Common Neon Mishaps And How To Fix Them
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Common Mishaps And How To Fix Them

Bending neon tubes is not easy. Most craftsman admit, it took a few years of bending before they felt competent working on any type job.

By Randall Caba
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

And while everyone stumbles at different points along the pathway toward mastering neon, there are some hurdles shared by many. These troubles are easily remedied but only after learning to recognize the demon spot then applying a trick or two. So, if youíre a beginner...shhh, Iím going to share some trade secrets with you.

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  • The most common mishap usually lies right under your nose, not recognizing a poorly drawn pattern. Tubing bent to a bad pattern often looks haphazard compared to the drawing. Thatís because the drawing is not limited by tube stroke or tube diameter. An eye-catching design drawn on paper loses its pizzazz when made into neon for this reason. (See Figure 1.) The letter style has flare that canít be replicated in a single tube. Attempting to do so results in improper letter spacing and a completely unrecognizable font. So make certain the pattern is ďtubed-inĒ or drawn to look like the tube it will be bent in and with the necessary stroke - single tube, double tube or more that best represents the design.


    Next, make sure all angles that are to be the same really are the same. The human eye, especially in brightly lit neon tubes, easily spots crooked adjacent tubes. So a design intending to have parallel lines must be drawn with parallel lines. Check angled lines by drawing a line across the bottom of all letters, a baseline. Then position a right angle ruler along one of the angled lines so the right angle point of the ruler sits on the baseline. Position the back of the ruler along an angled line. Mark on the pattern the point of the ruler below the letters. Do this at two or more points and connect with a line forming a Point line. Now, if you keep these two points of the ruler on the respective lines then sliding the ruler across the design maintains the same angle. Itís a quick easy way to assure your tubes have the best chance of being formed parallel.


    Remember, a glassblower takes measurements for individual bends directly from the pattern. So itís important to make sure the pattern is drawn in the proper tube diameter. If a pattern is drawn representing a twelve-millimeter tube, but is bent from ten millimeter tubing, the finished sign may look haphazard. Thatís because the wide stroke creates opportunity for error. These errors add up to changes in letter spacing, un-smooth curves and varying letter height. The glassblower believes theyíve ďhitĒ the pattern because the tubing lies within pattern lines. Yet the finished sign looks like they didnít bend within the lines, the glass doesnít closely depict the pattern. So, draw the tube line close to the diameter of the tube chosen to represent it.

    Be certain round circles are round. Always use a compass to check round circles. The human eye is particularly sensitive to variations in curves. Even a five-millimeter variance in a six-inch neon is detectable to most people. Given that smooth adjacent curves are difficult to form and the eye is sensitive to imperfections in curves, it is important to ensure the pattern is nearly perfect. There is nothing more frustrating than bending a glass circle closely to a pattern only to discover the pattern wasnít round.

    Probably the best way to produce a quality neon pattern is to use a computer. Many over-the-counter drawing programs exist to help you make technically correct designs with pizzazz. Neon specific programs allow you to choose single tube, double tube or more, select tube diameter, position electrodes and even help to map the pattern.

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    Another common pitfall is flame adjustment. Some craftsmen make all basic bends in a ribbon burner. When asked why they donít use a crossfire or cannon fire, they say the ribbon heats the glass faster. If thatís true, itís probably because the burners are not set up to operate most efficiently. As a general rule, crossfire and cannon burner heads should be spaced between three and one-half inches to four and one-half inches-this is as measured from tip to tip-closest point to closest point. They operate cooler if theyíre spaced more than this. Spaced closer the flame is turbulent and less efficient. In addition, the flames must come to a focus, pointing at a single point in space.

    Once the burners are set up correctly, flame adjustment is important. Not enough air produces a cool, wispy flame. This flame usually ďsmokesĒ a clear glass tube. Actually, the smoke is the metal lead being chemically reduced from the lead oxide mixture within the glass. More air needs to be added to the flame to correct this.

    If too much air is running through a burner, one or more burners might be difficult to keep lit, they repeatedly blow out. This is because insufficient fuel, gas, is available to support the flame. The solution is to add more gas or turn down the air.

    Which brings us to the next point, too much gas in a flame. When too much gas is pushed through a burner, the glass gets smoked, like not enough air is provided. The solution is to turn down the gas or turn up the air. Not enough gas sometimes reacts like too much air. Obviously, proper torch adjustment can get pretty confusing so look to Figure 3 to help properly adjust a flame. Its just another step to helping you master neon.


    So, how can a journeyman glassblower bend quickly and without breaking many bends? This question begs most neophytes-I know it did me. The answer lies in getting to know the glass personality, its limitations. With experience, you get to know what you can get away with and what you canít. You also develop methods that help you to get away with seeming abuses.

    One trick journeyman instinctively develop is to heat the glass to a higher temperature before working it. This allows more time to form the bend accurately, make needed adjustments, and even correct errors before the glass stiffens. It also lessens chance of developing strain within the glass wall, which results in tube breakage. So, try heating the tube a few seconds longer than customary and learn to recognize and fix minor errors in your work. Then youíll produce more bends per day with less destruction.

    Ever notice how journeymen appear to work smoothly, sometimes graciously? This is because theyíve learned to minimize commotion. They use only the motion needed to form a bend. They control tiny pushes, stretches and twists that can ruin a bend. And once a bend is sat upon the table, they consciously limit their adjusting or blocking a bend. They know that too much commotion leads to straining the glass, mechanically stressing it, leading to broken bends and frustration.

    So try to limit your actions to just forming the bend, pivoting to the table and sitting it on the table. Then make one quick adjustment to fit the glass to the pattern and block the bend once, only if needed. By minimizing commotion, you too can work effectively like a journeyman and enjoy the success that comes with bending glass according to its personality.

    There are thousands of lessons learned on the journey to mastering neon. And not all the lessons are easy. But, if you pick up a few tips and tricks along the way and apply what you learn, youíll find the hurdles arenít so high as they appeared. Of course, if neon were easy, you wouldnít be trying to learn it, would you?

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