RobertJuly 10th 2022

“What’s in a name?” paraphrase Mr Shakespeare, Would not a torch by any other name melt just as much?  A quick look through a hundred years of neon supply catalogs and a study of collected vintage torches helps shed some light in a sometimes dark corner of the neon shop.

When I took my first steps into the neon world, there were just a few seemingly straightforward names for the torches involved:  Crossfire, Ribbon Burner, and Hand Torch.  The crossfire, in my case, was the familiar 5 point type (actually 10—five per side) The ribbon burner was the ubiquitous Hyde style available in 6, 16, or 24 inch sizes and equipped with an adjustable slide and an economizer valve to cut it back to idle for both gas savings and to keep a cooler shop when it was not actively being used.  The hand torch was a simple 500T type used for small welds and tipping off.

hyde-burners-1955-jpg - 940 x 1200

I very quickly learned that these were not the only types out there.  7 point crossfires were available, hand torches with different styles and sizes of tips were available, and then there was the “knife fire” and “cannon fire” burners.  These latter items consisted of the BMT-7 or S-21N heads, respectively. 

s21n-bmt7-jpg - 737 x 897

One might believe that this is all rather straightforward…and if confined to US practice this is mostly correct…..but it is not really that simple and it becomes especially muddied if your neon experience is more global in nature or if it spans many decades, or- as is equally true in my case, delves into a more archaeological aspect.  Terminology is often not merely regional or temporal, but also rooted in the history of the labor force involved in the trade.

If one were to refer to a “cannon fire” burner to neon tubebenders in the US, the S-21N or McLennan style burner will come to mind.  Use this terminology to someone in Europe, and you will conjure an image of a large single burner, often on the bench and more akin to what is seen in a scientific glassblowing shop setting.  We often call these a “bench burner” but even this has not always been so.

catalog-bench-burner-jpg - 593 x 609

Prior to WWII, it was not unusual to see these same torches referred to in supply catalogs as a “blast burner” and in one catalog I have seen both “cannon fire” and “blast burner” used for what outwardly appear to be nearly identical offerings.  No wonder it is easy to confuse people.

tubelite-cannon-fire-1948-jpg - 997 x 645

catalog-blast-burner-jpg - 649 x 949

Part of the reason for the different torch types used between the US and Europeans is the glass type commonly used in neon work.  In Europe you see much more borosilicate glass used which requires an oxygen enriched flame—a set of crossfire heads closely pointing at one another would be more readily harmed by this additional heat, this is why the single larger burner is often used in that application.  This naturally leads to a question about the divergence of the bending style and tools used.  When neon became popular, there had been an established apprenticeship program in Europe for scientific glassblowing.  Many of the neon benders in Europe had been trained through this system and so it was a natural fit to carryover much of this knowledge into the burgeoning neon industry.  Such was not the case in the US at that time.  Instead, there was a rather active and large lamp and radio tube industry.  Much of it was undergoing a mass production transition just before neon hit the scene and one aspect of this was the preference for the use of soft glass in lamps and tubes and the advantage of the use of multiple torch heads (two opposing heads allow you to heat all the way around the glass when it is rotated 180 degrees, rather than a full 360 degree rotation needed with only one head) and so these types of tools were eventually adapted for the US neon industry.  (There is an interesting subset of the history of how this came about as it was not initially the case and it is worthy of more detail in its own right and I will try to do it justice in a future article.)

Even in the US, the burner terminology underwent some transitions and you see it reflected in catalogs over the years (sometimes the term “cannon crossfire” for the S-21N was used or even “hand crossfire” for the torches we use for tipping-off)  In this case it seems mostly just a shorthand rather than a major change.

And just before you thought it had escaped this phenomenon, even the ribbon burner has not always been known by this name.  At least in its case, however, the variation of terminology has been more consistently linked with its design rather than by regional influence.  Thus we have seen “Tubular Burners” and “Fishtail Burners” in addition to the now ubiquitous “Hyde” type burner, whose design and overall versatility pretty much became the standard in the postwar period on to today.

tubelite-fishtail-and-tubular-jpg - 1200 x 811

As the workforce and technology evolved, so too did the need for specialized tools and the regional names bestowed upon them.  With greater communication amongst the neon community around the world combined with the rise of ordering tools, materials, and supplies from far away places the need to understand these historical and regional names is of greater importance than it was just a few decades ago.  In this regard, browsing through a hundred years of catalogs and studying some of the vintage torches and burners I’ve used has helped illuminate that dark corner of the shop as well as exposing other dark corners to explore next.

burners-on-shelf-jpg - 1068 x 1200

Login to leave a comment...
0 comments on "Whats In A Name?"