Memoirs of a Glass Bender (Part 1)

We are pleased to announce that UKSB regulars Chris Timmermans & Pete Bickerstaff of Neon Craft Ltd will be joining us with regular features in signextra here on Chris & Pete will be covering all things Illuminated, from the history of neon to the arrival of LED’s today. Welcome aboard guys!

Memoirs of a Glass Bender

Well I suppose I best Start off with a bit of my family history, My Granddad Michael Anton Timmermans who was born and lived in Venlo Holland was a pioneer in the manufacture of the electric light bulbs although I’m not sure of all the dates, he worked for Philips in Eindhoven and emigrated to London in the early 1900’s and worked for Pope Lighting working on filaments he worked alongside Mr. Peter J Mason who established P J Mason & Co Ltd which later became Masonlite Ltd. My Father Jack Timmermans who was born in London in 1912 carried on working with Lighting but first worked manufacturing TV & Radio Valves, and then carried on in the early years of the Neon tube working for Brilliant Signs which was part of the Philips Group.

On the 1st April 1936 my father wrote a proposition to James Oldham the Proprietor of Oldham Sign Service, to see if he would be interested in Manufacturing Neon Tubes, James Oldham replied to his letter on the 3rd of April 1936 saying he was pleased with his letter and asks him for time to think about his proposition my father then received a reply dated the 6th of April 1936, saying he had thought it over and would go ahead with his proposition, and he had premises which would be ideal for Neon Manufacture and Repairs and he asked my father to arrange a meeting possibly the following weekend which would also coincide with the Bank holiday Monday and Tuesday, my father arranged to meet him on Saturday 25th April 1936 and he arranged to pick him up from Leeds railway station and take him to the works, there is also mention of a floor plan to decide how the new Neon shop will look, a letter received from James Oldham dated 21st May 1936 asking about quotations for certain equipment, and to choose which quotation he favours and all would be installed by mid June 1936, I believe he then commenced his employment with Oldham Sign Service, leading to the first Neon Tubes to be Manufactured in the North of England.
A letter dated Tuesday the 5th September 1939 written by Kenneth Oldham is a reference about my Father to presumably the RAF as Neon tube production had ceased due to the War.
My father was enrolled in the RAF fitting bomb sights to Lancaster Bombers, while in service he completed his final exams in Neon Lighting, at the British Institute of Engineering and Technology Ltd and was awarded his diploma on 7th October 1944 he came out of the RAF in 1945, but rather than going straight back to Neon Manufacture, he started a business in Leeds Manufacturing Christmas Decorations, Baubles, Pinnacles all hand made, silvered and painted with special glass paint I remember when I was young and watching him make them he use to make his own glass moulds of fish, father Christmas’s head, bunches of grapes extremely delicate but the detail was fantastic. My father then returned back to Neon Manufacture at Oldham Sign Service and retired to live in Tenerife in 1976 he passed away on April 27th 1994.

I first started work in 1971 when I was 15 at Timmermans Neon which was part of Oldham signs Ltd, my brother Tony also worked for Oldham’s he was a salesman.
I was sent on a Neon Training coarse at Masonlite Ltd for six months in 1972 to learn all the different processes of Neon manufacture including Oven Pumping, Electric Bending Pumping and Glass bending as well as the technical issues on return to Oldham’s, I remember bending Double Diamond, Skol Lager, Tetley, Mobil, Fina etc etc. I was married in April 1977 to my gorgeous wife Monika and have three children, Melanie who is a Carer, Robert a Sign Engineer, and my youngest daughter Charlie who is studying her second year at Leeds University to become a nurse, I also have four Grandchildren.

I left Oldham Signs in 1981 and went to work for Pearce signs in Leeds to set up and manage their Neon shop as well as Bending Neon I also worked with the maintenance crews learning about Neon and General Sign installation this tended to educate me more in other aspects of sign making.

I felt another change was needed in 1987 and decided to set up another Neon Shop for a local company, which unfortunately didn’t work out, with this out come in mind it was time to go it alone and be my own boss, I set up Timmermans Trade Neon Ltd in 1987 right when it was boom time for industry, My Dad came and helped with the manufacturing having returned home from Tenerife after five years, we were knocking Neon out night and day for the majority of major sign companies, Manufacturing between us the most prolific Neon sign everyone would see This was manufactured by us For Oldham Claudgen for FOSTER’S in Piccadilly Circus all gone now been replaced by a new Led sign.
In October 1988 I was involved in a serious road traffic accident. I was riding pillion on a motorcycle traveling on the A1. Myself, bike and the driver collided into the back of an articulated lorry, you can imagine the carnage it caused, Best thing about it, I don’t remember a thing, I was never a keen motorcycle enthusiast but my friends were, I just decided to go on a ride with them one day, I was seriously injured and taken to Harrogate District Hospital, my injuries included various fractures to numerous parts of my body and to top it all, my leg had decided not to return with me to the hospital they found it in a field on the other side of the crash barrier but, there was no hope in re-attaching my leg, so they re-amputated above knee I was in hospital for three months and off work for nearly a year having to learn how to walk again my father kept the company ticking over till my return but it was very hard to handle due to the injuries I had sustained I kept the company going as long as possible but eventually had to let it go in 1994, this was just before my father passed away, I stayed off work for almost a year before returning back to work neon.

I still kept in touch with friends I had worked with over the years, and settled back into working for someone again for about 5 years, I was regularly in touch with Pete Bickerstaff, by 2000 we both felt that the time was right for a new neon company. We had talked about this new neon company for a few years, we decided mutually to start Neon Craft Ltd in September 2000. This neon company would provide a service never before experienced by any sign purchaser; this was due to the diverse experience, qualifications and knowledge within one firm.

This leads me to introduce Pete Bickerstaff my business partner and co owner of Neon Craft Limited. I will pass over the proverbial type writer to Pete to disclose his memoirs.

Thank you Chris. Starting from the beginning I left school having gathered a few O and A levels to my name to study art at college. I spent some time at college and worked as irony would have it in glass as well as other mediums. I gained an award and exhibition status for my photography and appeared on Radio. Having gained my arts qualification I looked for employment. After looking at various art related jobs I realised I was hunting in vain. That was till I met my wife. As luck would have it her sister worked for Oldham signs and she introduced me to the company. The company had an art studio but as I looked around the factory during the interview the Neon Glass department took my eye and I said that is where I would like to work please. Meeting Geoff Spanton I was offered a position. Delighted I took to working the glass tubing like a duck to water and I loved it then and still love it today. We made signs and neon for all over the world including Piccadilly circus and Disney Land Paris. As a hand full of years went by the fortunes economy and luck for the then huge Oldham signs began to dwindle. The neon department though remained busy, as Oldham signs future lucked bleak, I started to look at a different direction for my interests. Having applied to study engineering at University I was offered a place on a degree coarse at Leeds Metropolitan University. Whilst studying I worked part time for Chris Timmermans.
Chris could not believe the speed and accuracy I could bend glass. I could make as much glass in one and a half days as his other employees could make all week. I also worked for another neon maker part-time in my final year and after I gained my degree and left to work for this company full time as a Manufacturing Manager with a hands-on approach. Fresh from Uni I applied as much as I could to his business and it grew and flourished. I think I learnt as much as the Owner did during this time. I did feel that my own aspirations for my future were moving away like a spacecraft leaving a space station. I had mentioned some years before about a business with Chris Timmermans, I never forgot this so the time came and with a few contacts we went into Hyperdrive and Neon Craft was Born out of a passion for neon.

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