Lightning in a Tube
Neon signs have been around for 100 years, but they're still a rogue advertising medium. Just ask Gerry O'Birne, owner of Kate O'Briens, a bar on Howard, south of Market.

When he bought the bar and the four-story brick warehouse in which it's housed two years ago, O'Birne also acquired a three-story-tall neon sign that touted the previous occupant, Crazy Eights, a pool hall-cum-bar. Although the sign was fabricated in 1990, it had a jaunty flair reminiscent of neon's glory days in the 1920s and '30s. The "face" -- the metal box that anchors the glass tubing and shelters the sign's sensitive electrical transformers from the elements -- was shaped like a wobbly ribbon (sort of "crazy"); circles at the top and bottom of that ribbon were painted to look like, what else, eight balls.

But O'Birne, a native of County Clare, intended to run an Irish bar, not a pool hall.

And when he started shopping around for a company that could alter the sign to suit his Irish theme, he quickly found that although dozens of companies advertise neon skills, only a handful would even bid on this adaptation. Most insisted on taking the sign down and hauling it to their shops for reconfiguration. That would have spelled its demise, O'Birne says. Once it was removed, city regulators were unlikely to grant permission to put it back up. O'Birne says that now that the SOMA area is starting to make a comeback, officials have grown more particular about adding any new signs, out of fear of urban "blight." San Francisco's rules are so restrictive, one official at a major sign company says, he no longer solicits neon work in the city. "It's a nightmare."

After almost disappearing in the '70s, when Plexiglas and plastic displaced it and environmentalist sensibilities led municipalities to curtail it, neon's back. But it has returned only after a fashion. Most neon now is hidden inside a plastic cover, such as the new 24 hour Fitness or Starbucks signs around town. They stand up to the elements better and are easier to make than traditional neon signs.

New commercial neon is still a rarity. As are people qualified to make it. San Francisco is down to two or three full-scale neon shops, where once there were dozens. However, the survivors are finding there's plenty of demand for the technology, as a new generation of designers is rediscovering neon's virtues, among them a startlingly bright illumination, clear colors, and the flexibility to adopt nearly any shape. Too bad the anti-neon attitude of city officialdom hasn't softened.

O'Birne finally settled on Young Electric Sign Co., based in Sacramento and perhaps best known as one of two sign companies that created the neon of Las Vegas and Reno.

"Bending," as making neon is known, is a genuine skill. Theoretically, a properly constructed section of neon can last upward of 30 years. Given the vagaries of fabrication and climate, it's acceptable if a new neon sign lasts seven, according to Mark Gastineau, a branch manager at Young Electric.

Neon lighting dates back to the 1890s, the nascent years of electrical illumination. The incandescent light bulb won the illumination wars, but it was known, even then, that a glass tube filled with certain inert gases and subjected to electrical charges would emit a pleasing light. And neon had certain inherent advantages over other lighting technologies. Unlike fluorescents, neon needed no warm-up time. Unlike incandescents, neon lights burned cool. And neon had an operating life that far surpassed most other technologies'.

These advantages made neon a natural for outdoor advertising. The first commercial neon sign in the United States came from France. Fittingly, it advertised a car dealership in Los Angeles. The year was 1923. Over the next 20 years, neon swept eastward. Its apotheosis was New York's Times Square.

Ken Frank has been a bender for the last 10 years; he began in his father's shop in San Jose, at the age of 18, fresh out of high school. Now he's one of two benders employed by San Francisco's largest sign manufacturer, Golden Gate Sign Co. Inc., which is located on Third Street, south of China Basin.

Frank is unusual: He acquired a vast amount of experience with neon at a young age, and without going to neon school. (Yes, there are schools for neon bending, in Benicia, among other places.)

Frank learned the old way, from working with another bender.
To "build" neon, as the trade has it, is to work in the presence of constant danger: glass that can explode; the fire of welding torches; poisons, including lead and mercury, that are used to coat the insides of the neon-containing tubes; and, not least, the electricity, delivered in jolts of thousands of volts.

The work is also technically demanding. Bends can't have any flat spots. The walls of the hollow tube being bent into a sign must maintain a regular thickness around turns. And the volume of gas pumped into a tube, the pressure at which it's maintained, and the amount of the electrical charge it receives must all be finely calibrated. Otherwise a tube will burn out prematurely, flutter, suffer from back spots, or just look ugly.

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