinks, and it’ll be remembered the next day as the second coming of Trader Vic’s. (Come to think, serve enough crappy Tiki drinks and the same applies.) For temporary Tiki set-ups, you can get surprisingly good vibes with the simplest stuff. Remember, the atmosphere you are trying to create is ultimately in your guests heads.

If you are doing a backyard party, the somewhat more expensive retrofit for your patio umbrella shown above will help your guests feel like there is a view of Diamond Head from your patio.

You can improve on this in many ways, of course. Wrap the edges of your tables with raffia table skirting. It is the interior decorating equivalent of the paper parasol in a drink. Buy a box of plastic leis and hang them on your guests as they arrive, making your guests part of the decor. The crinkly plastic ones are dirt cheap, but spring a few extra bucks for the ones that have actual plastic flowers and you’ll look like a hero. Enough supplies like this, and you can craft your room or patio into something pretty fun. Load up your iPod with a selection of Exotica music and scatter some Tiki torches (not too close to the decor!), and your guests will have what they need to craft their internal atmospherics.


If you are ready to invest in a more durable approach and build your legend as the Guy With The Tiki Bar (“He’s awesome!”), then you have two routes to go. You can buy a pre-fab setup, or you can roll your own.

Every year there are more cool Tiki bar setups available, giving you an almost complete Pagan Polynesian Palace at your door by truck or crew.
One of the coolest is also the smallest I’ll cover. It’s a little portable bar from TikiFarm that won’t make you the next Colonel Tiki, but it will at least increase the likelihood that as any given evening out wears on, people will say, “Hey, let’s go back to your house and drink your booze!”

Larger sets with thatched awnings, but less cooly decorated, are available from Amazon from between $400 and $1,300 as well. You can use units like this either outdoors, or indoors in the dead of Winter (Like, say, Tiki Month?).
There are firms like Tiki Bar Central who can build you a sturdy, year-round, custom outdoor structure that takes but a bit of the temporary stuff above to ready it for a Tiki blowout on the shortest of notice.

And don’t feel like Tiki specialists are your only option if you want to contract out your temple. The garden shed companies also can do the job as well, and give you a dual purpose structure. I’ve talked to many makers of such structures over the years at home shows, and they are eager to do a little retrofitting to their products give you an awesome little Tiki structure like the one below from Cabana Village.

Of course, you can go with the British trend of locating your Man Cave inside an outbuilding rather than in your basement. So buy one of those little houses for your backyard and get to work on the inside.

Of course, if you do that, re-purpose your basement, or just let your Tiki-philia take over your living room itself, now we get down to the brass tacks of constructing and decorating a serious, high-end, room-filling Tiki bar.

First off, your permanent Tiki bar should be a good, functional bar. I’ve written a lot on constructing a high-functioning home bar here in this series in the past, and all that information applies to designing and building your Tiki bar as well. Make sure you choose and install good surfaces for your bar top and any counter space you can manage. The colors you choose may change for a Tiki bar theme, but choose on function first for this element and looks second. The same goes for a good layout and access to water. Making Tiki drinks is often more complicated than making regular cocktails, and it always entails a lot of cleaning up.

Some of my previous advice applies even more to building your Tiki bar. You need ice and fresh ingredients, and lots of them, for Tiki, so give careful thought before you shortcut on ice or refrigerated storage.

And while the decor of your Tiki bar will grow organically over time as new stuff attracts your greedy little eye, keep in mind an overall plan for your bar’s artwork. For instance, awesome as the above Tiki bar sign by “Stevo” is, you would likely no want to combine it in the same home Tiki bar with a collection of rustic Tikis like the one in the below picture by TikiMaster.

Then there are topics you need to consider that are unique to Tiki bars. The primary one is design sensibility. As with any unique expression of personal taste, you can do your Tiki bar however you damn well please, but let’s look at some general themes you may want to keep in mind so that you and your guests will be put in the Tiki mood right upon entry.


