Neon Creations Workshop, The Perfect Gift To Make Your Own Neon Light

Neon has become popular in interior design over the past few years, we are increasingly seeing it in people’s homes, but is all Neon equal?

estelle bilson 70s House manchester neon light

Would you believe that the theory behind the neon sign technology dates back to 1675 when Jean Picard, a French Astronomer witnessed a faint glow in a mercury barometer tube.  When the tube was shaken it omitted light, caused by static electricity, which was not fully understood at the time.

By 1855 electric generators had been invented and a German glass blower and Physicist called Heinrich Geissler invented the Geissler tube, which when electric current was passed through various gases the tube would glow, this was called the ‘Electric Discharge Lamp’

In 1898 a new gas was discovered by William Ramsey and M.W. Travers, it was named Neon after the Greek word for new “neos”.  Circa 1902, French Engineer, Inventor and Chemist Georges Claude was the first person to apply an electric discharge to a sealed tube of neon to create a lamp, he patented the idea in 1915 and by 1923 had introduced neon gas signs to the USA, selling two to a car dealership for $24,000 (around $384,000 in today’s money).

Vintage packard neon light sign 70s House Manchester

Neon light signs quickly became a popular fixture in outdoor advertising, visible even in daylight, they were nick-named “liquid fire”.  The most famous towns of neon lighting would be Las Vegas, and Hong Kong (think Blade Runner), who obtained their first neon signs in the 20’s. However, since the 1970s the usage of neon has gradually reduced and now more that 90% of lights are now LED.

Hong Kong Neon Lights in the 70s 70s House manchester neon light workshop neon creations

The future of neon looked all but dead, especially with the invention of plastic LED tube that resembles neon light, however all was not lost. With art galleries such as Gods Own Junkyard showcasing and hiring signs and the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, which I visited in 2008,  the nostalgia for neon remains, firmly fixed in our collective psyche as something magical and beautiful, the hypnotic effect of “liquid Fire” still endures and there are many crafts people out there still making neon signs.

Neon Boneyard Las Vegas Neon Museum 70s House Manchester blog

Making a glass neon sign is an art form, a craft, alchemy if you will, heating of base elements and filling them with inert gas to create something magical.  I have been fortunate to have been able to work with Neon Creations, owned by Tony and Catherine Spink, who, since 2005 have created bespoke neon signs for illustrious customers such as Calvin Klein, Vans, BBC, Paul Smith, EMI Music and more.  Tony trained as Neon Glass blower in the 80s and is possibly the most passionate man I know about his craft and keen to share his knowledge, as a result Neon Creations have decided to open their studio to people to come in and have a go themselves.

Vans off the wall neon sign by Neon Creations

I was invited to their studio and from the moment you walk through the door you are blown away by the beauty of EVERYTHING, your eyes dart from one light to the other, unable to take it all in, all you can mouth is the word “WOW”…..

Neon Creations workshop neon light 70s House Manchester Estelle Bilson

Tony explained the history of neon to me and showed me some basic techniques, as you would expect from someone who has spent over half his life perfecting his art he made it look simple and fluid and, well easy…..  We moved over to the burners and Tony explained that I was about to bend glass tube over a 3000 degrees Fahrenheit flame, at this point I felt a little nervous, but Tony and his firm, but kind advice made me feel confident.  We practiced moving the tubing in our hands, rotating it in the flame so that the glass softens, and this is the weird thing, and don’t ask me why, but the ends of the glass tube don’t even get hot…. Not even warm. 

estelle bilson tony spink neon creations 70s house manchester neon light workshop

The morning was spent bending shapes into glass rods, using the ribbon burner and bench torches and finding my feet and feeling confident.  I had absolutely no pre conceived ideas of what I would be able to achieve from the days workshop and had some vague idea about an abstract design in three colours.  Tony pushed me gently and encouraged me to try to do a letter, something I thought would be impossible, but carefully, step by step he showed me where to mark the tube and how to bend the glass and blow air through to stop the tube collapsing, and by heck I managed to do a letter E, and I was absolutely buzzing at the fact I created it.

neon creations 70s house manchester neon light workshop

After lunch we mapped out a rough design and Tony mentored me whilst I bent the coloured glass into the required shapes.  I stress that making a full sign takes years of practice and knowledge I was totally impressed at the fact I was able to pick up enough basic skills throughout our day together to be able to put together something that would work as neon light up sign.  For me it wasn’t so much WHAT I created but HOW I created it.  I learnt that they use not only neon gas which glows red when lit, but also argon, which glows blue, mixed with coloured glass tubes and these inert gasses the number of colours you can create is pretty much infinite.

70s house manchester neon creations workshop

neon letter E made by estelle bilson of 70s house manchester with neon creations

Tony then proceeded to finish the design, sealing the tubes and filling the tubes with gas which is a risky business and best left to the experts.  The gasses tubes are then sent to a bay where they are lit and are tested and ‘aged’ to ensure that the colour distribution and brightness is correct. I then left with a date to collect my finished sign a few weeks later. I cannot express the pure joy and pride at seeing something I had created lit up in neon.

neon creations 70s house manchester workshop

Talking to Tony and his team I could see pure passion for their art, the cries of anguish when a bend doesn’t work or the glass cracks and you have to start again, it is a sorry sound when you hear someone swear and throw the glass into the recycling and then start again.  This to me was something more than a job for them, it was a passion, a vocation and I can attest that it is absolutely addictive. 

I also learnt that there were so many myths by companies selling LED lighting, that neon lights are hot (they aren’t they are cool to touch), that they are dangerous (again false they are completely safe), and neon is bad for the environment (it poses no risk) that they require a lot of electricity to run (they run on ridiculously small amounts), I also leant that unlike their plastic counterparts they are able to be repaired if broken, they last decades (the longest continuously lit neon signs is now at 77 years) whereas LED’s have a life span of around 5 – 10 years, their component parts cannot be replaced and will inevitably end up in landfill.

Neon sign 70s house manchester neon creations

Many companies who produce traditional glass neon have been campaigning to have a protected status on neon lights, preventing people selling LED lights as neon, and I can honestly see why they are so protective of their century’s old skills (all lights are still made in the traditional way), with the influx of cheap, mass produced, LED landfill fodder being sold as neon lighting.

70s House manchester neon creations neon light workshop

As for the cost of the course, it is comparative to buying a basic neon sign from Neon Creations.  Prices start at £500 for a full days one to one tuition and you get to come home with a sign that YOU HAVE MADE.  They even have an option for groups of two or couples to come and do the course together which makes a perfect engagement or wedding gift.  I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life, Tony, Catherine and their team are an absolute dream and welcome you like one of the family with plenty of laughs. Many of the people who have attended the course have come back to do more work with them and I for one will be one of those people, I’ve been bitten by the glass blowing bug and can’t wait to go back and create more.

If you would like more information on Neon Sign Courses please visit HERE

Needless to say these workshops make a brilliant gift for Christmas too!

Thank you to Tony, Catherine, Sam and team for all your help and support and helping me create something I’m amazingly proud of.

Course cost in exchange for promotion of workshop