Neon Self-Training, Part I
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Neon Self-Training, Part I

Learning this process is easier than you think, once you know the secrets.

By Randall L. Caba
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

Learning to make neon is like learning anything else with one big difference. Itís more difficult. I know - I know, thatís a pretty bold statement. But Iíve heard it repeated many times and from many sources including an orthopedic surgeon!

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  • And itís not like all Iíve ever done is neon, not true. I was an ASE certified auto mechanic for many years; I managed a couple small businesses; I earned an AS in Physics; I wrote three books and became a columnist for SBI; I am a Certified Computer Service Technician and I recently completed two screenplays - anyone from Hollywood reading this? Whew, where was I when all this happened!

    Enough of the ďIís.Ē My point is learning neon glass blowing was the most difficult pill Iíve ever ingested. Well, except for divorce ≠ but thatís another article. So, donít expect training yourself will be easy because it wonít be. But it will be fun, in-between cuts and burns, and it will be most rewarding.

    Finding Resources

    The best way to learn neon is through professional training that uses a certified or agency approved course outline. Many states approve training programs but vary in qualification standards: some expect pure professionalism, others expect only to collect a fee. So, itís buyer beware.

    This article is for those with no choice but to train themselves. So first, know that you are not a pioneer; others have successfully earned the title of Neon Glassblower all by themselves.

    Hereís how to begin. Buy books, buy videos, and subscribe to trade magazines, order any information offered that you could comfortably afford remembering that youíll need to purchase equipment too.

    Now, read all you can and watch those videos but donít expect to learn everything in one week. Instead, get comfortable with terms used in the trade (every trade has its own language) and with how working molten glass appears.

    Going Mad

    When itís time to buy equipment, donít worry about purchasing tube-processing equipment right away. I know how exciting it is to light your first tube. But it will take time before your practice tubes are worthy or even capable of lighting. Besides, tube processing is the mad scientist end of neon. So, going mad while learning to bend seems will only aid later training.

    All right, youíve learned some basic terms, youíve watched someone work glass in a flame, and youíve setup your glass bending equipment. Now, where to start?

    Getting Started

    Here is what I suggest, start with a basic skill; learn to cut glass tubing. It sounds easy but isnít and you must become consistent and proficient if you are ever to build a sign.

    The glass file is a mill-bastard type. Use it by holding it at a forty-five degree angle to the tube. Draw the file edge back and forth with sawing like motion. The goal is to create an etch one-third to one-half the way around a tube so rotate the tube under the file. The etch causes a strain within the glass that separates the tube cleanly, hopefully.

    The etch itself seldom parts the tube. Usually, you have to pull on the tube or tap it gently behind the etch to encourage separation. If youíve ever watched a journeyman cut a series of glass tubes in rapid succession, you know it looks easy. But you just try it.

    Working In Fire

    After learning to cut tubes successfully ≠ the tube parts and the ends are flush ≠ itís time to practice sticking them back together by welding. Iíll assume your burners operate properly and you know how to light and adjust them. If you donít, thereís more frustrating lessons to learn.

    Begin by inserting a cork in one tube end and your blowhose in another tube. I suggest you use a blowhose for safety and use clear tubing first for simplicity.

    Hold the tube by your fingertips, palms up and position the smoothly cut ends near the tip of a properly adjusted flame. Rotate the tubes one-quarter turn every second or so until both ends glow equally. They should appear soft but not dripping.

    Once heated, stop rotating and gently touch the molten ends together. Do this inside or outside the flame, outside might be easier at first.

    Once joined, insert the seam directly into the flame center and rotate the tube one-quarter turn every second or two to evenly heat the seam. Do this until it glows evenly and shrinks slightly in diameter.

    To work the seam, blend the glass, use one of the listed methods:

    1.) Gently suck-in then, blow out the tube. Do this until the glass begins to stiffen then heat and work several more times.

    2.) Twist the joined tubes in opposite directions until blended.

    3.) Repeatedly push the ends together slightly then pull to proper diameter.

    4.) Use a combination of these methods.

    Work the seam until it is airtight and smooth in appearance. You can test the seal by blowing hard into the tube just as it stiffens. It should blow back just a little.

    In grand finally, heat the weld one last time to near molten then lie it on the worktable and straighten. This final heating helps remove strain from within the glass structure. Strain builds over time and can cause a tube to crack or shatter; it is undesirable.

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    Making the Turns: The L-bend

    In the beginning, practice making basic bends freehand, without a pattern. Once comfortable, draw a series of bends and practice forming the bend to the pattern.

    The first bend for the self-taught to practice, is the L-bend, a ninety-degree turn. As with all bends, a particular length of tubing requires heating to form it without thinning the glass wall. For L-bends, this length is about twice the diameter of the tube. So, heat twenty millimeters of glass on a ten-millimeter tube, thirty millimeters on a fifteen-millimeter diameter tube, etcetera.

    Use two marks to indicate this length then divide it with a center mark. The center mark is where youíll form the crease inside the bend.

    Start by heating this length evenly. Move the tube back and forth through a properly adjusted flame. Rotate it one-quarter turn every three or five passes. Do this until the tube glows and the tube diameter shrinks slightly.

    Then point the marks toward the ceiling and raise both hands simultaneously in an arch forty-five degrees. This splits the workload evenly and causes the molten glass to flow smoothly. Finally, puff into the tube, preferably via a blowhose, then set the bend flat on the table and block flat once. Let it cool.

    Forming a smooth, useable L-bend is harder than it looks or sounds. And making a series of consistent, useable bends is the secret to mastering neon glassblowing. Now guess what it takes to make a series of useable bends. Thatís rightÖ practice!

    The U-bend

    The U-bend is a one hundred-eighty degree turn. Because it forms a larger turn than an L-bend, the U-bend requires more tubing be heated to molten. So mark then evenly heat two and one-half to three times the tube diameter.

    Once molten, point the marks to the ceiling and move your hands upward until your fingertips almost touch. Let the outside marks pivot in space positioning the center mark in the bend middle. This motion causes the glass to flow smoothly aligned with gravity. Finally, blow to fullness, set down and block flat.

    The Offset

    The Offset is a three-dimensional bend used to represent a sharp angle, one too sharp physically to bend successfully in glass.

    Mark the Offset then heat and bend just like the U-bend with one important difference, angle the tubes in opposite directions on either side of the bend. Form the U-shape then push one tube away and pull the other toward you. Blow the bend out to the correct diameter and set down sideways, one tube flat upon the table and the other resting on a block.

    The Drop or Raise

    The Drop or Raise is simply a change of elevation, one block high, and a change of direction, usually ninety degrees. Like the Offset, it is a three-dimensional bend too. A Drop and Raise combination is often used to form ďjumpsĒ between letters.

    To form a Raise, mark and heat slightly more glass than the height of the block used to support the finished bend. Once molten, drop the tube in one hand one block height keeping both tubes parallel to the floor. Angle the tubes the desired direction then blow. Often, forming a Raise or Drop includes a slight roll of one tube. This gets complicated so I recommend researching this combination bend before practicing it.

    Troubleshooting and More

    Itís easy for things to go wrong when bending neon and troubleshooting is illustrated only in some books and videos. But developing troubleshooting skills helps you fix a stinker bend while working and before itís too late. So, to become proficient, discover these troubleshooting skills and develop them.

    Well, it looks like youíve got plenty to keep you busy until the next self-teaching article: Making block and script letters. Happy bending.

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