What makes the “Zanzibar Lounge” so effective?

Lighting is key. Sure, little strings of Chinese lanterns, Tiki accent lamps, etc. are cool, but what is more important is the character of lighting in your Tiki bar. It should probably be darker than most places people gather. Darkness sets a mysterious mood, and helps direct attention away from flaws in your Tiki atmosphere like the exposed water heater in the corner. Dim lighting will also help hide the falernum stains on the carpet…. Small pools of light from low-power fixtures can highlight your Tiki masks, mug collection, or other kitschy treasures, letting people fill in the surrounding darkness with similar items, as opposed to the bare drywall and Ikea furniture that actually resides there. Make sure you have a small reading lamp behind your bar so you can read not only syrup labels, but also your cocktail books as you frantically coolly search for the recipe to an Aku Aku Lapu.
I suggest the lighting I describe above be red or orange in character, evoking volcanoes and torchlight. If you want to have some green light, OK, but I’d keep it even lower and more diffuse to evoke tropical undergrowth. Whatever you do, avoid white or daylight spectrum bulbs like the plague. It is always dusk in the Tiki bar.

Display shelving or some other mechanism to show off your mugs and other paraphernalia is also key. Tiki bars and their owners collect treasures, souvenirs, and general trash like a magpie collects bottlecaps. No sense having a Tiki bar if you don’t have a place to show off your stuff. Again, plan for expansion….

The next trick of Tiki bar design is to make the joint seem primitive, or at least pre-industrial (like Pirate kitsch, a close relative of Tiki). It’s not as easy as it sounds, either. You still need to keep in mind the considerations I mentioned at the top of this section, and construct your Tiki bar so it does a good job as a place to easily make and serve and drink drinks. So you will need to use modern materials and layouts at your bar’s core, then disguise them as if made with vintage, if not primitive tools and materials.


For instance, hide your laptop or iPad. Few native cultures used these.

That dovetails nicely into the second major area that is unique to Tiki bar design: The materials you should use. Try to introduce some jungle elements to the decor. A trio of live palms would be awesome, a spray of silk and vinyl palmetto fronds along the big wall will do. And the materials should be organic, too. If you build a permanent bar counter, I recommend you use modern cabinetry, etc. as its bones, then clad it it rush mats and trim it in bamboo to make it look right. Pretend you are a set designer on the Swiss Family Robinson. The web is full of places that sell the materials needed to construct or retrofit your bar in a Tiki motif.

My experience with these outfits is limited, so I ‘ll just throw out a few links to sites that are representative of the genre and at least give you an idea of what kind of products are on offer. If you want specific recommendations or advice on who to shop from, check out the Home Tiki Bars forum on Tiki Central. If you are even thinking of building your own home Tiki bar, you need to join and read Tiki Central. Bamboo & Tikis and We Be Tiki both seem set up for mail-order and give a well laid-out look at the kind of matting, thatch, and bamboo poles you can use to turn your KitchenKraft and WilsonArt bar into something from the beach at Waikiki. (We Be Tiki also has a selection of cool bamboo fountains that can add water, another important Tiki element, to your design.)

Use bamboo panels, woven matting, or heavy thatch to cover flat surfaces, then trim with bamboo poles. Positioned and tied together properly, they will look as if they are the structural members. Also, don’t be afraid to use synthetic materials, whether obviously so or not. Various considerations you should keep in mind when choosing materials are fire-retardancy (especially if you have exposed lights or like flaming garnishes), and whether you live in a part of the country where the #Occupy movement is mainly an insectival one.


For certain special applications,consider these hand-carved Tiki trim slabs in place of bamboo. From Tiki Bosko.

