Neon Class at the Museum of Neon Art, Los Angeles
I took the Neon Immersive class at MONA (Museum of Neon Art). I’m hooked! Neon bending is a fascinating connection between art and science. The class was seven hours on a Saturday and, by the end, I was exhausted but elated. I left with my own creation–a snake shaped tube filled with Argon and wired to glow.
Neon Signs for Mid Century Fans
I love mid century topics and neon signs are a big part of that genre. However, it was the tour I took at The Neon Museum in Las Vegas that piqued my interest (Retro Road Trip to Las Vegas). I was intrigued to realize that each sign had a history and story behind it. I researched other neon museums and discovered the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, in Glendale.
The Museum of Neon Art (MONA) offers three different classes. The Neon Immersive is the introduction, and one day. If you get hooked too, the MONA offers an eight week Intro to Neon Art and an eight week Bend Blow & Glow.
Neon Immersive Class
The class size was perfect, with six students and three instructors. The students included fellow science nerds, an artist, and a woman who received the class as a birthday present. Everyone was friendly and supportive. The lead teacher, David Svenson, had a long career in art and told great stories.
After a safety speech we got right to work. We had shorter glass tubes to practice with so we could get a feel for the bending. In groups of three students per instructor, with a floating assistant, students went one at a time with supervision and direction.
Bending the glass tube is a tactile experience that you have to feel to understand. You hold the tube over a flame and turn it, like a rotisserie, in your hands. The glass first glows red hot and then there is a magic moment when it is between solid and liquid. Words can’t capture how strangely satisfying this moment feels. Thrilling!
After a few seconds at this state, you pull the tube off the fire and slowly bend it into your desired shape. A cork is in one end of the tube, and you have a valve with a hose to blow into on the other end. The blowing required finesse and experience. The goal is to bend the glass but not kink it or blow a bubble into it.
After two practice tubes, we received a longer tube to create our final project. We all had ideas of what we wanted to do, but the glass had a mind of its own as well. I found that I did better when I had a general goal and then just felt with my body instead of trying to control the bend. Doing this craft brought home the incredible talent possessed by neon sign makers.
“…every neon sign ever made, as a unique hand-crafted expression, is on some level a work of art.”Neon: A Light History
After a lunch break, we observed as the teachers put the electrodes into the ends of our neon sculptures. Students chose what kind of gas they wanted in their tube: Neon, argon, or argon and mercury. The gas type determines the final color.
Then we watched the instructors create a vacuum inside the tubes and fill them with the desired gas. Explaining the science, the instructors taught us how to attach the transformers to our tube sculptures so that we could light them at home.
How do you Make a Neon Sign?
Bend the Tube Using a Pattern
To create a neon sign, the sign designer draws a pattern at full-scale. The pattern shows the back of the sign so the letters appear reversed. On the blueprint, electrode locations are labeled. Sign makers apply blackout paint to areas of tubing that should not glow. Blackout areas are shown on the pattern as well.
A screen is laid over the blueprint to protect it from burning. The tube bender works with 4-5 foot long tubes. He starts at one end of the tube and heats a section. While still pliable, he bends the hot tube to fit the pattern. A block is used to press the tube flat and level.
After the tube has cooled enough to handle, he brings it back to the fire to complete the next bend. One letter takes several bends to create. If the bender makes a mistake, he can’t fix it. Once the glass has heated, it can’t be reheated because its molecular structure has changed. Attempting to refire a bent portion can cause the glass to break.
“Each neon sign is made of continuous lengths of tubing…like a pen never lifted from the paper. In neon, this means that the tubing regularly crosses over itself, and doubles back on itself–what seems a simple letter may be quite complicated to bend. What we read in two dimensions must be rendered by the bender in all three.”Neon: A Light History
The letters might be made in block letter style with blackout paint between them, or in a connected script. Multiple tubes can be used to create one color of the sign, but then they must be joined together. The bender uses a hand-held flame tool and creates a small directed fire to “weld” the glass tubes together.
Filling the Tubes with a Noble Gas
Electrodes are welded to the tube endings using the hand-held flame tool. The tube is then taken to a high-vacuum manifold to remove the air. The tube is “bombarded” with high current and voltage to remove impurities.
