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Wednesday, Jun 4 1997

Lightning in a Tube
Neon signs have been around for 100 years, but they're still a rogue advertising medium. Just ask Gerry O'Birne, owner of Kate O'Briens, a bar on Howard, south of Market.

When he bought the bar and the four-story brick warehouse in which it's housed two years ago, O'Birne also acquired a three-story-tall neon sign that touted the previous occupant, Crazy Eights, a pool hall-cum-bar. Although the sign was fabricated in 1990, it had a jaunty flair reminiscent of neon's glory days in the 1920s and '30s. The "face" -- the metal box that anchors the glass tubing and shelters the sign's sensitive electrical transformers from the elements -- was shaped like a wobbly ribbon (sort of "crazy"); circles at the top and bottom of that ribbon were painted to look like, what else, eight balls.

But O'Birne, a native of County Clare, intended to run an Irish bar, not a pool hall.

And when he started shopping around for a company that could alter the sign to suit his Irish theme, he quickly found that although dozens of companies advertise neon skills, only a handful would even bid on this adaptation. Most insisted on taking the sign down and hauling it to their shops for reconfiguration. That would have spelled its demise, O'Birne says. Once it was removed, city regulators were unlikely to grant permission to put it back up. O'Birne says that now that the SOMA area is starting to make a comeback, officials have grown more particular about adding any new signs, out of fear of urban "blight." San Francisco's rules are so restrictive, one official at a major sign company says, he no longer solicits neon work in the city. "It's a nightmare."

After almost disappearing in the '70s, when Plexiglas and plastic displaced it and environmentalist sensibilities led municipalities to curtail it, neon's back. But it has returned only after a fashion. Most neon now is hidden inside a plastic cover, such as the new 24 hour Fitness or Starbucks signs around town. They stand up to the elements better and are easier to make than traditional neon signs.

New commercial neon is still a rarity. As are people qualified to make it. San Francisco is down to two or three full-scale neon shops, where once there were dozens. However, the survivors are finding there's plenty of demand for the technology, as a new generation of designers is rediscovering neon's virtues, among them a startlingly bright illumination, clear colors, and the flexibility to adopt nearly any shape. Too bad the anti-neon attitude of city officialdom hasn't softened.

O'Birne finally settled on Young Electric Sign Co., based in Sacramento and perhaps best known as one of two sign companies that created the neon of Las Vegas and Reno.

"Bending," as making neon is known, is a genuine skill. Theoretically, a properly constructed section of neon can last upward of 30 years. Given the vagaries of fabrication and climate, it's acceptable if a new neon sign lasts seven, according to Mark Gastineau, a branch manager at Young Electric.

Neon lighting dates back to the 1890s, the nascent years of electrical illumination. The incandescent light bulb won the illumination wars, but it was known, even then, that a glass tube filled with certain inert gases and subjected to electrical charges would emit a pleasing light. And neon had certain inherent advantages over other lighting technologies. Unlike fluorescents, neon needed no warm-up time. Unlike incandescents, neon lights burned cool. And neon had an operating life that far surpassed most other technologies'.

These advantages made neon a natural for outdoor advertising. The first commercial neon sign in the United States came from France. Fittingly, it advertised a car dealership in Los Angeles. The year was 1923. Over the next 20 years, neon swept eastward. Its apotheosis was New York's Times Square.

Ken Frank has been a bender for the last 10 years; he began in his father's shop in San Jose, at the age of 18, fresh out of high school. Now he's one of two benders employed by San Francisco's largest sign manufacturer, Golden Gate Sign Co. Inc., which is located on Third Street, south of China Basin.

Frank is unusual: He acquired a vast amount of experience with neon at a young age, and without going to neon school. (Yes, there are schools for neon bending, in Benicia, among other places.)

Frank learned the old way, from working with another bender.
To "build" neon, as the trade has it, is to work in the presence of constant danger: glass that can explode; the fire of welding torches; poisons, including lead and mercury, that are used to coat the insides of the neon-containing tubes; and, not least, the electricity, delivered in jolts of thousands of volts.

The work is also technically demanding. Bends can't have any flat spots. The walls of the hollow tube being bent into a sign must maintain a regular thickness around turns. And the volume of gas pumped into a tube, the pressure at which it's maintained, and the amount of the electrical charge it receives must all be finely calibrated. Otherwise a tube will burn out prematurely, flutter, suffer from back spots, or just look ugly.

Ken Frank has been cut, burned, and poisoned. So far, he hasn't been electrocuted, he says in jest, but is "extremely respectful of electricity."

Like all benders, he doesn't wear gloves so that he can sense the heat in the glass. "My hands don't really burn anymore," he says. And he also abjures safety glasses. He moves with deceptive casualness around his shop, sidling by open flames and dangling wires, neatly filing and snapping off pieces of glass.

