Neon Glows On

A trio of sign installations shows that classic lighting still has the power to mesmerize passersby.
Ion Art (Austin, TX) completed this freestanding neon sign for Southwest Theaters.

Although last month’s State of the Industry survey showed that neon is the illumination source of choice for only 9% of electric signs, many remaining neon shops now enjoy all the work they can handle. While LED lighting’s dominance is undeniable – the technology is now available in forms that very closely mimic neon and is the source of choice of 85% of illuminated signs – it’s also stubbornly clear that neon is more than just hanging on. It’s become a specialty item that remains in demand, albeit at a lower level than it used to be. And whether a neon sign is intended to reflect the classic appeal of a movie theater marquee, a shop’s creativity or a retro look for a renovated office building, neon signs continue to dazzle and delight.


What needs to be more attention-grabbing these days than a theater marquee? In this era of streaming video and other high-tech viewing alternatives, such businesses need signs with a “wow factor” to help bring patrons through the turnstiles. 

For Southwest Theaters’ multiplex in Austin, TX, local company Ion Art was commissioned to create a freestanding sign that would serve as a beacon to the site. That sign, in turn, is an embellished, 3-D version of a stylized wall sign Ion Art had previously created for the client. 

“Getting this commission was something of a no-brainer, as we had already done the wall signs for Southwest,” said Ion Art designer Jason Ice. “Like those placards, we wanted the freestanding one to have a retro-inspired feel, which made neon the natural choice for it.”

The sign’s neon elements include its lettering and star “crown,” along with straight vertical tube lines adorning each of its two support pylons, and horizontal ones encircling the globes atop each post. The latter two pieces were the major additions to the 2-D version of the sign.

To design and fabricate the sign, Ion Art used CorelDRAW, SAi Flexi and ArtCAM software. They fired up their AXYZ CNC router and 2000W CNC fiber laser to shape ⅛-in. aluminum (for the face and backer of cabinet), ¼-in. aluminum (support plates), .063-in. aluminum (returns of cabinet and reverse channel letters), .090-in. aluminum (faces of reverse channel letters) and .155-in. Lexan (backers of reverse channel letters). The sign also features 18-in. Lexan globes. Ion Art put its Matthews paint-matching system and spray booth to work, as well as its Graphtec vinyl plotter for the paint masks. The lighting comprises clear gold and red neon, 6500K Neon Everylite Red and 6500K LED modules for halo lighting. The company installed the freestanding marquee using a 65-ft. Elliott crane truck.

Ice added that one potential headache related to the project was the sign’s placement atop an existing set of pylons. “I was worried that configuration could lead to hiccups in the fabrication or installation process,” he said, but happily, such worries were avoided.


Creative Color (Minneapolis) fashioned this striking sign with open-faced neon channel letters for itself.
Creative Color (Minneapolis) fashioned this striking sign with open-faced neon channel letters for itself.

You may have heard the saying, “The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” A similar principle applied to Creative Color’s (Minneapolis) efforts to fashion a new lobby sign for itself. “When we first moved into our new building in February 2017, we never thought it would take the better part of two years to create this sign, but we kept putting off working on it to do our clients’ projects first,” said Brent Luther, the company’s owner/creative director.

But that’s only one reason this creation had such a long gestation period. Another major factor was the company’s desire that the sign be a real statement-maker. “We wanted this piece to act as inspiration for any current or prospective clients touring our facilities,” Luther said. To that end, the company created a sign that includes a variety of media to create visual interest. “Wood, metal, neon, lead, rust – this sign has it all,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges the company faced in designing the sign was securing the right look for the metal backing the neon letters. “We went through a bunch of designs using Adobe Creative Suite before we settled on this style,” Luther explained. “The channel letters on the wall felt too blank, so bringing in the patina metal, wood and bolt hardware (and even illuminating the smaller slats) really brought in a depth to the sign and filled up the space neatly.”

Fabricating the sign involved open-faced neon channel letters with 3-in. (.040) aluminum returns and .063-in. aluminum back panels. Illuminated with custom neon (electric blue, magenta) by way of 120 V AC NeonPro transformers, the shop sign also features backer slats, 1- to 3-in.-deep pine slats, ¼-in. white acrylic, .063-in. aluminum custom patina-painted faces and copper-bolt hardware. Additional illumination is provided by Principal LED Qwik Mod 2 120 V modules and 277 V remote LED power supplies. After all the components were assembled, the sign was installed using drills and wall anchors.

Why actual neon (and not its high-tech rival, LED neon) for this project? Two main reasons: “First and foremost, neon has a classic, timeless look – no other product can replicate it,” Luther said. “Beyond that, the variety of colors available with simulated LED is very limited, and with this sign, we wanted a full range of colors as possible to draw from. We have used LED neon, but only for signs whose designs are pretty simple.” The payoff has pleased the company. “It’s proven to be a great calling card for what we can do,” Luther said.


A-Plus Signs (Fresno, CA) fabricated two outdoor neon signs for Bitwise 41.
A-Plus Signs (Fresno, CA) fabricated two outdoor neon signs for Bitwise 41.

In many ways, the two-story, 46,000-sq.-ft. building housing tech incubator Bitwise is a microcosm for the evolution of California’s economy. First opened in 1925, the downtown Fresno, CA structure has been reborn as Bitwise 41 (the number in its name refers to a major freeway that runs adjacent to the building).

“Bitwise likes to call itself ‘the mothership of technological education, collaboration and innovation,’” said Jeff Ashlock, owner of A-Plus Signs in Fresno. “They have bought several old buildings in downtown Fresno, renovated them, and filled them with tech startup and other entrepreneurial and training companies. This is our third major project with them, and there are a couple more on the horizon.”

A-Plus formulated the neon-centric look for Bitwise 41’s two major outdoor signs after receiving a few logo concept designs from the client. “The one they favored most looked somewhat like an exclamation mark, so we continued with that concept, since it seemed appropriate for this project.” In keeping with the Bitwise model of blending the old with the new, A-Plus designed the signs with current aluminum fabrication methods, LED lighting for the internal and halo illumination, and exposed neon for the two double-sided marquee signs. “We felt this was the best fit for a 1920s-era building,” Ashlock said.

The A-Plus team considered using simulated neon LED for the signs’ exposed letters and borders, but in the end, “We decided that the traditional exposed tube was a more natural fit for these signs,” he said.

Creating, manufacturing and installing the two, double-sided marquee blade signs with exposed neon, open-face neon channel letters, and internal LED illumination involved using SAi’s Flexi software to guide the shop’s MultiCam CNC router. They used a MIG welder and Accu-Bend sheet- metal fabricator on aluminum tubing, ⅛-in. aluminum skin, a steel frame and supports. All were coated with Matthews acrylic polyurethane paint. White exposed neon tubes powered by France transformers and white Principal LED modules on 12 V power supplies light the signs. A-Plus used a Skyhoist SX70 crane and two Wilkie 52XLR trucks for installation. 

In conjunction with the Bitwise’s modernization of the building, the new signs have garnered positive feedback about their “fresh/retro” look, according to Ashlock. “The signs offer a big boost in the first impression people get as they enter downtown Fresno,” he said.

With signs like these, we can count on neon remaining the choice for those special customers who can’t resist its look and feel.