Job: Lead fabricator, Western Neon (Seattle)
EVEN THOUGH HE had previously worked for a steel fabricator, John Burbridge encountered a steep learning curve once he was hired as an apprentice at Western Neon. Knowing nothing of signage or the process of sign construction, he was trained by the then-shop lead who expected flawlessness, forcing Burbridge to repeat tasks until perfection was reached. Six years later, Burbridge is the shop’s lead fabricator. “It was hard, but I did respect the perfection aspect to that,” he said. “And being a kind of boutique neon signshop that dabbles in sculpture and artistic sides of things – incorporating neon – being able to have that eye for quality was really important.”
Since he’s now able to operate any of the shop’s fabrication machinery – the saws, CNC router, stomp shear, slip roller, etc. – a chunk of Burbridge’s occupation is determining which of his fabricators’ skillsets best suit particular jobs, and he works with the production manager to organize the projects that merit priority. For jobs that stray into customized territory, Western Neon allots time (and money) for a “trial and error” period to let their fabricators zero in on the correct process. “Sometimes if the design or the material won’t work, we can go back to the drawing board and see if we can amend or change the design or the material to make the process more feasible,” Burbridge said. “It’s basically trial and error until we can get a consistent, reliable process that we know will work when we finally pull the trigger to get the project going.”
The self-described “hobbyist builder” originally moved to Seattle to attend the Art Institute of Seattle, earning an associate’s degree in audio production. He left the music industry because the late hours were difficult, especially since he is also a deacon in his church and likes to be involved in the community. “Because I love to build things with my hands, that pushed me to find a fabrication job,” he said. Burbridge still enjoys writing and playing music, and his job at Western Neon provides him with another creative outlet.
Burbridge is very much enjoying his current position, but has weighed his future options, such as returning to school to earn a bachelor’s degree, or opening his own business fabricating custom metal handrails. He’d also consider a move into management at Western Neon. “For now, I’m content being there and seeing what the future brings,” he said.
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