Neon Art Facts/Neon Info from Bill Buth
Frequently Asked Questions
presented by Desert Neon LLC.
- What is neon?
- How are the colors made?
- How much electricity does neon use?
- How long does neon last?
- Is neon safe?
- Why is neon so expensive?
- Can I get into the neon biz?
- Can neon be safely shipped?
- Can I give neon as a gift?
- Is neon a good investment?
- Can neon be repaired?
Q: What is Neon?
A: Neon is a gas.
But most people use the word neon to describe signs,
art, and lighting that is made entirely or in part with neon tubes.
These tubes are sealed, airtight glass, filled at a very low pressure
with either NEON or ARGON gas. The ends of the tubes have metal fittings
that are connected by wires to a neon transformer or power supply which
transmits electric current through the tube, and cause it to emit light.
A typical neon sign or art piece may have any number of tubes wired
together to one or more transformers or power supplies.
When luminous tubes were first being developed, around the turn of
of the previous century, one of many problems encountered was that
of longevity. Experimenters found that they could put almost any gas,
including carbon dioxide, into a sealed glass tube and, by applying
the right amount of current, it would 'light up'. However, within a
relatively short period of time, these tubes would go out. This was due
to chemical reactions inside the tube caused in large part by the
electrical current required to light up the gas. The solution was to
use either neon or argon, which are known as 'noble' gasses,
and won't combine with other elements or molecules.
There are other Noble gasses that can be used, and sometimes are,
usually in art pieces where special effects are desired, but they
are impractical for use in most typical art and signs.
If you are doing research on the history of neon and would like
more information, there are several good books available, and some
of them are listed below. If you would like to learn more about
the chemistry and physics of neon, there likewise are some books
available on that also.
Q: How are the colors made?
A: The colors are created in the following ways:
By filling the glass tube with either of the two gases:
neon appears red-orange in a clear glass tube;
argon appears pale blue in a clear glass tube.
Virtually all of the other colors are created by using one
of these two gasses in:
1) clear glass tubes that are coated on the inside with
fluorescent powders that, when lit, will emit certain colors.
2) colored glass tubes that may be 'clear',
or coated on the inside with flourescent powders.
(There is another way, used by the 'production' neon sign
companies, which is to dip the completed neon tube in a
colored liquid plastic which hardens on the outside of the
tube. This is a cheap way of simulating some of the deeper
neon colors, but without the expense. You will see this on
some newer 'beer signs', and other cheaper neon items.
The drawback to this is that this coating will chip off over
time and make the sign look awful. Also, these tubes,
if broken, cannot be repaired.
We here at Desert Neon, DO NOT use this method.)
There is a limit to the number of colors that can be made
which is dictated, for the most part, by the phosphor
compounds used to coat the inside of the tubes. However,
occasionally a manufacturer will come up with a 'new' color.
There are only 3 major neon tube manufacturers in the US,
those being the Voltarc Company, EGL, and FMS. A large
importer of mostly European glass, among other things,
is Tecnolux. None of these companies sell directly to neon
companies; but are sold only through sign supply distributors.
Q: How much electricity does neon use?
A: The electrical power needed to run neon depends on the
total length of tubing, the diameter of the tubing,
the colors, etc. A typical neon sign or art piece,
however, of average size will consume approximately fifty
to two hundred watts, which can be compared to the power
consumption of an equivalent incandescent bulb.
Neon is a very efficient light source.
Most of the art pieces we sell employ efficient
electronic power supplies, which adjust
themselves to the 'load' presented by the neon tubes
and use only as much power as is needed to light them.
A 'rule of thumb' for most of the art pieces we make is that
they average 50-60 watts. Many of our customers
leave their neon on continuously.
Q: How long does neon last?
A: Most indoor neon pieces are virtually maintenance free.
The transformer or power supply can last up to fifteen years,
if it is correctly matched to the neon display. The neon
tubes do not burn out like incandescent or fluorescent bulbs,
and will last twenty years or longer if they don't get broken.
See our 'Warranty' below.
Q: Is neon safe?
A: Neon can be made as safe as any other electric appliance,
such as a lamp or TV. The safety is really determined by
the type and quality of the components used, the procedures
used to assemble those components, the skill of the persons
assembling the neon, and of course, the final user of the neon.
Please Note: Like any other electric household appliance, neon
is not meant for children, or anyone else that doesn't have
the capacity to handle it in a responsible fashion. It must
be understood that neon art, signs, etc., incorporate two
potentially dangerous elements: 1) glass, and 2) electricity.
Also, some, but not all, neon tubes contain a relatively
tiny amount of mercury. Mercury is necessary to create some
of the neon colors. The amount of mercury in a typical neon
tube is comparable to that in a commercially available
flourescent 'bulb' you may purchase at your local hardware
outlet or home center, such as Home Depot or Target, and use
in your kitchen, bathroom, or basement light fixture. Any
discarded neon tube that contains mercury should be treated in
the same way you would discard a flourescent tube. You may
want to check with your local recycling center about
the proper disposal in your area.
