Saturday, January 14, 2012

signs: OHA + Neon Works

Neon Works warehouse

Ilove Oakland, I love history, and I love interesting signs, so I was in heaven Thursday night. The Oakland Heritage Alliance held an event about neon signs at Neon Works in the Gaskill. OHA board member Michael Crowe gave a lecture on the technology and history of neon signs and showed photos of various great neon signs around the U.S. But for me the real treats were seeing master sign-maker Jim Rizzo's amazing collection of vintage signs, and then watching Jim bend some glass and prepare the tube for installing on a sign. As Michael said, neon isn't rocket science—the physics of it are well understood. But creating a beautiful neon sign is definitely an art, and one that requires a lot of patience and skill.

The first practical neon lights were created by Frenchman Georges Claude and demonstrated in 1910. His company, Claude Neon, became so well known people thought that was his name. Neon signs became extremely popular in the U.S. from the 20s to the 60s. The first neon signs in the U.S. were created and sold to two Packard dealerships in 1923, and literally stopped traffic in LA with people stopping to stare at them. The first neon lights were made with neon gas in clear tubes, which has a distinctive orange-red color. But other inert gasses like argon (along with a drop of mercury) can be used, and combined with different phosphor coatings to produce a variety of colors.

Once a sign has been designed, making the lights for it requires several steps. First is figuring out the two- and three-dimensional layout. Then the difficult task of heating and bending 4' glass tubes to match the pieces of the layout. The glass is heated to about 1500°F to allow it to bend, but air needs to be blown into the tube while working to keep it from collapsing. The workshop has different types of gas flames with different shapes, depending on what sort of bend is needed. Becoming a glass bender requires a lot of practice and a lot of patience.

Once the tubes have been bent to the necessary shapes, they may be joined into longer lengths up to 16'; different sections can have different phosphor coatings, so a single tube can have different colors. An electrode is inserted into one end which is sealed, then a vacuum pump removes as much air as possible from the tube. Other impurities are burned off using high voltage. The tube is filled with the desired gas, another electrode inserted, and the end sealed. If all has gone correctly, it's now a functional neon light, waiting to be mounted on a sign.

While Neon Works mostly creates new signs, they also restore old ones. The G&G Hardware sign on Telegraph above Pizzaiolo was recently restored by them, as was the Kwik Way sign for its reopening. One of their best-known creations was the Yahoo! sign near I-80 in San Francisco, which was recently taken down. The pieces now sit behind Jim's warehouse.

We also heard that the Clancy's Cantina sign will be coming down. Either Jim will get the sign, or it will go to the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA. That's how Jim has gotten the majority of his vintage signs. Someone sells or redesigns a building, and they don't want the old sign anymore. I heard that Jim has offered to repair the Children's Hospital sign, but the city has turned down his offer.

Neon signs aren't as popular as they once were, but there are still lots around, and Neon Works installs new ones on a regular basis. Although more expensive than plastic signs, neon signs can last for decades, and many people (myself included) find them more attractive and interesting than modern plastic signs.

more pictures:


more reading and links:

7 comments:

Oakland Daily Photo said...

Drat, I wish I had known about this. I just need to become a member of the OHA to stay in the loop. I see the event was sold out. Thanks for documenting it for those of us who were snoozing and missed this cool event.

Gene said...

I'd have posted it on upcoming Oakland events, but it sold out quickly.

La Principessa Errante said...

Fascinating

zrgmom said...

Do join OHA! We are talking about a repeat of this popular event, perhaps next autumn. Members hear about these things first.

Eric said...

Great post! Any word on why the city turned down the offer to restore the Children's Hospital sign?

Gene said...

@Eric - I think it had to do with either the electrical hookup or the electricity usage.

Neon And More said...

Good work man thanks for this great info :)