Neon from Around the World

15 July 2019 By Jessica Jones

Our very own Tony started working in neon back in 1990, and it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about it! Before starting Neon Creations, Tony worked with a number of other people in London who have since taken their trade across the world. We had a catch up with 2 of them; Glen and Gavin, both of them are good friends and have been very influential in Tony’s career, always ready with advice or a catch up to reminisce about good old South London. It’s always interesting to see how the neon trade varies in different countries, and what some of their favourite projects have been over the years.

First off, we interviewed Tony to find out his thoughts on the current neon industry and what his career has taught him.

Tony’s neon career in the UK

Tony sat and explained all sorts about the UK’s neon industry and how it has changed over the years. The method in the UK to create neon has generally stayed the same, using gas and air with a bench lamp and a ribbon burner. All of our neon is handmade, and takes real skill to turn glass tubing and gas into a creative sign for your home, place of work or event.

However, Tony explained that a lot of the neon trade in the UK is now based around artwork and statement lighting, as opposed to signage. He also noted there is still a strong market for neon used in branding. The most popular market sectors for neon signs include the leisure industry, including bars, restaurants and gyms, as well as retail, events and domestic projects.

When asked what his favourite neon project was, he said the pieces that he’s made for his own artwork. He explained that a lot of people see them and say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that with neon’, which just goes to show that neon still has that wow factor.

In regard to the challenges and problems that Tony experiences in today’s neon market, he said that ignorance concerning the facts about neon is still a huge problem. Many people are selling LED products under the banner of neon, which can be incredibly misleading for customers.

Furthermore, Tony explained that competition from LED products is becoming more common because some companies selling an LED alternative do so by providing negative and false information about neon.

Finally, when we asked Tony what he thought of the future of neon, he said that he can see neon becoming a highly sought-after, high-end product that continues to be a popular form of artwork. He also explained that as a company, Neon Creations are also looking into offering neon workshops to get people more involved in the process, and perhaps inspire the next generation of neon sign makers! Currently at Neon Creations, we already let customers have a go at bending glass and it really lets them appreciate the skill that goes into working with neon.

Gavin’s neon career in Australia

Gavin worked with Tony in London but soon relocated to Brisbane in Australia. His neon career started in 1987, before relocating in 1995 because of the recession and a lack of opportunity in the UK. We sat down with him to get a feel for how different the neon industry is on the other side of the world.

Gavin explained that when he left the UK, 90% of neon was hidden behind letters. When he first arrived in Australia, exposed neon was everywhere. 25 years later, it seems as though the tables have turned and the UK is now hotter for neon.

His main market sectors for creating neon include clubs and restaurants, as well as wholesale work, design houses and shopping centres.

Some of Gavin’s favourite projects to work on in the UK included Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, including film projects. In Brisbane, he created a large double-sided spinning 45 RPM record cantilever sign for the BEAT nightclub. He also worked on the CUA building in Brisbane City; a project that consisted of all 4 sides requiring neon. Gavin installed it himself 30 stories up, resulting in a month’s work.

Similar to Tony, the biggest challenge Gavin has experienced is ignorance. He has also found that while many people want real neon, sign shops will always choose convenience over quality and will often try to sell LED.

In Australia, Gavin says that the future of neon is looking good and the demand is growing. He works directly with end customers, instead of mainly supplying to sign shops, and he has noticed that the neon being installed around the country is good quality work.

When it comes to showing his work to customers, Gavin usually takes a neon briefcase with him to site meetings to give a great first impression with potential customers. He also works with plasma art, using xenon and krypton gases. He is also experimenting with borosilicate glass, and building a glass furnace to widen his skillset.

Glen’s neon career in Malaysia

Another of Tony’s colleagues, Glen, first got into the neon industry in 1978 when he was just 19. He relocated to Kuala Lumpur in 1996 because he thought it would be a great idea to take his skills to another country, one that was an emerging country and would benefit from neon signage.

Glen explained that the methods to create neon are almost the same as in the UK, but with different burners. In Malaysia, he learnt to work with lead glass which isn’t used in the UK.

When asked about the difference between the neon sign trade in the UK and Malaysia, he explained there was no difference and that neon appears to have significantly died down over the last 10 years. He predicts that in the future, neon will become more popular again as designers look for something other than LED. He did say that on some jobs, you would require someone with a PW6 certification to check the sign from an electrical point of view and sign it off; something that currently isn’t required in the UK.

Glen main market sectors currently include property developers and companies specialising in online shopping. He works with a lot of bigger diameter architectural lighting work, which is mainly for hotels; he has worked on the Mandarin Oriental, Renaissance and Ritz Carlton.

One of his favourite projects was when he first came to Malaysia. He made the neon for the logo and lettering of the KLCC twin towers, also now known as the Petronas Towers.

When asked about his challenges within the neon industry, Glen explained that clients believe LED is cheaper and safer than neon because this is just what they have been told. Many customers don’t do any research on it themselves and just jump on the LED bandwagon without really thinking about it.

He said that has met clients in the past who have moved from neon to LED due to poor installation of neon by different companies, as well as due to lower quality products. Many customers believe if they go with LED, they won’t have any problems; this isn’t the case.

Glen agrees with the idea of showing off neon to customers and allowing them to get involved in the process. He said customers who have visited his place are often taken aback by how neon is made and are amazed at the process, which helps from a selling point of view.

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