The Art of Glass Bending With Will Kirtley of Seattle's Western Neon

Watch the glass artist behind some of Seattle's most iconic neon signs turn a simple glass tube into a glowing work of art.

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Heart of Glass

Will Kirtley, Seattle artist and lead glass bender at custom sign shop Western Neon, is the man behind many of the Emerald City’s brightly colored beacons. Best known for its gloomy, gray days and alt rock vibe, the city is considered to be the world's epicenter for glass art. Learn how Will blends handcrafted art with science to create a one-of-a-kind neon sign, and the journey he took to reach this level of artistry.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Empowered by a Refund

Will's decades-long dance with neon began with a coffee table book and a one-way ticket to the Northern Wisconsin Neon Workshop. “I wasn’t a natural in class, and I didn’t really come at it with the fine motor skills and careful observation you need,” Will says, reflecting back to his early years. “In fact, I was told I didn’t have the chops for this kind of work and would be offered a full refund for my class fees.” Determined to succeed, he let the harsh criticism spark his passion rather than extinguish it, and went on to complete the program. “It’s really more about how bad you want something than what you bring to the game at first,” Will explains.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Settled in Seattle

After school, and several gigs in chilly Chicago, Will packed his bags and set off for Seattle in 1989 to begin a lifetime journey that would brighten the city's nighttime landscape. "It’s a great neon city," Will says. "With the gloomy weather nine months of the year, our signs are just like beacons." Over the course of several decades, Seattle's 30+ neon sign shops have all since closed, leaving only a few to uphold the craft. Today, Will is the lead glass bender at Western Neon and an instructor at the Western Neon School of Art.

See More Photos: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

Pattern for Success

Today's project involves a martini — one that requires glassblowing, glass bending and a noble gas. “The process starts with a mirrored pattern presented to us by our designers," Will says. "We use this paper template to form the glass tubes to match as accurately as possible." A brass screen is also used to keep the template from burning when hot tubes are placed on top.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Making His Mark

"Every bender’s style is a little different," Will remarks as he measures the first glass tube against the template. "I can recognize my tubes from my pencil marks and my bends. Bring someone else in and give them the same pattern and it’ll be [really] similar; but it’s like two people painting the same thing — you’ll get a different painting."

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

More Than a Feeling

Wearing no gloves at all, because glass bending is largely tactile, Will carefully places the marked section of the tube inside the flickering orange flames. "The ribbon burner is used to make larger curves," Will says as he slowly rolls the tube back-and-forth in his hands. As the glass tube gradually begins to heat, the gauge of warmth in his fingertips will indicate when the glass is malleable enough to make the first bend.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Practice Makes Perfect Bends

As Western Neon's lead glass bender, Will forms almost all the tubes that clients need by hand, from the newest designs and concepts to vintage sign repairs and replacements. Years of practice yields a calm confidence, one that's apparent while watching Will negotiate with a small wooden block for accurate glass bending.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Puff of Air

"There's a lot of art in glass bending," Will says, as he hooks up a rubber hose to the freshly bent tube. This time, Will manipulates a tighter bend on the smaller crossfire burner. As the tube begins to heat, Will sends a perfectly timed puff of air into the tube so it will bend rather than collapse as it softens.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Fired-Up Freehand

Glass bending is as much science as it is a gut feeling — and every single bend is made freehand. “Every tube, every size and every color heats at a really different rate," Will explains. "So it’s not a matter of you put [the tube] in the fire for 20 seconds and count down. You have to really watch. You’re watching for the stages of it melting and you’re watching for the evenness with the heat — and also not letting the flame burn your hands.”

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Working on Broken Glass

Once shaped, Will checks the rapidly cooling glass with his fingertips to determine a spot for the first break. Turns out, in order to make a small martini glass shape, several separate glass tubes will be heated, shaped and then welded together.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Hold the Line

Working mostly in silence, Will frequently checks his bends against the template. “Even though this pattern is rendered on a computer, somebody spent a lot of time nuancing all of these details," Will says. "It's already a piece of art, and we work really hard to bend the tubes to match as best as possible."

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Bits and Pieces

Will starts work on another piece of the martini glass as the first glass tube cools on his workstation stand. Neon signs of today are vastly different than the simplistic red signs of the '50s. Modern custom signs typically involve several sections of glass tubing that will be spliced together to make a larger sign, often combined with other forms of lighting, like LED. "Today, when clients order neon they really want a feeling, an aesthetic," Will remarks.