The sounds and smells of the Golden Gate workshop suggest a blacksmith forge more than a place where tubes of glass smaller in diameter than your little finger are melted, shaped, pinched, and otherwise coaxed into forms to delight the eye. A block and tackle hangs from a rafter; a drill whines over metal somewhere out of sight.

Frank's piece of the workshop is a corner of about 500 square feet. The apparatus he works around is straight out of an old-time Frankenstein movie.

Live electric leads dangle from an insulated frame overhead. Below this frame, on a massive wooden table, sits a maze of glass tubes connected by bulbous hollow glass valves; these tubes are the manifold of a vacuum pump, which is used to remove the air from neon signs under construction.

Lining the wall of Frank's shop are clear glass globes the size of large grapefruits -- containers for the argon and neon that will be pumped into the bent glass tubing being made into signs. An electrical transformer about as big as a picnic cooler lurks under the table. It pumps out high-energy electricity until Frank removes his foot from the dead man's pedal beside it.

But the most hellacious-looking pieces of the shop setup are the torches used to weld the glass tubing. There are several types of torches. One variety is composed of two semicircular gas jets a few inches across; they spew flames at each other, making a literal "cross-fire." Then there is the ribbon burner, an adjustable horizontal grid of flame a foot or so long on a chest-high stand. Frank will also use the hand welder, a heart-shaped device on a long handle, with an open flame at the top. All the torches run continuously, fed by rubber hoses attached to a gas line.

The flames and the gas roar.
The heating and bending of the glass tube that will become a new neon sign is an extremely tricky business. Apply too much heat from any of the torches, and the glass will become too soft to shape. Apply too little, and the tube will snap. And there are no second chances. The glass will be ruined if it is heated more than once.

But Frank knows all of the tricks. To form a new tail on a letter in a broken sign, he holds the tube over and in the flame, turning it so that the bend is heated evenly on its entire circumference. Then he carries it over to a pattern he's traced on paper and bends it to fit the shape. The paper singes.

Once the glass tube is shaped, the truly hard -- and truly dangerous -- part of neon sign-making begins.

A kinetic dance of molecules creates the glow of a neon sign. For those molecules to perform properly, the tube's atmosphere has to be reduced to a near-vacuum and made almost completely free of debris before neon or argon is introduced. Any stray particles in the tube will flare when the electricity passes through, depositing scorch marks or causing the light to flicker.

Frank gestures for his visitor to take a few steps back, out of harm's way, and begins evacuating the tube with the vacuum manifold. When he's satisfied it has emptied enough, he attaches live wires to the electrodes at the tube's ends, and throws a switch, sending several thousand volts through the inside of the tube.

He waits until the electrodes heat to near-melting; if he waits too long, the tube could implode or the electrodes burn out.

Frank runs the vacuum pump, which evacuates any gas created by any vaporized debris inside the tube. When a scrap of paper he's placed against the tube starts to scorch, Frank kills the juice, and gives the tube five minutes to cool down, during which time he keeps an eye on the interior pressure. The best pressure is determined by the diameter and length of the tube and the strength of the charge that will be applied to it. Now Frank closes the valve to the vacuum pump and opens another to inject a small amount of argon. He also adds a dollop of mercury to give the tube a bluish tint. He seals it with a weld.

In the final step, the electrodes are attached to the transformer again, and the argon/mercury combination gradually wakes up. Frank twists the tube and rotates it to disperse the mercury evenly along its entire length; the tube goes from cloudy white to pale blue as the mercury does its work. Left undisturbed, the reaction could go on 30 years.

Rather than scrap the Crazy Eights sign, Gerry O'Birne decided to adapt it to advertise his new Irish bar. "I like neon," he says. Besides, he adds, "it's a major piece of advertising for the next 20 years."

Economics drove his decision to save the three-story neon sign outside his bar. Removing the sign and replacing it with a non-neon version of the same size would have cost $70,000, O'Birne says. To rehab the neon sign was, in comparison, cheap -- an estimated $12,000 to $15,000, maintenance included.

By luck, the name of his new bar -- Kate O'Briens -- fit nicely into the old Crazy Eights sign. A "Kate"-bedecked shamrock slipped nicely into the circles the eight balls had once occupied. "O'Briens" neatly replaced the "Crazy" along the curved, ribbon section of the main face.

O'Birne has only one regret. He had hoped to save the old Crazy Eights neon letters and install them in his upstairs lounge. However, on the day the sign was being dismantled he went off on an errand. By the time he returned, the last glass tubes were being tossed into a bin. He flings an imaginary glass tube into a metal dumpster, the glass shattering to imaginary bits.

Neon's like that. Ephemeral.

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick


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