Neon Self-Training Part 2
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Neon Self-Training Part 2

Putting the basics together to form letters is next

By Randall Caba
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

You've committed to teaching yourself neon. You've purchased books and started reading, you've watched videos, you read my previous article and you're comfortable with neon glassblowing basics: making Welds, L-bends, U-bends, Offsets, and Drops-n-Raises. So, what's next?

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  • Patterns and Reversals
    Putting the basics together to form letters is next. But first, we need to make a pattern. And you need to know this, all neon sign patterns are reversed prior to bending. This is so that the sign face ultimately is flat.

    Draw a Block letter A on paper then tube it in. "Tube it in" means all lines, all strokes are denoted as a tube (see Figure 1 for example). Once drawn, flip the pattern over and transfer to bending material. Or, if you prefer, place metal screen over the flipped paper pattern and work that way.

    Whichever method you use, make habit of flipping the paper pattern over whether your design requires it or not. Consider the Block letter A: it is symmetrical and doesn't really require flipping. But flip it anyway and develop the habit now so future errors are less likely.

    Straight-line Block Letters
    It's time to put your basic skills to the test and make Block letters in glass. I recommend practicing these straight-line Block letters first -A,E,H,K,M,X- then move on to curved letters. This way, you continue developing basic bend skills and their variations.

    Other Block Letters are easily derived from the suggested practice letters: the F from the E, the serif I from the H, and the W from the M, etcetera.

    Usually, it's best to form the inside of a letter first. This way you don't bend yourself into a corner, you avoid overlapping tubes.

    To bend the A, make the shallow angled L-bend first. Then Doubleback, a U-bend on its side, over the top then lastly Drop back onto the table. In three moves, the inside of the A is complete and you're ready to continue. See Figure 1 for the recommended bending sequence.

    Basic Bend Variations
    Continue by forming a V-bend at the top of the A. But then you say, I've never practiced making the V-bend. No, you didn't practice it. But the V-bend is simply a variation of the L-bend; it's a sharper turn. Just make the bend center mark nearer the letter top rather than the inside corner as with L-bends.

    If you've gotten this far, practice making connection bends at the letter ends. These bends connect one letter to another and most often are Offsets and variations of Raises. Again, look to the illustrations as example.

    Once you've completed several Block letters, practice welding them together using the cross- or cannon fire. Also, practice using a handtorch to weld. Large unwieldy units are pieced together this way.

    After making several consistent A's, try making the E. Again, begin bending the inside first then work outward. See Figure 1 for the recommended bending sequence.

    Many letters require use of slight variations of basic bends like the V-bend. Consider the Leaning Raise used to form the H. The Leaning Raise is made exactly like a Raise except the bend is left leaning to one side. It is not rolled, aligned vertically. Eliminate the roll motion during bending to carry out the lean.

    The subsequent Doubleback under the Leaning Raise forms a bend that resembles a Doubleback-Drop combination and that's exactly what it is. The advantage making the combination this way, rather than the routine reverse, is that the opportunity to stick glass together when making the Drop is eliminated.


    Curved Block Letters
    Once you've nearly mastered straight-line Block letters, move to curved Block letters. Curves require use of the ribbon burner. To evenly heat a tube in a ribbon burner simply rotate the tube methodically or flip it back and forth heating at least two sides of the tube equally.

    Now comes a variation of the rule, bend the inside first. Whenever possible make a ribbon curve that aids formation of the letter inside first. Do this because this curve is often the most visible or is the largest bend in the letter. Getting it right makes a better-looking letter.

    Consider practicing the letters -B,G,O,R,S- because most other letter are easily formed from these. Practicing these letters hones your basic skills and prepares you to learn script letters. See there really is method to this madness. Refer to Figure 2 for a couple suggested bending sequences just to get you started.

    Script Letters
    Script letters are made mostly of curves formed in the ribbon burner. To make a good-looking script sign you need to form smooth curves and transitions between them. Hopefully, bending many curved Block letters will benefit this effort.

    This is worth mentioning again, if there's an inside to a letter bend it first. But if there's a ribbon curve that aids this function, make it first.

    Consider the bending sequence for the Script letter E in Figure 3. We begin by forming an inside curve then work our way out. We bend in a planned sequence that eliminates the possibility of crossed tubes.

    Size Matters
    The size of a letter can affect how you bend it. If the E in Figure 3 is about two to four inches in height; you may attempt to form bends 1, 3 and 4 in one maneuver. Simply elevating the tube flat onto a block eliminates bend number 2, making bend number 1 a slow, smooth drop onto the table.

    To aid forming the sharp turn at bend 3, preheat it a few seconds before heating the entire length to molten. Preheating warms this section of tubing to higher temperature thus causing it to bend more, form a sharper turn.

    The same is true when bending the Script letter O. If the letter is large; the bends are easiest to form in the sequence shown in Figure 3. If it is small, bends 1, 2 and 3 can be formed in a single heat provided bend number 2 is preheated sufficiently.

    Consistency
    Of course, bending several consistent and smooth script letters requires much practice. Yet there is reward, Block letters will now seem simple to bend by comparison. See there's that method to madness thing again.

    Practice making a few individual script letters then draw a complete script word like "Open" or "Best Deal." Practice making the letters individually then weld them together.

    Eventually, try making two or more script letters in series, on the same stick of tubing. When you can plan this task properly then pull it off in glass, you know you're well on your way to becoming a journeyman Block and Script letter neon glassblower.

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