SIGNS OF THE TIMES Neon makes a colorful comeback

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YOUNGSTOWN -- Slick and colorful, bold but sublime, red hot or cool blue -- nothing makes a statement quite like a neon sign.
If you've noticed more of these snazzy signals lighting up around town lately, it's probably because neon is more popular now than ever.
Joe Jenkins, co-owner of Jenkins Sign Co. in Youngstown, said neon hasn't been in such demand since the 1920s and 1930s when it was new on the market and all the rage.
Reasons for popularity: "There are two reasons for its popularity," Jenkins said. "Neon looks good and appeals to people because it can evoke an image that a plain, painted sign can't. Second, businesses have an easier time fitting neon signs to zoning regulations than they do other types of signs."
Jenkins said his company makes most of its neon signs for businesses, but occasionally it does encounter a customer who wants a neon sign for his or her home.
"As it gets more popular, there are people who sometimes want a personalized sign to display in their houses," he said.
Tom Cramer, owner of Just Neon sign shop in Warren, said about 40 percent of his customers want neon signs to display in their homes.
"I just had a guy come in recently who wanted a sign to hang in his house that read 'Ted's Bar.' I quoted him a price of about $165," Cramer said.
This is the low end of the cost margin. Large, intricate neon signs can cost thousands.
Cramer said that when he quotes a price to a customer, he bases the figure on the cost of supplies and the size and complexity of the sign.
Time involved: The time it takes to make a sign will vary, but a small, simple sign can be completed in about four to eight hours.
During the sign-making process, neon gas is transferred into glass tubing that has been bent into whatever shape or letters the customer desires. When an electric current is run through the glass tubing, the sign lights up.
Working with the electric current is more dangerous than working with the neon gas, Jenkins said, since neon is fairly harmless.
However, not all neon signs are made with neon.
"Neon is just a generic term we use to describe this type of sign," Cramer said. "It's rather misleading."
Misleading because argon, a sister gas, is also used to make "neon" signs.
Jenkins said neon gas is red when lit up, and to get other colors, argon must be used.
Argon shows up as a light blue when an electric current runs through it. To convey different colors besides blue, the glass tubing that holds the argon is tinted to the desired shade.
"It is easier to create different colors with the argon than it is with the neon because the neon is such a bright red," Jenkins explained.
Cramer said neon is used for oranges, reds and pinks, and argon is used for the rest of the color spectrum.
Dangerous mercury: Although neon and argon are not extremely dangerous gases, the mercury that is often added to the argon to help it pass fluidly through the glass tubing is extremely poisonous.
Therefore, if a neon sign is broken and the gas escapes, no need to worry. Do practice caution, however, if a sign made with argon shatters.
If a neon (or argon) sign is manufactured properly and treated kindly, it will light up again and again for as long as 20 or 30 years, maybe even as long as 50 to 75 years, Cramer said.
Electric transformers, the devices used to generate the electric current through the neon and the glass tubing, will need to be replaced periodically. A neon sign that is flickering or not lighting up properly probably needs a new transformer, Cramer said.
Jenkins said cold temperatures won't affect signs made with just neon, but a sign made with mercury and argon will look dimmer in cooler weather because mercury tends to liquefy when it gets cold.
Although Jenkins knows the sign-making process, he doesn't actually make the signs his company sells.
"You have to go to school and learn the trade or you have to learn the trade as an apprentice at a sign shop," he said.
Cramer, who does make the signs his company sells, said that although people can take a six-week course that teaches the art of neon sign-making, the classes cannot provide the expertise acquired on the job.
'Takes years': "It takes years to perfect the craft. I have been making neon signs for 15 years, and for the first four or five years, I never thought I was going to get the hang of it," Cramer said.
Jenkins said more and more area sign shops have started to sell neon signs.
"The more popular neon signs get, the more shops there are in the area that are making them. There are probably about five shops that make them in this area now, and there will probably be more catching on because neon is just getting more and more trendy," he said.

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