The nifty basement Tiki bar pictured below is a nice example to be found in the Atlanta area. It has real greenery for the “roof”, yet AstroTurf for the flooring out of practicality. (He also uses squares of AstroTurf for coasters) A fake beach is provided by a tapestry, while the exposed, not-very-tiki brick is covered by a bamboo roller shade, which is another good source of material to cover surfaces. The dog, while organic, isn’t very Tiki, but that is more than made up for by the green-eyed Tiki god that blows smoke on the shins of guests at the bar….


I kid. The dog rocks too.

I want to dial this back here as I wrap it up. Don’t feel that if your means and space preclude some $10,000+ Tiki palace, you can’t have an awesome Tiki bar in your home. If you can’t build a bar, center things on one of the little portable pre-fab units I suggested above. Your refrigerator becomes a cooler, your sink a pail, and your ice maker just an ice chest. During a party, it means more labor for you and slower drink service for your guests, but that just gives you an excuse not to invite Douchebag Steve and his cell camera.
Alternatively, if you are very patient, you can go the route of fellow blogger Joe Garcia, who has one word for you (standing out in a post containing several hundred entertaining ones): Craigslist.

The spirit of Tiki in your bar comes first from your own soul; second, from your guests; third from your design and atmosphere; and only last from the lavishness of your construction. The original Tiki Bar Tv set was a bare-walled starter apartment with a cheap Tiki bar sign over the kitchen pass-through and a shelf unit of Tiki doodads. But music and personality made it a place you really want to visit. The later set was an extravaganza of awesomeness. But while it cost about a thousand times more, I’d say it was not more than 12.7 times more cool. Or something.


I’ll leave you with a recommendation to read this classic post on building a home Tiki bar from Humu Kon Tiki. It’s a good read, and be sure to compare the last two pictures for an illustration of what I said above about how Tiki bars evolve over time.

And hey! This post is part of Tiki Month 2012 here at the Pegu Blog! Be sure to look around for LOTS more Tiki stuff all February!

If you want to follow this long-term series of posts on the Pegu Blog, you can subscribe to our Basement Bar feed here. Or you can just subscribe to the entire blog, with all its brilliant content, here!
Here’s a list of the other articles in this series that have been posted so far:

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

8 Comments

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  • There another possibility, that happens to be a bit of a Goldilocks solution, whereby one may have a something pretty cheap without looking like it’s a 3rd grader’s luau birthday party.

    I call this approach “Tiki-able Stuff I Found Really Cheap” and the only really difficult part is being patient. My diligent application of this approach has netted me things such as a spectacular bar that normally retailed for $2K for $80, that sort of thing. In fact, with the exception of Tiki drinkware and the assorted fluids pertinent to a bar, I don’t have $250 sunk into this thing. As we speak, there is a cabinet I am eyeballing as a back bar and that MIGHT set me back $50. Throw in some rattan wallpaper and I’m set. Immersive and cheap.

    Get thee to Craigslist, people.

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  • “Light for dusk” is so much more evocative than suggesting “dim” lights. Very nice.

    Great post. I’ve always enjoyed, recommended, and drawn inspiration from this Basement Bar Series. I’m still in the “starter apartment” era of bar evolution, but have built slowly and steadily throughout the years. There’s always a “next step” of another shelf, a new lighting setup, different mirrors or whatever. I hope it never stops.

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  • Michael,

    Sorry to have upset you, Michael. I have removed the photo.

    I did have the photo linking back to your post on Tiki Central, and I did not represent it as my own. That said, when I try to promote the cool work that other people have themselves shown that they want to show off, my policy is to include an explicit “source” link, or to include an explicit mention and link in text discussing the picture. I forgot to do either of those here, including only the embedded link surrounding the photo. It was a long post, and I missed this one.

    For anyone else who reads this, and are curious about Michael’s old mug shelf whose photo I removed (and the superiorly lit and much larger system he replaced it with), his post on Tiki Central is here.

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  • The show Rock My RV is renovating a 1998 Lazy Daze RV in a TIKI theme which might be cool to see and get some ideas from. The show is on this Sunday (July 21st) at 9pm EDT on the Travel Channel.

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