Neon Sign Lighting 101

Neon is an inert, colorless, gaseous element, contained in a glass vacuum tube, through which an electrical current passes through, producing a reddish-orange glow. Neon is the term generally used to describe lighted tubing of all colors. This misconception exists because at one time it was the most com­monly used gas. By adding other inert gases, to the glass tube, in addition to liquid mercury and adding various fluorescent coatings, this would produce the different colors of light in the tub­ing. Gas tubing bends to follow practically any pattern or shape.

Gas Color Equivalents: The various gases used are colorless and only take on individual color characteristics, after an electri­cal current is applied. An electrode is attached at the end of the tubing during the forming process. The color equivalents of gases are:


  • Neon: Red-orange.
  • Argon: Ultraviolet, but in combination with a small amount of mercury it yields a blue light.
  • Helium: White-gold.
  • Xenon: Blue-white with a white cast.
  • Krypton: No not kryptonite, the color will be purple, in combination with a small amount of Argon.


Other colors, yellows, greens, rose, copper, gold, are obtained by coating the inside of the tube with a fluorescent powder. Neon, for example, yields a rose color in combination with a blue fluorescent coating. Argon will light up green, in combination with a yellow coating. Deep rich colors such as ruby or very dark blue, are obtained by using colored glass tubing.

Tube Bending: The first step is preparation of a paper pattern, neon signs for room which is the full size of the design. Then the template is transferred to an asbestos sheet. All bends and electrodes are behind the readable portion of the tubing. A section of glass tubing is heated over a low-intensity flame, and it is conformed to the pattern. When tubing is bent, it tends to flatten out, so reheated air is blown into it until the diameter of the bend is uniform with the rest of the tube.

Neon in Letters: Channel letters are three dimensional, usually fabricated from aluminum with an open front, or a plastic covering. An open back letter is a “reverse” channel.

Open Front. Neon tube is mounted to the front of a metal letter, closely following its shape. The metal channel letter be­comes the sign during the daytime and is practically invisible at night when it functions only to confine the light to the shape of the letter.

Plastic faced Letter: Neon tubing shaped to the inside of a metal letter. A colored plastic face is cutout to the shape of the metal. A plastic edging is applied around the plastic letter. The edge or trim cap fits over the metal, and the neon is not visible.

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