The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Neon bending

 

The bending of glass tubes which, when filled with gases through which an electric current is passed, create lighting for signage, advertising and art works.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category Glass
Historic area of significance West Yorkshire, London
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK 1920s
Current no. of professionals (main income) Around 40-50 in 11-20 businesses
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees 1 trainee at Neon Creations
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
There are dozens of people who have been introduced to the craft in short courses etc but few carry it on.
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

Every neon sign you have ever seen has been hand bent by a skilled artisan. Neon lighting was discovered in 1898 at University College London by British scientists William Ramsay and Morris W Travers. Georges Claude, a French engineer and inventor, introduced neon lighting to France in 1910, and it became increasingly popular by the 1920s, by which time it was also gaining popularity in the United States.

The main centre for neon production in the UK has been West Yorkshire, where at one time there were around two dozen workshops – but now about six or seven. Oldham Signs in Leeds was the largest neon fabricator in Europe at one point. Its neon department closed in 1994 and its makers were displaced to either set up their own workshops or leave the industry, though the company continued to supply general signage till 2003. Another large national maker was Pearce signs, whose last neon workshop closed in the 1990s.

 

Techniques

Glass tubes are bent using heat and skilled manipulation. A metal electrode is fitted at each end filled with one of a number of gases at low pressure. An electric current ionizes the gas in the tube, causing it to emit coloured light.

 

Local forms

 

 

Sub-crafts

Allied craft:

  • Glass gift making, such as glass animals and figures etc often seen in gift shops

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Unlike in the USA and the rest of Europe, neon has suffered a negative reputation as being associated with unreputable establishments. However, this is now changing with a new fashion for the vintage, analogue and handmade.
  • The three or four polytechnic courses that used to run neon related courses were all shut down in the 1990s and the courses have not been replaced. Training is now much more sporadic and depends of the availability and inclination of individual makers to pass on their skills.
  • Many practitioners have been reluctant to pass on their skills due to the fear that they are setting up competitors and losing their own competitive advantage, though there are notable exceptions who are happy to pass on their skills openly.
  • Trainees require a lot of investment of both time and money, and some end up leaving the craft to do other things.
  • There are more designer-makers in the US, who have the idea and are able to realise it in neon themselves. In the UK, those who wish to use neon creatively are not often as willing to learn the craft and would rather commission someone else to do it for them. As a result, the craft is devalued by artists and their public in favour of the concept that lies behind the work. Some UK makers are also artists in their own right, however, so can champion both the art and craft of neon at the same time. Whilst the art industry has increased the level of appreciation of the neon industry, the general sign industry has shrunk by probably 70 or 80 per cent.
  • As the market reduces it becomes harder for suppliers to continue to stock the full range of gases and phospher colours.
  • Neon is complicated and costly to produce, and processing the gas is potentially dangerous. Despite this, it is more energy efficient than any other form of lighting, including LEDs, and neon lights are totally recyclable.
  • There is a threat that legislation will be introduced banning the use of mercury in gas-filled tubes, though this only affects the phospher colours that include trace amounts of mercury.
  • There are LED products coming onto the market that are being called LED neon. This is not neon, and consumers are being mis-informed, sometimes thinking they are buying real neon, but actually getting LED.

 

Support organisations

  • British Sign & Graphics Association
  • EcoNeon – an initiative set up to tackle the issues arising from the new European regulations on lighting engineering and advertising, its goal is to support workers in the neon industry.

 

Craftspeople currently known

Neon Circus do not fabricate neon but provide neon lighting for a range of applications. Rebecca Mason in Folkestone is still in training and is glass bending for her own artwork only.

 

Other information

It takes around 5 years in total of working on the job to learn all aspects of neon sign making to a good level. Whilst there are a lot of ‘hobbyist’ neon sign makers, they don’t possess the in-depth knowledge that can only be gained from experience.

Neon Workshops provides a range of services, from artists commissioning work that is made totally by in-house craftspeople, to enabling the artist to come and learn the skills and have a more hands-on approach. They also provide workshops for the general public to try the craft. They are about to set up a month long course. However, they are careful not to set up too many people as practitioners without the market to support their continued practice.

 

References