Once cooled, the desired noble gas is pumped into the tube. If you remember from chemistry class, noble gases are on the left column of the periodic table. They are stable, unreactive gases. Each noble gas glows with a different color when an electrical current is passed through it.
Although called by the term “neon,” not all tubes are filled with that gas. Neon glows bright orange-red. It is too bright for interior use, but it is highly visible from a distance and was first used on roadway signs.
Argon alone glows a dim pale-lavender. A tiny amount of mercury is often added to the argon. The mercury then glows a bright, pale blue. The argon-mercury combination is most common and allows the broadest range of colors when used with phosphor-coated glass.
“Phosphors are natural minerals (in this case ground to fine powders) that glow or luminesce when exposed to radiation (in this case they phosphoresce in reaction to the ultraviolet light emitted by mercury vapor in an electrified tube.)”Neon: A Light History
The use of phosphor coatings allowed for a broad range of colors. This technology was first used in the mid-1930s and it fueled the expansion of neon signs.
Why do the Signs Glow?
Neon signs are made of glass tubes through which electricity travels in a closed circuit. An electrical current travels from one electrode to the other. The electrical current excites the gas molecules and causes them to emit light.
Neon signs run on “street current” (in the U.S., 110-120 volt household power). A transformer on the sign boosts the voltage to the higher voltage (typically 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 volts) required to excite the gas inside the tubes. The transformers are hidden inside the sign.
“…inside the tube, the gas does not ‘burn.’ Instead, the electric current that passes between the electrodes on either end of the tube causes the electrons in the gas molecules to ionize–to be excited–and to the human eye, emit light.”Neon: A Light History
In the argon filled tubes you can see the waves of light traveling in the tube, it is like a subtle strobe light. Neon artist Leticia Maria used this effect in her artwork.
Mounting the Neon Tubes onto Signs
Neon tubes are mounted on metal cabinets called “cans” or “raceways.” If the cabinets are made with galvanized or porcelainized steel they resist rust. In the 1920s-1950s, neon signs were made on porcelain-enameled faces. This involved baking glass onto a metal and making a thickly coated, almost completely unfading sign that was durable for outdoor use.
In many neon signs, images blink on and off to create the illusion of movement. For example, a mouse runs up this sign, and the arm moves up and down. This is done with an “animator” or “flasher.” It connects different circuits and pulses electricity selectively through them. When the switch is on, that part of the sign glows, when the switch is off, it goes dark. The sound of the switches going on and off creates a clicking sound.
Neon Sign History in the U.S.
The heyday of neon signs and design and innovation was in the 1930s. During the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt included the “Modernization Credit Plan” in his New Deal. This provided credit for businesses to update and modernize. In addition, many rural communities received electricity under the New Deal. These innovations let neon sides leave the big cities and spread into the countryside.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933. The end of Prohibition opened up a huge market for neon signs advertising bars, cold beer, and liquor stores.
As the automobile became more of a fixture in American life, the demand for the signs grew. Road trips and commuters could read the neon signs from a distance and while speeding on the interstate. After WWII, many men went to neon trade school on their GI bills. Since neon signs are difficult to transport, local neon shops sprang up all around the country.
The Evolution of Neon Sign Design
Neon signs first appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. Neon tubes were frequently used with incandescent light bulbs. In the beginning, aesthetic traditions confined the letters to a box or rectangle.
However, Art Deco design, which embraced technology and the future, made neon signs part of the building design.
“Neon compelled a new understanding of what signs could do: the sign was no longer an afterthought hanging off the front of a building and blocking the view of the building’s features, but instead a formative part of conceptualization forward.”Neon: A Light History
Tower Theater of Los Angeles
A prime example of this is the Tower Theater, in downtown L.A. The theater was recently repurposed by Apple. In 1927, architect S. Charles Lee and local neon shop Neale Inc. developed a multi-story vertical sign stating TOWER in red neon. The double-sided sign was in French Renaissance style, like the building, and integrated into the building’s facade.
Earl Carroll Theatre of Los Angeles
Another example was the Earl Carroll Theatre. The building was designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann and painted in four shades of green. The building was designed around the theme of “light.” Neon was the ornamentation of the slab-modernist structure.
