How to Make Neon Signs
Although most people do not have the supplies on hand to make neon signs, it is possible to make your own. Neon signs require working with toxic chemicals and glass tubes, so safety is a must.
Neon lamps are made with hollow glass tubes. They usually come in 4, 5 and 8 ft lengths. You start by shaping the tubes. To shape the tubes, the glass is heated with gas and forced air. There are a few different kinds of tubes. You can use “hard” glass tubes or “soft” glass tubes. Depending on which you choose, the working range for glass is 1600 to 2200 degrees Fahrenheit.
You start by scoring the tube with a file while it is cold and then snapping it apart when it is hot. At this point the artist will create the design by bending the tubes into a series of curves that create the desired words or layouts. Once your design is in place, the next step is “bombarding” the tubes.
Bombarding the tubes consists of partially evacuating the tube of air. Next you short-circuit with high voltage until the tube reaches 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the tube is evacuated again. Next you start to back fill argon or neon to a specific pressure that depends on the size of the tube and seal it off. Argon tubes also require an injection of mercury.
By default, red is the color that neon gas produces. Neon gas has a red light characteristic even at atmospheric pressure. There are currently 150 colors used in neon signs, but most colors outside of red are produced with argon, mercury and phosphors.
The colors, in the order that they were discovered, are blue (mercury), white (CO2), gold (helium), red (neon) and then phosphor-coated tubes create the rest of the colors. Phosphors are also available in many pastel colors.
If you decide to create your own neon signs, safety is a concern. You should always wear leather welder gloves when working with the tubes. Never try to force the glass or put it under pressure. Also be careful not to touch hot parts and make sure the part is cooled completely before you attempt to handle it.
You should also do all work in a well ventilated area since you are working with toxic chemicals. If you are really interested in making your own neon signs and learning the craft, it is best to spend some time with a professional neon sign bender to make sure you thoroughly understand the total process before you start.