Neon Making 101

What makes traditional neon glass making 10x more complicated than LED neon light making.

I’m going to take my commissioned work “Hang In There” for Vogue Singapore’s Artist In Residence project as an example – let’s gooo!

  • Concept and design – apart from interpreting and developing my neon art artistically, I often have to consider the technical aspects when I’m designing. 

    I’m using hangers for the concept “Hang In There” based on the theme of “blue” as an emotion. One of the technical reasons I used hangers is the similarity in the production of a metal wire hanger and glass neon. The metal wire bends its shape into the hanger in one piece, whereas glass neon needs to be bent with gas to run as one piece to lit up as well. 

    So first, I did some rough freehand drawings to get a sense of how could I bend my glass neon tube into one piece theoretically.

    Sometimes I also do a simple rendering of how I want it to look when I’m installing it.
  • Technical drawing – based on the diameter and colour of the tube I’m gonna use. 

    When I do neon bending later, I will press the tube to match the pattern after each firing. Hence, I will flip to reverse the design in the technical drawing, so that when I bend the tube following the design later, the front plane will be flat. I will also mark where and how will the electrodes go (in orange here) – in this case, they are hiding behind the tube in the back plane, sometimes they can be at a 90-degree angle perpendicular to the tube!

  • Mark the rise and drop within the design – rises and drops literally mean rising and dropping the tube. 

    When we bend neon, there are a lot of times where we need to do a double back to run through the same line at the back, having a rise or drop will help to avoid the tube at the front or make sure the tube will have a nice and clean front. Sometimes the combo of the double back with a drop helps to make a sharp angle too!
  • Mark the bending sequence.

    Take the double swirl hanger as an example, if I were to bend the hanger “chronologically” as I was drawing it freehand, I won’t be able to “close” the hanger as the double swirl will be stuck.

    As suggested by Jive, I then split the hanger into 2 parts, and weld them in order to create the piece.

    I will also need to calculate how long is the whole piece, to factor in the number of transformers and neon tubes to be used – this is important when I do commission works for clients as each piece would preferably not to more than 2,5m lengths~
  • Neon bending – each work uses at least 2 to 3 different burners and torches.
  • Splicing – different tubes will be welded and connected as one piece.
  • Welding electrodes – they are attached to both ends of the tube and act as positive and negative poles for the electric current.
  • Bombarding – vacuuming the neon tube at high temperature and killing all the impurities.
  • Mercury and gas injection – depends on what colour I want, it defines which gas I will use. In this case, argon with Mercury for the blue colour!
  • Blockage paint – to hide the glow of the neon in parts that shouldn’t be seen.
  • Installation – this is the part where most people might have forgotten. A neon tube cannot stand alone itself! It needs a supportive wall or system for display!

    How it is being presented also matters a lot. Display it outdoor or indoors would mean the supportive system, cabling and power source will need to be re-considered too. Most of my work is installed directly on the wall, or supportive material like acrylic, mirror, etc. For this piece, it was a challenge because I was setting it up in 2 temporary locations with the hangers hanging in the air – so I have to secure them with fishing wire, duct tape and white tacks, unlike the neon supports that are commonly commercially use.

    As you can see, apart from the technical skills in neon bending, there are actually a lot of steps to prepare and work on before and after making it. What takes me most of the time is actually planning and designing a piece, with my mind thinking of how to install it at the end as well would inter-affect the technicality and practicality of the production and installation.

Some of the images here are outtakes from Kit Cheng for Vogue Singapore Artist In Residence shooting, and photos from “The Neon Girl” project with Master Wong.