Made by Hand: Nick Ellwood.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a big fan of neon signs and the beautiful glow that they give off. The culmination of this was when I visited Hong Kong for a week in 2014. I spent my time walking the streets of Kowloon at night; admiring them glowing against the wet market floors and capturing filmic photos of them.
My friends at the oldest neon sign makers in the UK, Kemp London put me in touch with Nick Ellwood at Thames Trade Neon. Nick operates out of his Rainham (Greater London) studio with his Dad, who had originally taught him neon tube bending over 40 years ago. Both studios have produced work for recent movies like Detective Pikachu, along with a massive abundance of TV shows and experiential installations.
After a quick back and forth with Nick, I popped down to his studio to learn about the art of neon sign making, and a bit of the science behind it too.
Before we began, Nick ran me through the two main types of neon lighting and how it works. Neon as its traditionally known, is a glass tube that is pumped with gas and has two electrodes at each end - allowing 15,000 volts to pass through to create that lovely neon glow. If you’re wanting a red tone to your tube, add Neon gas and for blue, add Argon. To make other tones, you choose a specific glass tube colour like blue, then by adding argon, you’d get purple.
To start, Nick selected his tubing that was a standard diameter of 18mm, and dark yellow which was the colour his client requested for this cursive text sign. Dependant on the type of sign and its usage, a design will be provided, or Nick will work to develop one for them.
With the to-scale design print-out, Nick starts by heating up a tube bender to hot blue, leaving no dirty flame residue and getting the tube to a malleable temperature quickly. Constantly moving the tube, and bending to the pencil score marks on the tube, he works quickly to make the first two bends - checking them off on the paper design for accuracy; I could really see his intuition here, as he nailed each bend exactly to the sheet. To stop the tube sticking on the inside, a soft blowing tube is added to one end for Nick to keep an airflow moving and cracks to not appear. For larger 180˚ bends, a ribbon burner (not pictured but a long burner) is used to heat larger areas to aide the bending. This same process of bending and checking the tube against the sheet is used until the tube has run out, and a second one is needed. A pencil mark is made on the first tube and it is slightly bent back to allow the joint to be hidden later on.
Working the second tube, Nick completes the bending and marks the area to join the two tubes. To join the tubes, it is filed at the marked cutting area using a small file then is tapped to cause a break along the line. From here, the two tubes are assembled using a crossfire burner (shaped like the letter ‘c’) that applies heat to each side of the tube whilst nick blows into it - keeping the tubing wide. It’s then held for a few seconds whilst it cools down and they are fused.
Now comes the exiting part - to make it light up into the ever aesthetically pleasing tones of neon, two electrode connectors are joined at each end of the finished tubing using a burner. Each of the two electrodes are different; one is an open tubulated and the other closed-end; they also act as a positive and negative for current to later pass along. The open one allows a small bead of Mercury (for argon gas) to be passed into the tube to clean the inside and to help brighten the glow.
For this part of the process, a strong vacuum is applied to clear out all air, and the argon gas is pumped into the tubing at a high pressure level. From here, two jumpers are connected from a powerful transformer and roughly 15,000 volts of power is passed through it. During this time, the mercury bead is run around the tube - cleaning it for a brighter glow, whilst burning off into millions of tiny beads inside. At this point, the tube has reached roughly 220˚C. To seal the gas in, the tubular electrode is closed with the burner and taken to the finishing station.
In this area, the backing of tube folds are painted in a hard black to hide them, and the sign is fired up one last time to cook on the weatherproof paint for 30 minutes. The sign is now ready to go to its new home at the clients place, as a one of a kind neon sign - with a lifespan of over 50 years.
I really enjoyed my time with Nick, and as well as being a really lovely guy - he was able to pass on so much knowledge about neon sign making and how to create them. When I get a spare moment, I’m tempted to do a one day neon workshop as it looks really fun and i’d love to have my very own neon sign.