Because Desert Neon LLC has no control over its products
once they leave our production facility, it is up to the recipient
to ensure that the product is installed and/or used in a way that
conforms to all applicable codes, laws, ordinances, and any other
authority having jurisdiction. If you are unsure of this, we suggest
that you investigate prior to ordering and/or purchasing.
Q: Why is neon so expensive?
I see neon clocks and other things at Target and online
that cost less than $100. Why is your neon so much more?
A: Most of the neon you see at discount stores, home centers,
flea markets, and even more 'upscale' furniture and 'lifestyle'
stores is what we call 'production' neon. This is neon that
is made in relatively large quantities, usually more than 100,
and up to tens of thousands, of the same design,
by using forms, or 'jigs' to form the glass. These forms are
relatively expensive to fabricate, but can then be used by
unskilled workers to 'bend' the neon glass. Many of these
factories are also overseas, where labor costs can be less
than in the US. Some of the components, such as the power
supplies, are also of lesser quality then we would use.
Here at Desert Neon LLC we use highly skilled and
experienced neon glass benders. And since virtually everything
we make is a one-of-a-kind piece, we don't use any 'mass production'
techniques. That's one of the reasons why we can warranty our
neon tubes for five years against burnout. We also use the best
electrical components in our neon, most of which has been
manufactured for the commercial sign industry. We like to
think that any neon piece we create is going to last for
years without any maintenance whatsoever.
Q: Can I get into the neon biz?
Neon fabrication requires a very special skill, that of
'glassbending'. There are also many other skills needed
to design and process neon, and still more if you want
to make a career out of neon.
Also, there are some schools in the US that teach
neonglassbending as a trade, exclusively. However,
because the list is changing regularly, there is no
comprehensive site that lists all of the schools,
so I suggest doing an internet search, using the term
'neon schools'. You can also teach yourself, but that
would mean renting or buying the equipment,
which can be relatively expensive.
Neon glassbending can usually be learned in 4-6 weeks,
but takes many months and sometimes years of practice
to become really proficient. Back in the 'old days',
some neon companies would take on apprentices, but today,
because of the cost, combined with applicable labor laws,
and other restrictive and job-killing government regulations,
it is usually too great of a financial and legal risk for a
company to take on an apprentice. And relative to the
population in general, and the sign industry in particular,
there are very few companies that specialize in neon fabrication,
and therefore few opportunities. My suggestion to people
interested in neon as a career, is to learn as much as you
can about the industry before 'jumping in'.
There are many good books on neon production to be found
on Amazon, and you may want to talk to a local neon shop
to see if you can get any information from them.
In a lot of cases, small neon shops will be very secretive,
because they see everybody as a potential competitor, but
there are still a few of us who will take the time to talk to anybody.
For those desiring to 'set up shop' on their own,
I would suggest looking up Sign Supply Distributors
in your area. Most neon equipment is very specialized,
and can only be purchased through them. Sometimes the distributors
can be very patient and helpful. If not, try a different distributor.
We here at Desert Neon LLC always have a selection of used
equipment that we not only warranty, but we will supply you with all the
information you need to get it up and running, especially if
you have had no prior neon experience.
Call us at 520-409-2090 or use the form below to contact us
about getting a list of what equipment is available.
A word of warning: DO NOT buy used neon equipment from strangers,
unless you really know what you're doing.
Some equipment, especially that having to do with the vacuum
system can appear to be fine on the outside, but actually be worthless junk.
Complete glassbending and processing equipment for a one or
two person setup will usually cost at least $10,000.(US),
and could easily top $20,000. Occasionally a 'complete used neon shop'
comes up for sale on eBay or elsewhere for $5000. more-or-less.
Sometimes these shops can be a good deal,
and sometimes they are hardly worth the scrap metal value.
Some people, in order 'get their feet wet', will purchase
just the glass-bending equipment; that is, the burners and
related hardware. If bought used, this hardware can sometimes be had
for less than $1000.
Before quitting your day job, though, you may also want to check out
the local market for neon. It's hard to believe, but there are communities
that severely limit neon signs, and some that outlaw neon altogether.
This will limit your market. There is also a need for neon glassbenders
in the domestic 'production' sign industry.
These are companies that hire several glassbenders
that usually make the same signs repeatedly.
From what I understand, they pay well, usually with benefits,
and you get to go home at 5pm, with
none of the headaches of personally owning a business.
There are usually ads looking for these glassbenders
in the Classified section of Signs of the Times Magazine.
If you have any specific questions regarding a career in neon,
email me at the link below, and I may be able to help you.
Free Neon Book!!!
You can download the first part of Bill's Neon Book here
(it's a work in progress):
Q: Can neon be safely shipped?
It is in our best interest to make sure that your neon piece arrives to you
safely and unbroken, and we have several years experience in packaging and
shipping neon. However, once we turn the package over to the shipping entity,
and we no longer have control over it,
there are no absolute guarantees that your neon will arrive intact.
The percentage of items we ship that get broken is extremely low,
and we offer to replace any item that would need it.