See More Photos: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

Intricate Evolution

Will measures the stem piece bends against the paper template. The intricacy of this small piece speaks to Will's level of talent, and to neon's broader comeback. From small businesses and large-scale retail clients to local hot-spots, the trend is growing. Recently, Will worked on a modern, mixed media sign for Seattle restaurant Pie Bar, one that involved pink neon, LEDs, acrylic and metal fabrication.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Hot in Here

Will rounds out the final bends of the martini glass on the molten hot flames of a crossfire burner. Glass tubes like these become malleable at a burning temperature of between 1,200 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit — similar to the heat of a blazing bonfire.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Calculated Break Up

Next, Will measures the tube that will form the top of the martini glass to determine a precise breaking point. A simple score with a knife allows Will to create an even break along the glass and mark the welding point for the stem piece.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Handy Hand Torch

The largely manual glass bending process doesn't end with a shaped glass tube. The next step requires a hand torch, a tool Will often relies on to splice and taper tubes, and tip off electrodes. “I’ll [shape the tube]," Will explains, "and when I’m all done, I’ll weld one of these electrodes onto both ends of the glass tube." Like the glass blowing method, Will sends a pocket of air through the hose and into the softened glass to keep it open enough to create a secure, airtight connection with the electrode.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Wired and Exposed

Will continues, "The electrode on this end is sealed with just the wires coming out." Once finished, that end will be connected to a small transformer to push power through the illuminated sign.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Welding Glass Is a Thing

The martini glass starts to take shape at this stage in production. All of the cooled, shaped tubes — that Will created by hand — are now ready for assembly. Using a hand torch, the tubes are spliced together like a puzzle piece and welded at a temperature of about 1,000 to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Together Forever

With sheer seconds to act, Will uses his hands to apply firm pressure to the two welded glass pieces. This impermeable connection requires alignment accuracy and a surprising amount of hand-eye coordination.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Almost Ready for Cocktails

Working with glass has an urgency, as tubes heat and cool quickly. Amazingly, it only took a couple of hours to fashion this martini-shaped tube from a few straight glass tubes in a box, a true statement to years of practice and excellent artistry.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

The Last Electrode

Will uses a hand torch to attach a second electrode to the end of the shaped unit. "A tubulated electrode looks like a glass straw, and that’s where the gas is going to go in," Will explains. The last electrode will be connected to a processing station for bombarding, aka extreme sterilization.

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

The Secret's in the Glass Manifold

Once Will forms the tubes and adds an electrode to each end, the newly created martini tube will be bombarded in preparation for noble gas on the glass manifold. The tubes will glow pink, which requires the use of argon gas and a bead of mercury — not neon. "Neon actually only makes red," Will says. "So if it’s not red or orange, it’s an argon-filled tube. Argon makes white, green, purple, pink, yellow and blue, which are really much more common these days."

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

So Bright, So Clean

With the flip of a switch, the martini glass glows bright white on the glass manifold as the bombarding process heats and sterilizes the tubes to around 480 to 570 degrees Fahrenheit. “If we leave any moisture or dirt in [the tubes], because I’ve been blowing on the tubes or because they've been sitting around the room, those elements will leave deposits over time," Will explains. "And you won’t see that on the first day or the first year ... but [the tubes] can be really long-lasting if they’re really sterile on the inside.”

See More Photos: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

Bottled Lightning

Once the tubes are clean, argon is introduced from little canisters on the manifold and from a safe distance. “Those little cards stuck all around there [are] mica sheets, and it’s a really effective heat-proof insulator," Will says smiling. "Because that’s a power line transformer under the table, and with that much electricity, it can jump through the glass if it sees a shortcut. So, anywhere we think that might happen, we’ll drop an insulator card to prevent it. And if you fail to do that, you’ll hear a loud crack and a lightning bolt will jump through the glass." It's an understatement to say this station is a moment of truth for the glass bender and the tube's handmade integrity.

See More Photos: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

A Toast to Neon

Fully charged, the finished martini glass glows a perfect hot pink. “Today, [our] work has gotten really elevated," Will says. "We’re still in business, but in a really niche way, and that’s what keeps me interested. All of our stuff at Western Neon is such a challenge, even after all the years I’ve been doing it. It’s hard; I’m challenged and then I'm rewarded.”

See More Photos: From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

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