Co.Design

Watch: The Dying Craft Of Neon Signs

Without neon lights, our cities would have looked like ghost cities for most of the 20th century. Now, these signs are in the process of becoming ghosts themselves.

Since the 1920s, the cities of the world have been given light and life at night by the flickering, almost phantasmagoric lettering of neon signs. As efficient LEDs replace glowing tubes full of neon gas, though, the art of the neon sign is dying out.

Produced by Cpak Studio, The Making of Neon Signs is an intriguing and slightly melancholy documentary that reveals the intricacies of a dying craft that may very well not exist a decade from now. Talking to a number of neon sign designers in Hong Kong, the last bastion of neon sign design, it's an exploration of a fascinating art that requires far more ingenuity than might first be apparent.

In Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, the design of a neon sign starts first with choosing from a pool of calligraphers, each of whom has a distinctive style. Restaurants prefer calligraphers who specialize in simplistic scripts, which are almost clerical in nature, whereas a clinic that sets broken bones or a kung fu dojo might choose an artist with a more visceral style.

Once the letters of a neon sign have been designed, it's time for a sign manufacturer to construct it. Handled by craftsmen with decades of experience, a glass tube will be heated up over a (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit) flame until it is hot enough to be bent. This is all done by hand and without protective gloves. This turns out to be a big factor that influences neon sign design. The decision on how many tubes to make each sign ultimately comes down to what the smallest piece of glass a neon sign maker can bend without burning his hands.

When the glass of a neon sign has been finalized, the tubes are colorized. Neon signs use one of two noble gases to create their light: the titular neon, which gives a sign a red light, and argon, which produces a blue light. To make other colors, the inside of the glass tubes are coated in powder; blue powder with neon, for example, produces a pink neon sign, while a green tube would turn orange. Once the inside of the tubes are coated, they are sealed, filled with gas, and hooked up to transformers.

It's a fascinating craft, but neon signs are dwindling in popularity. There are obvious reasons why, of course. Neon signs are expensive to make and power, they break easily and are hard to replace, and they are fire hazards as well. Even so, it still seems sad that any art that requires this much craft--and gives a city at night so much charm--would eventually die out. It's a reminder that progress often comes with a human cost.

Hat tip: Jonathan Hoefler

[Images: Restaurant Bar Jackpots, Las Vegas and Glitter Gultch via Flickr user Curtis Perry]

Add New Comment

6 Comments

  • jethrik

    An art that involves bending glass and voltage transformers has no reason to go obsolete since the basic elements can always be manufactured with relative ease. This contrasts to something like a CRT monitor which due to tiny demand and thus no economy of scale will be virtually impossible to resurrect due to economics.

  • Tom Collins

    It's not dying. I order 3 -4 signs per year at Johnny Austin Neon Signs - they offer custom made signs and have always shipped really fast. Check them out if your in need of a beer neon sign or bar neon sign at www.johnnyaustinneon.com

  • J F Grossen

    Don't worry, there are many cities such as Portland, Vancouver and Seattle who are very active in both preservationist efforts and promoting new uses of neon signage. While the Pacific Northwest has historically been the epicenter of the click crackle and buzz there are many more cities where neon still shines.

  • Erik Gastelum

    annual operating cost.

    As for Fire, well anything installed wrong can cause a fire. When a Neon sign is installed right and all electrical wires are contained in a metallic raceway, flex or sign body, with no live parts touching anything flammable to code, you CANNOT have a fire.

    Neon is very efficient. When it comes to red signs, Red Neon which is just glass and gas does not degrade in light overtime...Red LEDs do. There are a lot of retrofit campaigns going on with sign companies that knock on your door to tell you about energy savings. yes, red LEDs are 1/2 the cost of operation, BUT they degrade. $91 a year for 70' is nothing. When it comes to whites and colors, majority of the time neon is brighter. It takes more power for LEDs to achieve the same brightness as neon, so savings in LED is equal to or slightly less.

  • Erik Gastelum

    Neon is NOT dying out. In fact it's slowly coming back with customer demand. It's dying in the sense that sign companies want to go a cheap quick fast route, collect the check on walk away....so they use LEDs for everything. Every light source used for signs, Neon, LEDs, or Fluorescent lamps ALL have their strengths and weaknesses. Sign companies will prefer to use LEDs because it's low in labor skill, fast to use. Neon takes a skill to fabricate & Install, sign shops don't want to keep a skilled worker on payroll.

    Neon is also NOT expensive to power, very misleading statement from LED companies. The average foot of neon is about 3 watts a foot on average, and can be reduced by 30% when you use a electronic transformer instead of a magnetic. The largest sign transformer at a max load will give you 70' of neon. That's 70' at only 210 watts of linear light, or two 120 watt incandescent lamps. 210 watts at $.12 a kwh operating at 10 hours a say, 365 days a year is $91.00 of

  • Linda Elrod

    What could be more fascinating than to see the glow of a neon light in the darkness of night? Pastel neon lights with their slight hum makes me think of the glowing lights in deep space like nebula. Magellanic Clouds, galaxies, or Aurora Borealis. I love neon lights and hate to see them fade out. .