(Note: We need to be notified within 3 days of any damage.)
Some of the pieces we ship, such as neon signs, require special
packaging so that the neon survives even if the box is shipped upside-down.
Because of this packaging, care must be taken when unboxing the neon.
We include unpacking instructions on the outside of these boxes,
and we strongly urge you to read these instructions before opening the box.
(And never let a child unpack the neon, ever!)
If you have any concerns about unpacking the neon, please call us.
Q: Can I give neon as a gift??
There are some things you should consider before giving neon as a gift.
First, and most importantly, do not give any neon piece to a child, or
anyone else that does not understand that the piece, like any other lamp
that contains glass and electricity, has the potential for harm.
We also suggest that if you order a piece for a gift for someone else,
you first unpack it, and then give it. If the recipient does not know
that the package contains fragile neon glass, or the nature of the glass,
it could get broken when unpacked. For this reason we also do not recommend
gift-wrapping the neon. In the excitement of unwrapping the gift, the piece
could get broken. If you have any questions or concerns about this, or any
other aspect of neon, please do not hesitate to email or call.
Q: Is neon a good investment??
There are two aspects to this question.
1) Buying a contemporary piece of neon for the sole reason that you hope
it will increase in value is probably not a wise thing to do.
If, however, you are considering buying a piece for the esthetic value,
it can be a very good investment, especially if you purchase a piece of
quality made neon, such as the kind we design and make here.
It will provide you with many years of enjoyment for relatively
small cost. 2) Buying an 'antique' piece of neon may be a good
investment, but it may not. If you saw the original 'Blues Brothers'
movie, you may remember a beauty salon called 'Curl Up and Dye'
that was run by the Carrie Fisher character. The salon had a neon sign,
and although it was a pretty cool name, the sign was not exceptional
because it was just a simple cursive text with no graphics.
Now imagine you saw that sign at a flea Market,
with price tag of $1000. Would it be a deal? No, because any
competent neon shop could duplicate the sign with ease.
Further, to prove that the sign was the actual one used
in the movie would be next to impossible.
In fact, we've seen signs that have been sold as 'antiques'
that we knew were contemporary and not antiques at all.
Does this mean that there is no such thing as an antique neon sign?
Well, what can give a sign antique, or collectible, value, other than
the intrinsic desirability, are actually the parts that are not neon.
For example, many outdoor neon signs made during the 1940's,
1950's, and 1960's were constructed with metal 'faces', to which
the neon was attached. Many times, these metal faces had a
'painted' finish. Some signbuilders used a colored porcelain
overlay on the metal faces because it was almost indestructible
in the face of the outdoor elements. They were, in fact,
so durable that many of these signs endure today,
even though the neon glass is long gone. Although ironic, it's the
metal/porcelain part of the sign that has the value, mainly
because it can't be reproduced.
In fact, we have restored many of these signs,
usually by remaking all of the neon glass.
If you are considering spending any money at all on a sign
because you feel it may have 'antique' or collectible value,
we suggest you contact someone with experience in the field.
Q: Can neon be repaired?
Neon repairs fall loosely into two categories:
1)glass breaks and 2)electrical failures.
Most broken neon glass can be repaired. There are some exceptions,
which we list below. Sometimes broken neon glass can be spliced
together again, usually by patching in a piece of new glass.
Sometimes, after the repair, the neon appears to never have been
broken at all. Sometimes, though, it is impossible to patch in
a piece of glass and make it look 'brand new', however, the
neon will still work. In some cases, it is more work to repair
a neon tube than to replace it entirely. Since most neon
glassbending fees are based on time, replacement would be the
better choice. Some neon glass cannot be repaired. On some
mass-produced neon signs, such as those that advertise beer,
there is a colored plastic coating on the outside of the neon tube.
You can test for this by carefully scratching the glass tube with
the edge of a knife. If the color chips, then it has this coating,
and the neon tube cannot be repaired. We are not referring to the black
or gray paint on the tube that is used to block light. What we are
referring to is usually red, blue, or gold paint on the front of the
tube. Here at Desert Neon LLC, we do not use the colored plastic
coating method on our neon, so that it is possible to repair any tube
we make. Some of the imported novelty neon glass cannot be repaired.
Also, because of the repair cost, it would not be worth it because in
a lot of cases a brand new imported piece would cost less than having
the old one repaired. An electrical failure most often means that the
power supply has ceased working. Most neon power supplies can't be fixed;
they must be replaced. Cost depends on the type of power supply you have,
but they are usually relatively easy to change. In rare cases, an
intact (unbroken) neon tube can fail, or 'go out'. For the layperson,
this can sometimes be hard to diagnose, especially if the failed neon
tube is one of several in a sign or art piece. Happily, though, in most
cases these tubes can be refilled for a
fraction of the cost of making a new tube.
We do hundreds of repairs here every year. If you have any questions, we would
be glad to help. If you have a broken or non-functioning neon sign, give us a call.
We don't charge to give you a repair quote, and assess the options available.
Everything is copyrighted Desert Neon LLC.