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Pattern-Making

Thinking prevents trouble

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In my last column Neon Legibility, I discussed the importance of letter design to good readability and impact. This month, I describe the next step in producing a ready-made sign — preparing the drawing for the glassbender. Without a well-planned drawing, even the best glassworker can’t produce a perfect sign. It’s better to realize the importance of pattern-making instead of facing an ugly sign with your name on it for decades.

Neonizing a letter

In the English alphabet, a letter is a graphic symbol composed of different brushstrokes that cover a surface with color. The width of the brushstroke depends on the size and style of the letter. Most characters are assembled from straight or curved lines of constant brushstroke width. Consequently, representing these characters in tubular light of consistent width is usually not a design restriction. As a comparison, Egyptian hieroglyphs, which are pictures with filled surfaces, can’t be easily rendered in lines of light without hatching.

The letter stroke’s width determines the outer diameter of the neon tube required. Neon tubes’ outer diameters typically measure 5/16-1 in. It’s uncommon in the United States to use glass smaller than 10 mm or larger than 15 mm.

To produce a letter stroke wider than 5/8 in., multiple tubes are assembled parallel to one another and usually spaced by the tube diameter. These tubes are not closely packed together because that would waste light radiated to the back side, which is reflected by the mounting surface.

For better clarity, let’s go back to our sample "Restaurant" sign referred to in the October issue. From the letter itself, first draw the outline, with the neon tubes drawn as inlays. Before continuing the drawing, we must discuss other aspects.

Three-dimensional thinking

Novice sign designers usually assume that because a standard letter face is flat, neon tubes must lie in the letter plane. The principle is correct, but reality differs. Neon tubes take on dimensionality — electrodes must be invisible, a single, continuous piece of glass comprises the neon tube, and, to save cost, the text cannot be divided into many separate tubes.

Electrodes or electrical connections don’t contribute to the light output, are dark parts of the neon tube usually hidden in a luminous sign. Hiding electrodes from the viewer and connecting them to the neon tube requires placing them in the back, behind the letter’s face. This creates a 3-D object. Additionally, parts in the back plane of a neon character are often painted black so they will be almost invisible in a dark environment.

Neon benders like it in reverse

Neon letter faces may be flat, but tubes are 3-D. Character outlines must be precisely matched so that the glassbender must adjust the tube parts’ position precisely on the drawing.

Because it’s impossible to lay down a letter onto the drawing for perfect adjustment, the solution is to draw the image in reverse, or mirrored. Then the letter face can be aligned to the drawing plane, and all electrodes located in the back of the face plane point upwards from the paper plane. This allows the neon to be placed directly on the paper to obtain a perfect match. To make matching even easier, it is common to draw the neon tube in outline, too. Otherwise, you must guess which side of the neon line matches better.

Another important constraint involves working with a single, continuous tube without any branches. Thus, if two parts of the tube need to cross (as in the letters x and t), one tube has to pass behind another. The interconnection between the letter parts is also placed in the back plane so it will be invisible when the back tube parts are blocked out.

Basic elements

Before starting to draw the final neon pattern, keep in mind that a neon letter is composed of some basic glass shapes. The position and sequence of these elements must be well planned to avoid getting tangled with already bent parts during the bending process. The most common four basic bends are pictured above left, with only the big curves, as in letters D, O and C, missing.

Because finding the right sequence of basic bends to make the final letters requires experience in handling and manipulating glass, a good pattern-maker should be an experienced glassbender, too. For the beginner, sample books are available, such as Neon ABC Alphabets by Dean Blazek.

The image pictured below left shows the sequence for bending a letter R. Starting with a straight stick of glass, make the large arc in the ribbon fire, then the double-back (or 180-degree) bend in the middle. This bends the straight part of the tube into the back plane of the letter, so the next combination bend, a "dropturn" (a combination of straight-drop and partial-angle bends made in a single motion of the hands), gets back in the letter plane. Finally, the angle bend folds the left letter edge into the vertical. If the last bend had been made right after the arc (or even before), you couldn’t make the double back, as the straight tube part would be in the path for moving the stick of glass. This demonstrates how critical sequencing is. The sequence can be changed, depending on letter size, orientation and position.

Word processing

In Europe, traditionally every neon letter is made separately, furnished with two electrodes and pumped separately; the installer assembles the final message. This process simplifies maintenance but creates higher fabrication and electrical costs. In the United States, traditionally a neon tube is made as long as possible so it will contain as many letters as the glassbender’s equipment can handle with moderate risk.

When forming a pattern for a whole word, letter spacing must be observed because the letters are connected by a rigid glass tube that can’t be modified by the installer later. Also, sequencing basic bends becomes more complicated. Sometimes the only way to avoid the path of movement for the glass is to make some letters or groups of letters separately and weld them together to a single tube before the electrodes are attached.

The pattern-maker must also remember that most glassbenders work the pattern from left to right; because the pattern is drawn in reverse, the word is made backwards. With this in mind, tube parts connecting letters can be placed optimally. For example, with the letters E or C, you can begin either on the top and end on the bottom, or vice versa, depending on the end of the previous letter or the beginning of the preceding one. This also depends on the letter style — script is much more difficult to lay out and bend than block letters.

To make a good pattern for a neon sign, especially for signmakers with little experience in neon design, talk to the glassbender who will fabricate the neon and watch him work. By watching a glassworker, many won’t merely learn about the process itself, but also will be caught by the mystery of creating words from molten glass.

In my next article on neon basics, I will describe basic neon-installation aspects that affect design and fabrication.

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