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    Written by:  Frederick P. Proni, DBA
    Edited by:  M. Snyder

    Editors comment: If you are considering a career in the neon industry as a neon tube manufacturer, the following commentary by Dr. Proni gives the potential student a real world account of what to look for, what to expect and what not to expect.

    So You Want To Learn The Art Of Neon?
    Congratulations! Many of us have traveled the same road you are about to travel. You have several options to develop your skills: Attend a school, find a mentor, or learn on your own. (The latter I do not recommend). As a student entering the profession you must realize that the path you are about to embark on is one of struggle, patience, sweat, tears, cuts, burns, trembling hands, persistence, and one of constant improvement. Few of us can honestly say we made a sign that we were 100% satisfied with. Bending neon may be compared to learning a musical instrument. That is, many can play but few are truly accomplished. And the road to being an accomplished performer is a long one. This is the simple truth, and this should not be taken as discouraging, but as reality. You may be able to impress the public with your newfound skills but your piers will truly know your abilities. Because of the level of difficulty, I recommend seeking out a reputable, qualified school to attend. This will help get you over the basic hurdles the novice must face.

    Choosing A School
    Over the decades we have seen the rise and fall of numerous neon schools located throughout the U.S. Some schools included stellar training processes, procedures, and learning experiences while others existed in name only with poor track records of mentoring. Historically this secretive society flourished behind tightly closed doors, but the advent of technology, unemployment and financial gain has, in some instances, clouded the true definition of the art. For many institutions it is sadly a financial numbers game, where many students become nothing more than an Alumni member. Vast marketing campaigns, advertising, and the “hope” of a new career are the enticing vapors that make perspective students savor the thought of attendance. Do yourself a favor; research and choose a school that has a proven track record and can provide you with a list of references.

    Six To Twelve Week Neon Schools: What should you learn?
    It is virtually impossible for any prospective student to learn what he/she needs to know to survive in the neon business through the knowledge exchange of a six to twelve week course. A neon school graduate should walk away with a basic education, but one that will give them a strong foundation to build on.

    Glass Bending Techniques are paramount to a student’s success. The majority of their training should concentrate on this faction. Student’s should be able to, or at least be introduced to the following:

    1. Safely handle a piece of glass.
    2. Know the different glass types available (clear, coated, double coated, colored, sizes).
    3. How to use the supplied tools, adjust torches, measure & mark glass, cut glass, etc.
    4. Understand how to make a weld, right angle, double back, combination & ribbon bends.
    5. Understand how to recognize a “good” solid bend.
    6. Know how to “tubulate”. (This is something some schools do not teach).
    7. Have the ability to weld two different diameters of glass together.
    8. Be able to weld two pieces of glass together and perform a bend at the same time.
    9. Understand what it means to “evenly heat” a piece of glass in the ribbon burner.
    10. How to compensate for stretching when fitting a pattern.
    11. Have the ability to attempt to make a large arc.
    12. Have the ability to repair a weld that contains a hole.

    Although this is only a fundamental list it encompasses the basics that students should at least be introduced to. Many more topics, procedures and specialty techniques should be included if a student understands the theory of the above listed topics. With time, self-discipline and mentoring, the student’s ability to reduce stretching the molten glass, properly blow out bends, developing stronger bends and welds and fitting a pattern should develop.

    In my opinion, during class a student with mentoring should make at least 200 bends daily. It is not perfection we are seeking but the ability to begin to understand the handling of hot glass and its characteristics. Grace and style, like a ballerina, will develop over time. It always amazes me the grace that an accomplished bender has – somewhat like a flawless performance with tempo, smooth graceful actions and confidence. Style is individual, like that of a performer.

    Burner & Processing Equipment
    Equipment, although varied by individual shop, needs to be addressed. Each and every component, even those not physically located in the school should be addressed with:

    1. What is it?
    2. Why is it used?
    3. How is it used?
    4. What are the requirements to use it?
    5. How does it Work?
    6. When is it used?
    7. What are the safety precautions and what are the results for neglecting safety?

    The equipment list should include at a minimum: torch types, air/gas mixing, blower types, plumbing basics including venture mixers, vacuum pump types, diffusion pump, manifold, glass gas flasks and metal gas canisters, processing instruments (temperature & vacuum gauge and milliamperes meter), O-ring care, staging pressure, fill pressure, etc. This list could go on and on, but consider this: It could take six weeks of class just to answer the above listed questions in depth for this equipment list. A student should be able to understand and explain each component – if they cannot then what have they learned? What sort of safety hazard has the instructor created?

    Additional Topics Of Consideration
    There are just too many to list, but at a minimum a student should know how to size a transformer, how to measure a load on a core and coil transformer, make patterns, where to begin on a pattern, basic sign construction, wiring, bombarding procedures, etc.

    I truly believe it is Imperative that each and every student of a neon school knows, and is familiar with, section 600 of the 2005 NEC (National Electric Code). There is no excuse for not considering this.

    A Word about Accreditation
    Accreditation is a voluntary review process that ensures that an institution offering higher education or certification programs has established procedures and standards. Entities eligible for accreditation must prepare individuals to achieve basic competencies and attain the minimum educational qualifications necessary to begin functioning in a specific occupation (read that sentence again). In other words, they must prepare individuals in a branch of knowledge, science, art or business that has application in a specific occupation, usually requiring significant specialized training, or profession.

    The barriers to entry for accreditation “membership” vary from state to state and by profession. Certain states, such as California, have lenient rules whereas other states increase their stringency requirements. In some cases, the submittal of curriculum vitae, a self-study report, a listing of the institute’s Board of Directors, faculty teaching experience and qualifications, time in existence, and the payment of a fee are the only requirements to gain accreditation.

    The purpose of public accreditation by some schools allows the educational entity to seek financial backing, low interest loans, and the ability to participate in governmental funded employment retraining programs. In many cases accreditation is completely and unequivocally legitimate, in other cases it is marketing illusion.

    Job Placement after Graduation
    Interesting topic. Don’t have the hope that you are going to land a high paying job right out of neon school, regardless of how good the school you attended is. It is not going to happen! What you will learn (or should learn) in school is just the beginning of your training or apprenticeship. Consider yourself very lucky if you find a job that pays you to bend neon right out of school. Many shop owners do not have the time, money, or people on hand to train you, so you may have to “wait tables” to make ends meet like those in Hollywood until you get a break. Constant practice at home in a set of fires should increase your chances. Remember, practice makes permanent not perfect.

    The Bottom Line
    Neon is truly a fascinating career that combines artistry, science, chemistry, physics, business, and creativity. The industry fluctuates between feast and famine, as do many industries. What you want out of this endeavor is totally up to you as the student. If you truly want to be a neon bender, than your desire to learn will find you an opportunity. If you attend training without a true desire, than you will accomplish nothing. If you are considering this career please, please, please contact several neon shops around the country and ask them for advice. DO NOT just listen to what the school you are planning to attend is telling you!

    This industry does not need any more incompetent trades people; we have our share. This industry admires, supports, and will help those who truly have the desire. If you do not have the dedication, commitment and desire than perhaps this trade is not for you.




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