Getting to Know Neon

Tips and tricks for “aging in” to neon sign projects
Tips and tricks for “aging in” to neon sign projects

The last decade has seen a resurgence in many traditional sign types, such as neon and signs painted by hand, that have that classic and timeless look. Working with both LEDs and neon, I see the benefits of both. Neon can be brighter (in some cases) and more vibrant, whereas LEDs can be easier and cleaner to wire up and install, and requires less electrical work. Right Way Signs has used faux neon LED on a handful of projects and it has worked out nicely, but there have been hundreds of jobs over the last decade where using anything other than actual neon wasn’t an option, due to the size or complexity of the lettering and artwork, the colors needed, etc. So, whether or not you are venturing into neon for the first time or dusting off your old equipment, below is our advice for dealing with neon in a 21st century marketplace.

MAKE SURE IT FITS YOU AND THE CLIENT

Before you venture into the world of neon, first make sure that your shop can handle its highs and lows. I have spoken with many peers in the sign industry who still have neon shops within their work spaces, but the thousands of dollars in equipment is collecting dust. Neon benders – good neon benders, for that matter – can be extremely hard to find. Fortunately, here in Chicago, we have access to a few dozen neon companies and contractors.

Before you make any leap, make sure the demand is there. What I have found recently, especially with interior installations, is that clients will have strict requirements that can leave you wondering why they ordered neon in the first place. The work can be very satisfying and a great addition to your portfolio, but understanding and stomaching the challenges it presents, and dealing with the demands of the hypersensitive client looking for the “Instagram perfect” backdrop, are essential. Communicating what neon entails to your client is very important. Interior neon signs can end up looking messy because of all of the mounts, wires and connections. For exterior signs, the sign will experience maintenance issues, always seemingly at the worst possible times (like Friday at 7 p.m. for a popular restaurant). Developing a contract or statement of work – particularly for neon projects – is a must, and make customers initial the important points when it comes to maintenance, transformers, acts of God, etc. We get, “If hail hits my neon, is that covered under your warranty?” often, so make sure clients are well aware of what goes into neon sign ownership. 

BENDS AND ELECTRICAL WORK

Right Way Signs (Chicago) works with LEDs and neon.
Right Way Signs (Chicago) works with LEDs and neon.

We worked with a neon contractor years ago in the Chicago suburbs whose pricing was too good to be true. During installation, the glass tubes often broke in multiple areas or hairline fractures appeared that would cause other parts of the sign to dim and eventually fail. It’s not always about price with neon. Whether it’s someone working in your shop or a subcontractor, you will get to know the quality of their work and their bends over time. Focusing on quality and craft will set you apart from the rest. Neon professionals will be able to point out a weak bend within seconds of examining a sign. (Hint: If you can lightly flick an area and crack it, the bend is weak.) 

A neon “OPEN” sign is a straightforward project with an electronic transformer mounted to the back of the acrylic that you hang and plug in. However, projects that require a clean installation also necessitate a licensed electrician to ensure proper power is in place. And just as important is how the power is run to the location of the sign. 

We recently did a handful of interior neon signs for a client in Chicago who required us to coordinate the electrical needs with the general contractor beforehand. It wasn’t until toward the end of construction that we noticed one of the final signs did not have the electric in place, and having any type of electrical feeds on the outside of the wall was not an option. Luckily, there was a crawl space for storage that gave us access behind the wall. With some patience and teamwork, we were able to fish the wire safely behind the wall and make final connection to the transformer.

We love neon signs, but they require the utmost care and maintenance to love you back.

Alex Perry is the CEO of Right Way Signs (Chicago).

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