Get off my lawn.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Cool stuff in the 'hood

My good friend Randy Steinmetz invited me down to his place to check out his neon sign-making activities. Some people know how to do cool stuff: Build wooden structures in the yard, juggle, fix up cars, ride wheelies on ATVs, etc. All of those things are pretty cool. But knowing how to make neon signs is cooler.

Anyway, I showed up and Randy fired up some gas burners and showed me how to "weld" a couple of glass tubes together and bend them in to 90 deg. shapes. It was interesting to see how soft glass gets when it's hot. When you make a bend or weld a couple of pieces together, you blow in the end of the tube to "inflate" it and keep it from collapsing. I made something that looks like a test tube with my newfound skills. I also made something that looked like a mutilated dog paw.

After showing me some cool stuff relating to molten glass, Randy went to work making a sign for a customer. It took him maybe 30 minutes to make a sign that looked just like a drawing he was working off of, including the electrodes in the ends. It had several fairly intricate bends in it, but he made it look easy. (I can tell you that, after my dog-paw and test-tube creating experiences, it's not "easy".)

Then he put the sign on the "processing" table. This is where the glass gets cleaned so that the neon lights up efficiently when voltage is applied to it. Neon is injected into the sign at a later part of the process. He welded the glass into a network of mysterious-looking glass tubes, hooked a couple of leads to the electrodes, insulated various parts of the unit with pieces of mica, and laid a piece of newsprint on a section of the tube. (Newsprint burns at precisely 450 degrees, which is how hot the glass must get to be clean enough for the neon.)

Then he created a vacuum in the tubing and zapped it with a large amount of electricity. Exactly how much is unknown to me, but it's a lot. It was enough power to cause the remaining air in the tube to ionize and light up. He flipped a switch (while standing on a wooden platform), and I heard a large relay go "thunk", and a deep buzzing sound.

This continued until the newsprint went up in smoke. Then, he powered down and let the tubing cool down to 70 degrees (c).

One part of the apparatus on the processing table is a small network of glass tubes containing some orange liquid next to what looked like a ruler. It was a vacuum gauge he had made out of glass, and it looked sort of like something from a 50's sci-fi movie. He opened a couple of valves, the liquid moved in the gauge, and that was it. The neon was sucked into the light. He melted the end of the light fixture's tubing shut, took the light to another bench, hooked it up, and there it was, a finished neon light, glowing red. Cool! (Neon always glows red. Argon glows blue. When you see a green neon light, it's a flourescent green tube with argon in it.)

Randy's been building neon signs for a living since the time when there were maybe 120 people in the country that did it. He said that when he was young, he saw a guy making one who had been at it for about 35 years, and was intrigued by the process. I can see why. It's a cool process. It's a mix of lo-tech science (giant buzzing transformers, mysterious liquid in glass tubes, high voltage, ionized gases), and old-school hand craftsmanship (fire, melting glass, hand-made tools).

Randy makes custom signs, and as soon as I think of something I would like to commit to neon, I'm going to call him! If you think of anything similar, contact him at


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