In 1898 Sir William Ramsay discovered the gas neon. Georges Claude began to make electric neon signs in the early 1900’s by putting neon and other gases in glass tubes. The popularity of neon signs grew through the first part of the 20th century. By the 1950’s, commercial districts of cities like San Francisco and Oakland blazed with neon. According to the podcast 99% Invisible’s “Tube Benders” episode on the lost art, “Neon became the symbol of life in the big city.” In recent decades, neon signs have become less common and more of a symbol of retro design. Examples of original neon signs exist in many places around the Bay Area, including the Oakland Tribune building and San Francisco’s Castro Theater. I sat down with Amy Palms, who makes signs for Neon Works in Oakland, to find out more.
Stella Danielson: What are some signs you’ve made that people might recognize?
Amy Palms: I’ve done some stuff for the Fox Theater, some repairs for the Fox Theater. Inside the Fox Theater there’s this neon sign that says The Den, with an arrow. I made all that neon.
I did the Castro Theater, a lot of the Castro Theater neon. We just did this theater restoration in San Francisco called The Avenue Theater. I did all the letters for that one.
I did some clocks. There’s some clocks in the downtown Oakland area that there’s some neon inside. Their like, from the thirties, or something. I’ve done a lot of stuff around Oakland and San Francisco.
SD: How is a neon sign made?
AP: First you get these glass tubes [that] come in different diameters… The tubes are about 4 feet long. They come with different phosphor coating inside. What I do is I take the color I want, like say it’s turquoise. It’s going to look like a tube with white powder inside, but really when you put the gas inside it looks turquoise… You print out the pattern that you want of what it’s going to look like... If I was going to write “Stella,” I would print it out in reverse. Then I would heat [the tube] up over flames and bend it. If I was making the “S” it would look backwards to me, but then when I pick it up and show you, it looks forwards. So I would bend that whole word in turquoise, put an electrode on either end, then bring it over to something called the vacuum pump. You vacuum out all the air, you heat it up to a really high temperature, 250 Celsius, get all the impurities inside the glass out, let it cool, and you add either neon or argon gas. For turquoise it would be argon gas plus a little bit of mercury. And then you have a sign that says Stella!
SD: How did you become a Neon Bender?
AP: Well, once I graduated from college and I started working for a sign company I did some apprenticing at a sign company called Huron Sign Company in Michigan. I was hired to do what they called pumping the neon, which is the process of putting the gas into the neon sign. There was this guy who bent it, who did the glass bending, and I was the person who put the gas inside. There was another set of fires there that I could practice on, and so I started just kind of watching what he was doing, and practicing and practicing on my own until I learned how to make letters good enough. I remember the first thing I made was put up in a window that said “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” for a restaurant, and I substituted my lunch for the guy’s, the guy that made the actual “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” I put my “lunch” in there instead of his “lunch.” It wasn’t as good as his but I was really proud and actually kind of being sneaky, putting mine in there, because I wanted to be like, I made that! That “lunch” in the window, I made that!
SD: What are the challenges of working with neon?
AP: You could get burned, you could get cut, you could get electrocuted, you can get electric shocks. I’ve never been electrocuted, because then I’d be dead, but I’ve gotten electric shocks. I’ve been cut and burned multiple times. The other dangerous aspect is that you have to put mercury in tubes that have argon in them, unless you decide you don’t want them to be bright. Mercury makes signs with argon in them bright.
SD: What do you like about it?
AP: I like that it’s all made by hand. There’s no machines that can make a neon sign. Even multiple beer signs, even though they’re made in China and shipped over, they’re made by people.
I like that I can make something and see it anywhere in the city, Oakland or San Francisco, or Berkeley, or San Leandro, and Michigan still, because I lived there for a while. I like making art with it. I like either hiding it or having it as the main focus. I feel like it’s got that “wow factor.”
SD: You’ve mentioned in the past that neon has become less common. How has sign technology changed in recent decades?
AP: Well, the way you make neon has been pretty much the same since they invented it, with a few minor improvements in technology, but it’s pretty much the same process. But the thing that is starting to take over a little bit is LEDs because they don’t cost as much, they don’t break as easily, I assume they're probably better for the environment because of the mercury. But lately, neon has had this retro resurgence, where people are liking the look and feel of it and the nostalgic aspect of it. So I’m hoping that it’ll keep me employed for another twenty years.
To see Amy Palms bending neon, check out Cosmo Palms’ short film “Neon.”