From Empty Glass Tubes To Extreme High Voltage, Here's How a Neon Sign Is Made

Follow the process from start to finish as Seattle's Western Neon works to keep the art form alive one bright sign at a time.

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Photo By: Rachael Jones

Weird Science

It’s a little bit like Frankenstein — an idea dreamed up by a chemist who succeeded in electrifying a brand new creation. That’s neon. In essence, it's a weird science that involves trapping a noble gas inside an artfully shaped glass tube and then bringing it to life with high voltage. For decades, businesses all around the globe have relied upon the fiery glow of a handcrafted neon sign to attract prospective patrons. Here’s how the in-house artists, designers, glass benders and metal fabricators of Seattle's Western Neon work to keep the nostalgic art form alive.

Learn More: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

Bright Lights, Big City

Known for its gloomy, gray days and misty rain, Seattle is the perfect city by design for neon signage. Originally founded as a neon art gallery in 1985, custom sign shop Western Neon has been transforming the city's skyline for decades, from the warm glow of a hotel vacancy sign to a complex, mixed media storefront beacon that combines modern tech with retro mechanics.

The Study of Light

That’s not all. In an effort to power the next wave of neon artists, the iconic shop opened an educational non-profit, Western Neon School of Art, in 2017. Attendees explore the use of light, space and interactive technologies, along with the art of glass bending inside the shop’s working classroom.

Electric Light Orchestrator

Long before glass tubes are bent, the foundation is set with a solid design concept. Surrounded by a collection of low-buzzing neon signs, Marc Lawrence, Western Neon's senior designer says, “The sign process starts here. We meet with clients, look at logo samples, talk ideation and create messaging — from non-lit signs to public artwork, we really do it all.” A Seattle food scene staple, Pie Bar, is a new project for the local shop, and Marc's design sheet playbook will kick off activities for the rest of the Western Neon team. This storefront display will be made using acrylic and vinyl push-out lettering, bubblegum pink neon tubes, LED lights and metal fabrication.

Neon Design Shop

Neon samples glow beside the designer's table in the basement of the Seattle shop, where clients can get a firsthand feel for what their brand colors will look like once electrified. "During the production phase, clients can pick and choose specific colors of neon from our color board," Marc says. "But often, based on the client’s branding and logo, it comes down to the Western Neon team to select the perfect colors to match."

Paper and Pen

Pie Bar wanted to incorporate a retro look into their modern sign design with a bubblegum pink neon tube. Cue the plotter: A digital image of a circle is sent electronically to a massive printer inside the graphics department. With the push of a button, the machine begins to draw a mirrored template with a marker. This precise, measured template is the roadmap glass benders will use as a guide for glass tube creation.

All Tubes Aren't Equal

But before the glass bender can fire up the burners, the client's color scheme will dictate which kinds of glass tubes are needed for the best end results. For a bubblegum pink hue, a phosphor-coated glass tube will be filled with argon gas and mixed with a bead of mercury. That's right, it's not neon at all. Clear, lead glass tubes filled with neon can only produce a reddish-orange color when electrified. All other colors are generated by argon gas, even shades of white.

Learn More: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Neon Signs

Measure Twice, Burn Once

Western Neon's lead glass bender, Will Kirtley, has been handcrafting neon signs for decades. "There's a lot of art in glass bending," Will says, as he marks a spot along the tube. "And we really lean on the designers to create the concept — even though this template is rendered on a computer, it's already a piece of art." The plotter pattern is used much like tracing paper in a coloring book, and tubes are shaped against it.

High-Temp Tools of the Trade

Just a side-step away, Will carefully places an empty glass tube over an open flame. "This is called a ribbon burner, and it's used to make large curves," Will explains. "Tighter bends are made on a crossfire burner, and we use hand touches for glass welding and sealing.” Will gauges the temperature of the quickly heating tube with his bare hands. That's because glass bending is partly science and partly tactile — honed through years of practice.

Working With Lava

The glass tube is heated to between 1,200 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit on a ribbon burner, which is about the same temperature found in the lava erupted from Mount St. Helens. Will closely watches the tube looking for signs of malleability, then slowly raises one end of the softening glass to create the first bend in the Pie Bar circle.

Full Circle

Lifted away from the flame, the rapidly cooling glass tube is then quickly placed onto a brass screen — to keep the paper from catching fire — and is carefully bent to fit the template beneath. While not needed for Pie Bar's circular tube design, very often, "neon" sign creation requires a bit of glassblowing that involves a flexible blow hose and perfectly timed puffs of air to keep the tube from collapsing during an intricate bend.

The Power of Connection

Once the Pie Bar circle is complete, the next steps become a little more scientific. "I'm using a hand torch to weld an electrode to each end of the finished tube," Will explains. These electrodes, made with lead glass, a metal casing and two wires, are what connect the glass tubes to a transformer for power. But first, everything needs an extreme cleaning.

Just Like Making Jelly

Welcome to the bombarding manifold. By the book, bombarding is the term for processing bent glass tubes before they are filled with gas. "I compare it with making jelly or jam," Will says, smiling. "You have to sterilize jars before canning vegetables or jams. If you fail to do that, it molds because you’ve left dirt and moisture inside. Neon tubes are exactly the same way." The process requires exact science and extremely high voltage to sterilize all the inner components. "How sterile the inside is determines how good it’s going to look in three, five or 30 years," Will adds.

