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The Science of Neon: How Neon Tube Lights and Signs Work

When you go on a late-night drive, you will notice the numerous shop signs and bar lights that light up the streets. Their bright colors and luminous glow will probably catch your eye and might even attract you to enter their establishments. 

Perhaps you’ve been to a house party or a cinema, and you see the lights that line the corners of the room, and you’ve thought to yourself: how do those lights work? How can they shine so brightly? 

In this article, we’ll look into how neon signs work and what materials are needed to create them. Let’s start by delving into the history of neon lights.

Where It All Began

Like every moment in history, the birth of neon signs and lights came from a series of related events. 

It started when Heinrich Geissler experimented with glass tubes, electrodes, and pressure in 1857. He invented the Geissler tube and is credited as the father of fluorescent lights. His glass tube later became the foundation of several other lamps, including neon lights.

It wasn’t until forty years later that William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers invented neon lamps. However, neon gas wasn’t easily obtainable then as it is today, so their invention wasn’t exactly a hit. 

Fortunately, Georges Claude found an easier way to acquire neon. With this knowledge, he created his neon lamp and demonstrated neon lighting at a motor show in 1910. 

The technology and craft of neon signs have evolved since then. Today, we have safer and simpler neon LED signs with rope light. 

The Beauty of Neon Lights

It might be hard to believe that neon lamps and signs existed in the 1800s. But knowing their benefits and uses can explain why neon lights continue to illuminate our streets and spaces today. 

Compared to fluorescent lamps, neon lights are more durable and have longer lifespans. Neon lights can last up to 15 years. They can brighten your space without wasting energy. 

Furthermore, neon lights can be used in many different settings. You can place it in your room for lighting and decor. 

Make a neon sign for your business and attract more customers. Neon signs can also be used for special events and holidays: a Halloween party, a wedding, you name it!

How It Works

Now onto the talk of the town: how do neon lights work? 

Since we are dealing with electricity and lighting, our discussion may get a little too science-y, but we’ll try to explain it as simply as possible. So let’s begin by defining what neon lights are.

Neon lights are essentially electrodes and noble gases (in this case, neon) sealed in glass tubes. A neon light tube has electrodes on both of its ends, and neon gas interacts with these ends when lighted. 

When you turn on a neon light, the volts that enter the electrode ends will activate and “excite” the neon atoms, causing them to move and hit each other. 

These movements and collisions cause the transfer of energy, which produces heat and emits the iconic neon glow. 

It’s important to note that the color produced is based on the inert gas inside. Each noble gas, like helium or krypton, gives off a certain shade of color based on its photon’s wavelength. So, for example, neon emits a signature orange color when activated. 

How are there different colored neon signs and lights, then? Does this mean those are fake? Not exactly. 

Phosphor coatings make multi-color neon signs possible. The glass tubes are coated with a layer of phosphor, a substance that produces color and glows when it is hit with radiant energy. 

How to Make Neon Tube Lights

Knowing how neon signs and lights work can be confusing, but it’s pretty simple when broken down and explained thoroughly. Making them, on the other hand, is a completely different conversation. 

You will have plenty of things to consider before making your own neon sign: materials, equipment, work setup, and, of course, skills. 

Before we start, just a word of caution: create your authentic neon signs at your own risk

Now, let’s learn how neon lights and signs are made!

Materials and Equipment

The glass tubing of neon lights is usually made using soft glass tubes. These tubes can withstand high temperatures and can be easily bent. These tubes are cleaned and optionally coated with phosphor.

We have to consider the electrodes at each end. These are made from iron or nickel and encased in cylindrical glass. 

The current capacity and length of the glow will depend on the electrodes’ length. These are positioned facing outwards to connect to the power supply and placed in the tube.

We must have the star of the show: the noble gas. Whichever you choose, noble gases are obtained from the air through liquefaction and distillation. 

Finally, mercury is added to enhance a neon sign’s luminosity. 

Apart from these main materials, you will also need a couple of tools and equipment to create neon lights:

  • Bombarding equipment to suck out the air in glass tubes
  • Furnaces, ovens, or torches for annealing
  • Wires and wire strippers for electrical wiring
  • Soldering iron to connect your wires
  • Transformers for power supply

Skills and Environment

Making a neon sign doesn’t simply stop at the necessary components and tools. 

What use are all these items and equipment if you don’t know how to use them? And how will you work on your neon sign when you aren’t in the right environment?

Neon sign makers are often considered electricians, which means they are highly skilled and trained in many electrical procedures and methods. 

You must have sufficient knowledge of installing and maintaining electrical wiring before you can make neon signs.

Apart from that, you must also have enough background in glass cutting and bending. You must know the proper techniques and practices to prepare your glass tubing. 

Finally, you must have experience handling chemical gases like neon and mercury. In terms of work setup, you will need a hazard-free environment. 

Make sure your work environment is conducive and suitable for the procedures since you will largely be working with heat, electricity, and chemicals. 

Making Neon Signs

Having prepared your materials and tools and knowing the right skills and work environment, it’s time to start the construction of your neon signs. 

Here is the step-by-step process of making neon lights.

  1. Preparing the Glass: The process begins with prepping your glass tubes. Glass tubes are cleaned, dried, and coated with phosphor. These are then carefully heated using burners or torches and bent by hand according to your desired shape.
  2. Adding the Electrodes: While your glass tubes are soft, the electrodes are also heated and attached at each end. Remember to place your electrodes facing outward to connect them to your power supply. 
  3. Bombarding the Tubes: After shaping your tubes and adding electrodes, the tubes undergo a process called bombardment. This process removes the air inside the tubes and clears out any impurities in the glass. In addition, this procedure prevents poor neon lighting.
  4. Filling with Noble Gases: Once your glass tubes have cooled, they are put under a specific amount of pressure. The pressure will depend on what gas you are using. The tubes are sealed when enough gas fills the tubes.
  5. Annealing the Tubes: The gas-filled tubes undergo annealing or de-stressing. The tubes are heated and left to cool on their own. This process is done to stabilize the gas inside. Because of this, the gas will spread out evenly in the tube.
  6. Testing the Neon Light: Of course, the final step is to test our newly created sign. Testing will ensure that your neon light works properly and safely. Check if your light flickers or has unlit areas. These may indicate that your tubes still have impurities.

Remember to wear the appropriate attire and accessories, like protective goggles and gloves, while working on your neon light. 

Can You Make Your Own Neon Sign? 

The short answer is yes. Of course, you can make your own neon sign, but it’s a highly difficult and dangerous task

Apart from gathering all the needed materials and equipment, you will need a lot of time and effort to get the proper skills and experience of a professional neon light maker. 

Keep in mind that not everyone can make a fully-functioning, high-quality, and safe neon light. In addition, many hazards come with making a custom neon sign since you are dealing with electricity and heat. 

So we highly advise you against creating a neon light on your own. Instead, you can try creating a DIY neon sign with light rope. 

These are much easier to do, less expensive, and less risky to make. Better yet, why not hire and commission professional neon sign makers to create one for you? 

Neonize has a broad collection of neon signs and lights that can illuminate your space. 

Our signs are handcrafted using LED Flex, PVC, and acrylic materials and encased in rubber flex tubing, making our signs high-quality and durable. 

Our signs can be easily installed with our variety of mounting options, too. You can even customize your neon sign with us. Send your custom design, and we’ll neonize your sign for you! 

Get your neon lights and signs from Neonize today with free shipping!

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