A tube bender at work

Rob Gillette tube bendingRob Gillette is the man behind the bright neon glow of the Drake Hotel sign in MOV’s new exhibit Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver. Rob is a tube bender, one of the old-school artisans who makes magic with glass and rare gases. We visited Rob and his dog Blondy at his studio in Langley when he was getting some of the MOV’s vintage neon signs in working condition again. Rob was part of the team that exhibition sponsor Pattison Signs deployed to light up the signs once again.

The exhibition was an opportunity for Rob’s generation of tube benders to match skills with the old-timers who bent glass into Hootie the Owl’s kilt (in MOV’s Rexall “We Deliver” sign) and elaborate art deco script (as in MOV’s Williams Piano House sign).

Rob showed us how it was done. First, he fired up a gas flame, then he used both hands to manipulate a length of straight glass tubing in the flame until it was soft enough to bend, but not so soft that it dripped on the floor. He used his mouth and a thin hose to softly blow a current of air through the tubing, keeping the tube open even as he bent it into curves.

(For spectacular footage of a tube bender in action, check out the film Glowing in the Dark directed by Harry Killam and produced by Alan Goldman of Blueplate Productions, Vancouver.)

Neon sign tube bending stationOnce the tubing was shaped (in this case into the “ette” of Annette’s Dress Salon sign), Rob sealed the ends and prepared to load the gas. The flasks (known in the industry as ‘gas bombs’) that contain the rare gases are located in front of a wall covered with snapshots of enormous steelheads that Rob has caught on countless fishing trips. Rob carefully opened a valve and neon gas flowed into the narrow tube.

Later, Rob warned us to stand back as he jammed the throttle on the electricity and sent 220 power racing through the glass unit. Once he was assured that all was well, Rob invited us to look at it very, very closely. Squinting at the tube from two inches away, we convinced ourselves that we could actually see tiny movements inside – the electrical current exciting the neon electrons which danced as they gave off light.

The brilliance and buzz is writ large in the exhibition Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver where 22 neon signs fill the gallery with energy and light. Thanks to Gillette Rob for bringing eight of those signs back to life and light. To learn more, you can contact Rob at

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