Apprentice on Duty

Manning Western Neon's bombarding manifold is Will's apprentice and glass artist, Sean Mattison. As he carefully and quietly works, Will adds, "Sean is fusing the Pie Bar glass tube with a hand torch to the bombarding station to create an air-tight vacuum seal." As the glass is heated, Sean will send a puff of air through the connected blow hose to keep the small glass tube from collapsing.

A Dash of Mercury

Look closely and notice a little glass bubble connected to the tube. That's a mercury trap, and it's filled with a tiny bead of mercury and hand-welded to the electrode on the main glass tube. Once electrified, and combined with argon gas, the mercury will heat up, vaporize and distribute through the tube, producing a bubblegum pink color.

Moment of Truth

Sean stands casually beside the glowing tube, arms resting behind his back with one foot on the operating pedal below. "This stance looks somewhat arrogant, but it's actually due to safety," Sean says. To properly sterilize bent tubes, the high voltage transformer connected to the bombarding station puts off between 15,000 VAC and 23,000 VAC — that's more than a utility power pole. As the high voltage vacuum sterilizes the tube, an electrical charge is also produced, causing a bright glow.

Step on the Gas

With a sterile tube, it's time for a noble gas. Here, Sean turns a valve connected to a small canister of argon gas beneath the manifold and slowly fills the circular glass tube with gas. The amount of gas needed is determined by the diameter of the glass tube.

Ring of Fire

During final inspection, a temperature-resistant mica sheet is tucked between glass bends to prevent unwanted electrical arcs from the high voltage that is once again applied to the Pie Bar tube. "We'll age [the glass] in," Will says. "We run them for a while, make sure we like the colors, and how it's looking overall. Then, we do a final tip off and remove the mercury trap with a hand torch." In total, it only takes a few hours to turn an empty glass tube into a bent, gas-filled neon sign.

Perfect Pi Shapes

Simultaneously, as the glass tubes are being shaped, cooled and electrified, the Pie Bar design schematics are also sent to the router. For this project, the restaurant's logo requires a crisp edge to allow hidden details like the 3.14 (π) symbol to stand out. An acrylic, push-out letter logo will be cut and shaped, along with several aluminum pieces that will be assembled into a metal cabinet for the illuminated display.

Assembling the Ingredients

Donning a helmet and safety gloves, Garth LaSota, one of Western Neon's metal fabrication artists, works to weld together the router-cut aluminum pieces of the Pie Bar sign. Like many modern neon signs, the center is left hollow so that wiring can be tucked away inside.

A Circle in a Square

A perfectly assembled Pie Bar sign sits sideways on the welder's station, ready for the next phase. The two small holes at the bottom of the sign allow the electrodes from the neon glass tube to fit securely and connect to an internal transformer. But an even bigger test of accuracy and fit comes with the acrylic push-out lettering.

Grooves on Vinyl

The buzzing router cut a perfect 2-inch-thick Pie Bar logo from acrylic, but the logo needs a little bit of flair. Graphics and vinyl artist Alonso Lopez-Meza uses a sharp craft knife to carefully trim around the edges of the bubblegum pink vinyl stickers placed onto the push-out letters. Once illuminated with LEDs, the clear acrylic material will allow the pink vinyl lettering to shine brightly at night.

Coat of Many Colors

Sealed away in the center of the shop, painter Brenton Gregg works his magic with a sprayer in the paint booth. The Pie Bar aluminum shell will receive a coat of black paint, dry for a day and be sent on for electrical assembly.

A Combination of Crafts

After a week-long effort from all involved teams, handcrafted elements and exact digital creations are now combined at this stage. The assembly and electrical station is the last stop before a brick and mortar install, where acrylic meets metal, neon and LEDs are installed and a transformer connection is added — all completed by one very skilled person.

Sign, Sealed, Delivered

Western Neon's Beaudry Allen could be considered the master of puzzles. All finished parts and pieces are placed on his workstation awaiting a Lego-like build. “I work from the inside out,” he explains. “I drill all my holes, then add on all the pretty pieces. I start with the push-out acrylic letters, add LEDs, wire it up and then add the neon."

A Little Old With the New

Beaudry slides an LED tray inside the cabinet of the sign, also demonstrating a real-life height measurement of the storefront display. “It’s really fun to work on a sign that’s both LED and neon," Beaudry says. "It’s part traditional sign industry with a neon medium, and a new, more common element with LED."

A One-Shot Install

Kneeling on his workstation, Beaudry remarks, "This part always makes me a little nervous." Two circular-shaped glass tubes are carefully added by hand to the sign, both with electrodes pushed inside the cabinet's bottom holes. Then, Beaudry installs a transformer to power the neon.

Copper Wires Tell No Lies

Just before the big lighting test, Beaudry secures the glass tubes on each side of the sign with hand-tied copper wiring. Fun fact: The next time you pass a neon sign, note how the tubing is installed. If copper wires are used to secure the tubes, and you can see the electrodes, then it's a bonafide neon — or argon — sign.

The Color of Teamwork

Just moments before, this sign was in pieces. Now, it's powered by an outlet, emitting bright pink hues, is warm to the touch and complete with a low-buzzing hum. The demonstration is a sign of success for the Western Neon team, from design concept to client-ready. “When it lights up, I feel like I get the most satisfying part of the whole process," Beaudry says happily. "It all just comes together — and we all rock.”

Easy as Pie

Western Neon's custom, handmade sign for Pie Bar can be spotted from several blocks away at the local fave's newest Phinney Ridge location in Seattle, Washington.

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