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Top 10 Must-Haves For Your Neon Shop

The physical elements that maximize productivity, comfort and reduce stress.

By Randall Caba
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

What is the Top 10 Must-Haves? Itís a list of my favorite ten elements to incorporate into a neon shop. Iím talking tangible elements over which we have control. Not intangibles like always having friendly customers, or a wonderfully giving boss or overwhelmingly admiring coworkers though those are nice elements too.

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  • I'm talking about physical elements that maximize productivity, comfort and reduce stress. You know, make the job a better life experience all around. Now, on any given day, any one of these favorites could shift up or down a notch depending upon one's mood. That of course, is every tubebender's option. So, with this understanding, let's move on to the countdown:

    10) Music
    Tunes help keep to a minimum those over-critical voices that sometimes hammer inside our heads. They can also keep one from worrying about plummeting stock prices or midriff bulge among other things. In doing so, music helps increase our concentration.

    Music also can set tempo, develop rhythm of movement that aids even heating of the glass. Naturally, it helps to choose suitable music to maximize the benefit. So, consider classical, concert, folk, rock, jazz, even conga music if you think it might help.

    9) Supplies and tool placement
    Strolling across the shop to collect electrodes and glass is sometimes all it takes to break that tubebender groove we occasionally achieve. That little trip opens the door to interruptions from co-workers, customers and other distractions too.

    So, keep all necessary materials close to the burner bench to stave off such circumstance. Keep close by electrodes, glass tubing, spare corks, pencils and files, even a thermos of coffee or other drink - anything and everything that might unnecessarily drag you away from that bench.

    8) Jigs
    Jigs increase bending accuracy and make work less strenuous. Consider using jigs when bending lengthy, slow curves or when welding long straight border tubes. Homemade jigs almost guarantee bending accuracy and thus reduce craftsman stress. I hope reducing job stress is what this decade is remembered for.

    7) Multiple patterns and tools
    When mass-producing neon units use multiple patterns and glassblowing tools. This lessens the number of burner adjustments and time spent waiting for a bend to cool. It's one of the easiest ways to increase productivity without increasing nervous strain.

    6) "T" or "Y" connector
    Use a "T" or "Y" connector on a pumping manifold to process two or more units at a time. By pumping multiple units, you'll spend less time at the bombarder and more time blowing glass, selling or installing signs. Naturally, this assumes your tube processing equipment is suitable to the task. If not, consider upgrading for this benefit.

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    5) Proper lighting
    Being in the business of shaping light, one would think that we all work under the best possible lighting. But in many shops, this just is not the case.

    Too much direct light glares off the tube making it difficult to judge its position in the flame. Even offset direct light can make the flame unseeable and thus impossible to position the tube properly.

    Insufficient light or lighting that causes too many shadows is a problem too; it makes the pattern tricky to see. How do you match molten glass to a pattern you can't perceive?

    So, consider using neon as a light source - which was its inventor's intent. Neon border tubes, signs or art pieces mounted around the shop offer diffuse, colorful light and simultaneously add mood and reduce shadows.

    4) Bending table datum
    Datum, who chose that word? But that's right folks, size does matter. The bending table's dimensions and even position in the shop makes a big difference in both comfort and productivity.

    Constructing a worktable the suitable height reduces potential back, shoulder and leg strain. And adjusting it is as simple as cutting down the length of a table's legs or blocking them up.

    If the craftsman is much shorter than the table or the legs cannot further be trimmed, build a platform for the craftsman to stand on. Then while you're at it, run under the platform all hoses connecting to the burners. This effectively clears the workspace.

    Build a large tabletop for manufacturing channel letters and border tubes, five or six feet deep by ten or twelve feet long. If you like, construct a smaller surface for manufacturing window signs. But the extra space is always welcome particularly when mass-producing signs. Finally, add a layer of heat resistant sheetrock to help cool the molten glass evenly then cover all with heat resistant, non-asbestos fabric.

    Properly positioning the table in the shop helps avoid slow downs and safety hazards. Busy pathways are a distraction for the craftsman and open flame and molten glass a danger to passerby. So, position the table out of the way but not such that typical movements are restricted by low ceilings or otherwise protruding obstructions.

    Consider additions to the table like an attached cooling rack and yard stick. A cooling rack provides a safe place for hot bends to evenly cool strengthening the glasswork. It also clears the space so other work may continue. A yardstick attached to the table makes for quick calculation and tube marking.

    3) Anti fatigue mats
    Buy good ones, say, one and one-half inch to a full inch thick. Most sign shop floors are concrete. Standing on concrete all day unnecessarily tasks feet, legs and back. Providing good anti fatigue mats is one of the cheapest, easiest and best ways to increase productivity and maintain employee happiness and health. Particularly if overtime is the norm.

    Use a good electrical insulating mat in front of the bombarding station. This offers comfort and lessens chance of minor shock or even electrocution.

    2) Proper ventilation and air conditioning
    Neon shop burners consume oxygen and give off small amounts of gases and airborne particles. Regular replacement of shop air is not only wise it's required by air quality agencies. So, make certain you use some system of ventilation. Have the air quality checked by a proper agency if you're in doubt.

    Molten neon tubing is around twelve hundred degrees Fahrenheit in temperature. Slap that onto a wood table and although its surface is protected with non-asbestos covering, you'll still see and smell smoke. Breathing only fumes from scorched insulating material and a smoldering tabletop is not only unhealthy; it's unnecessary. Proper ventilation is important.

    And finally, working over the top of a blue flame is only comfortable in the dead of winter. Air conditioning doesn't just add comfort it also increases productiveness. Ever witness what happens to molten glass when a bead of sweat strikes it? It's an unsafe and shattering experience.

    1) Properly operating burners
    Properly operating burners are crucial to productivity. A cool flame slows work and increases chance for strain developing in both a glass bend and glassblower. And a burner that produces a rich flame causes the glass to "smoke" as the metal lead is chemically removed from the glass mixture and deposited on the tube surface. This weakens the bend and is unsightly too.

    Position well-operating burners away but not far from the bending table. Well-placed burners allow sufficient room for maneuvering the tube during heating. It also allows room to move while matching the bend to a pattern. Little is more frustrating than running the tube into a burner while attempting to form that perfect bend.

    Well, I hope you agree with at least some of my favorite Top 10 Must-Haves. But more importantly, I hope you have already incorporated them into your shop.

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