When your clientele consists of U.S. presidents, governors, Supreme Court justices and Pope John Paul II, you may be on to something – even if it’s only a part-time job. During his days, Thomas Bull works as a welding inspector for Team QualSpec in Port Lavaca, Texas.
In his free time, Thomas carries on a tradition started by his grandfather, Billy A. Bull: using a Victor oxyacetylene outfit to hand cut signatures from 3/4-in. steel. Using an individual’s actual signature, Thomas imbues steel plate with a flowing style that brings the flame-cut metal to life.
Thomas continues to uphold the standards set by Billy, who was named National Welder of Texas by proclamation of Gov. Mark White and President Ronald Reagan. Every president since Reagan and every Texas governor since Dolph Briscoe has been the basis of a Bull signature. Thomas took over making these desk ornaments when his grandfather became ill and passed away in January 2016. He was 90 years old.
“I have a letter addressed from George W. Bush to my grandfather,” Thomas says. “It says, ‘To Billy A. Bull, National Welder of Texas.’ On the inside there’s a gold emblem with the presidential signature at the top. It’s all handwritten.”
The passing of the torch actually began with Thomas’ great-grandfather, who was an acetylene welder back when Victor first began producing oxyacetylene torches in 1913.
“I still have both my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s Victor torches,” Thomas says. “Great-grandfather’s regulators are in a basket right next to where I do all my work. The serial numbers are 713 and 715, which make them among the first regulators Victor produced.”
Creating a brand
The concept of cutting signatures started in 1976 when Billy was working on a pipeline. One of the welder’s helpers said he wanted a brand, but if he was going to have a brand, he wanted it to be his signature. He just didn’t think it could be done.
“My grandfather said, ‘I bet I could cut one out of plate better than I could try to bend all that metal.’ When the pipeline supervisor saw my grandfather’s work, he asked him to cut a signature for the company boss’s desk,” Thomas says. “The signature work just grew from there. Grandfather did it part time while working, then full time after he retired. Between us, we’ve created more than 2,800 signatures.”
Thomas thought his grandfather was a special and interesting man and practically grew up in the shop by his side. At age 10, his grandfather started teaching Thomas how to cut with an oxyacetylene torch. Thomas cut his first signature when he was in the 8th grade, a Christmas present for his math teacher.
“The teacher knew that presidents had received such signatures, and he was so impressed that he gave the class the day off. That just didn’t happen in Mr. Jenkins’ class,” Thomas says. “At first, Mr. Jenkins thought grandpa had cut the signature, and then I told him that I had done it, and he could hardly believe it.”
Thomas remained close with his grandfather until he started working professionally for Jacobson Engineering in California, then in Colorado.
“I was working in the fab shop and they noticed my torch work,” Thomas says. “They said, ‘It looks like a plasma cutter cut this, like a machine did it. We don’t even have to grind it because there’s no slag.’”
While only 28, Thomas has already spent 18 years and countless hours with a torch. He went on to earn his CWI license, moved back to Victoria, Texas, and currently applies his inspection knowledge at Team QualSpec, a worldwide inspection company with an office in Port Lavaca.
As a CWI, he is on-call, which gives him some flexibility. He devotes about 12 hours a week to creating the ornamental signatures, which take about three hours, working in the shop he inherited from his grandfather.
The art of creating a signature starts with a 20-ft. plate, cut into 5-ft. sections. Thomas grinds any mill scale off the top and uses a brush to lightly coat the surface with saltwater.
“The saltwater generates a little bit of surface rust, which helps hold my mark with my soapstone as I trace the signature,” Thomas says. The rust also combats mill scale. “As you use a torch around mill scale, it starts to pop and flake off, and then I would lose my lines. But as far as putting the signature to the steel, I just look at the signature and trace it freehand.”
To cut the 3/4-in. plate, Thomas uses a 1-3-101-size tip (which he keeps meticulously clean) and sets oxygen flow rates to 38 cfh and acetylene to about 7 cfh. After cutting, Thomas wants the cut ripples to show. He uses a sanding wheel and buffing wheel on the top and bottom of the plate, but he doesn’t grind the cut face.
“I just love freehand cutting with a torch. I think the small cut ripples let people know that I cut the signature by hand with a torch, not a CNC plasma,” he says.
Thomas is scheduled to deliver his latest works of art to President Donald Trump in June and to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shortly thereafter.
While fit for presidents and popes, Thomas continues to charge the same price his grandfather did: $250 per signature because he believes that teachers like Mr. Jenkins should be able to afford his work, not just dignitaries.
Thomas currently uses a Victor Contender Outfit, which features Victor Edge ESS3 regulators, a 315FC torch handle with built-in flashback arrestors and check valves and CA 2460 cutting attachment. The torch cuts up to 8-in. steel and is universally acknowledged as the industry’s premier combination torch, particularly among professional welders.
Growing up, Thomas told his grandfather that he didn’t necessarily want to be a welder, but he wanted to be able to weld and cut and wanted good equipment.
“He told me that, ‘when it comes to oxyfuel, Victor is the only name you need to know,’” Thomas says.
“Thank you for passing on the family tradition, grandfather.”