“…a 20-foot-tall ‘flesh colored’ neon portrait of star performer Beryl Wallace’s face, ringed by the Theatre’s ‘mission statement’ (in polished aluminum backlit by blue neon), THRU THESE PORTALS PASS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS IN THE WORLD…the artwork…was…integral to its architecture: the neon was mounted straight into the facade; the building was light.”Neon: A Light History
Inside the theatre was a gold statue of a naked woman. A 50 foot-long white neon tube dropped from the ceiling. She held the tube in her outstretched arms before it wrapped around her, down to her feet. Inside the theater, white neon tubing rose to the ceiling and 1200 tubes created a curving curtain along the theater ceiling.
The Earl Carroll Theatre neon, inside and out, is planned for restoration/reproduction but it hasn’t been carried out yet. Neon artist Lili Lakich created an interpretation of the Beryl Wallace neon portrait. The interpretation is visible at City Walk at Universal Studios.
Googie Architecture and Signs
Googie design became popular after WWII. Neon signs left their boxes and were created in fantastic shapes. Many drew inspiration from the Space Race and atomic-age. Pointing arrows, fanciful amoeboids, animals and boomerangs lit the night. Signs began to be mounted on poles and were free of the building to rise higher into the night sky.
Branding Creates Neon Signs for Chains
The original McDonald’s, designed by the McDonald brothers founders, had yellow neon arches on either side of their red and white tiled buildings. The arches were visible through the darkness to automobile traffic and played a huge role in branding their fast-food franchise.
Holiday Inn also created an iconic green sign with a wrap around yellow arrow. They used this in their branding until the 1980s. Visible from the roadway, the sign promised a consistent and predictable lodging experience to weary travelers.
The (Almost) Death of Neon
Las Vegas and Neon’s Demise
Although many of us think of Las Vegas as the pinnacle of neon use, it actually was the grim reaper for neon. Since the Hoover dam provided cheap electricity, and Las Vegas needed to entice customers with advertising, neon signs tried to outcompete each other.
Neon’s reputation became associated with Las Vegas morals–gambling, drinking and sex. Cultural references to “seedy neon” in films and novels added to its downfall.
“For Las Vegas, this reputation equaled profitability. For neon signs, it portended doom…Neon was shifting to suggest decline, depravity, and–if this is possible for light–darkness.”Neon: A Light History
Highway Beautification Projects
In addition, in those days there were few zoning ordinances for signage. Signs and billboards cluttered the highways and main streets. In the 1960s, rural roadside landscapes became “billboard-lined tunnels.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed, and Congress approved the Highway Beautification Act. This led to the removal of billboards. The Scrap Old Signs campaign removed defunct businesses signs and nonfunctioning neon signs. Zoning ordinances were passed banning neon signs.
“By the mid-1970s, many thousands of historic neon signs had been destroyed, while at the same time many places across the country new ones could no longer be erected…The neon landscape was going dark.”Neon: A Light History
Neon sign makers were forced out of business and the craft was no longer handed down through generations. Plastic signs with modular fluorescent tubing were less expensive to construct and maintain.
“Skilled benders and neon craftspeople, often at work since the post-War era, retired or passed away. Sign shops closed their neon plants, or closed altogether. Components manufacturers, facing decreasing orders, ceased production.”Neon: A Light History
The near fatal blow to neon was General Electric’s new lighting technology–LEDs (light-emitting diodes.) LED lights could create a similar look to neon, and were cheaper to put up initially. Although LED lights promised better electricity efficiency than neon signs, this doesn’t paint a true picture. LED lights burn out and need to be frequently replaced. Neon signs are made from glass. They don’t burn out and can be repaired if they break or wear out. Neon signs can last 90 years, and counting!
Why Preserve Neon Signs?
Although neon signs are found throughout the world, they embody American culture. Neon signs are roadside “vernacular architecture.” The signs were designed and hand-made by skilled crafts people, not professional artists. They capture domestic and functional design.
“Neon signs are part of our history and landscape…as the automobile transformed cities…neon signs captured viewers with vibrancy and creative expression. Once they were heralded as part of our bright future. Then they were derided as the worst of our troubled present. Now…appreciated as historic…they will light the way as we together make our future.”Neon: A Light History
Join MONA, take a class and visit their neon museum. Be on the lookout for historic neon signs and advocate with preservation groups to protect them.