"They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway” but with all due respect to recording artists George Benson and The Drifters, they also burn brightly in many car collectors’ garages. Vintage neon signs add a dramatic and period touch to a display area, but they can be pricey and are very fragile. At the recent Barrett-Jackson automobile auction, many examples sold for well into five figures, so damaging the glass on an expensive sign can be very disheartening.
Finding a vintage neon sign in an old barn is every collector’s fantasy, and occasionally someone will stumble across a real find. The issue of returning it to its former glory is a similar process to repairing a broken sign. If the neon tubing is missing, the only option is locating a neon shop that will make a pattern and replace the glass. The going rate for bending glass is $13 to $16 a foot, plus the cost of a pattern. While they are at, it you might as well have them replace the transformer, and then the sign should be good for the next 30 years or more. The older transformers are heavy, and when they fail you will immediately recognize the problem as they have a very unpleasant odor. The new solid state transformers are very light, cost around $200 (depending on the size) and should last a lifetime.
If your prized neon sign stops illuminating your display area, there are two possible culprits. Either the transformer has gone south or there is a break in the glass tube. Before you go too far, a word of caution: neon sign transformers have an output of 4,000 to 12,000 volts, and that will get your attention in a quick hurry. So treat them with respect. With the sign turned off, lightly wiggle the tube every few inches to determine if it is broken. If you find a break, carefully cut the copper wires that hold the glass tube to the glass stands and take the tube to your local neon shop. The glass was either filled with neon gas or argon gas, which contains a drop of mercury. The cost of repairing a simple break runs about $50 if neon and $60 if it had argon gas, as the tube has to be cleaned prior to being repaired.
Often a break will destroy several feet of glass and you may be better off having a new tube made. On older signs that used argon gas, mercury vapors have clouded the glass. When a section is replaced it will be noticeably brighter for several years as it burns in. If, for example, the “O” is broken on your Pontiac sign, that letter will be much brighter that the others for a period of time. If that is a concern, you may want to replace all the glass.
Professional sign installers will usually take the neon glass off the sign before hanging the sign on the wall. When it is secure they will carefully reinstall the glass. That is good advice for the rest of us. But if we do manage to have an accident, it’s not the end of the world – just very annoying. The best advice is to exercise caution and avoid the problem in the first place.
While vintage neon signs add a dramatic and period touch to any classic car display area, they can be pricey and are very fragile. If you're one of those collectors who enjoy repairing classic neon, there's no better place to go for valuable advice than www.neonattic.com. If you’d rather leave repairs and service to a professional, here is a list of neon repair shops located around the country.
Rocket City Neon
Northern Lights Neon
A Good Sign
Orange County, Calif.
Big Nose Sign
H. M. Witt & Co