Electric dreams: My day as a neon shaper – Published in The Guardian’s ‘Do Something’

Neon lights up everything from Tracey Emin’s work to strip joints and chip shops. It’s a dangerous art to master, finds Etan Smallman, but the results are dazzling

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‘Essentially, there are only three risks – cutting yourself, burning yourself and electrocuting yourself,” Julia Bickerstaff, a neon veteran, informs us cheerfully.

Our class of six is gathered in a draughty warehouse under a London railway arch. Julia has been making neon, or cold cathode lighting, for 27 years and will be our teacher today, along with the Yorkshire-based neon artist Richard William Wheater, whose work has been exhibited around the world. They teach the only public neon courses in the country, travelling from Richard’s base in Wakefield down to London every few months, and frequently across Europe.

We are asked to sign a rather unnerving disclaimer form (including warnings of naked flames, broken glass and trailing gas hoses), and then Richard gives us a bit of history. He explains that the first commercial neons were produced by a Frenchman, Georges Claude, in around 1911.

However, it was two British scientists in the 1890s, William Ramsay and Morris Travers, who discovered the noble gases the signs depend on – which include neon, argon and helium. Travers described neon, when heated, as a “blaze of crimson light” that “was a sight to dwell upon and never forget”.

In the 1960s, artists began to experiment with neon, most notably Bruce Nauman and Dan Flavin. It is also a favoured medium of Tracey Emin (see the cover art of Band Aid 30), while Chris Bracey, the Walthamstowbased “Master of Glow” who died in November, described his creations as “Sodom and Gomorrah mixed with art”. Bracey produced work for clients as varied as “King of Soho” Paul Raymond, Stanley Kubrick (for Eyes Wide Shut) and Kate Moss (for her north London mansion).

When it comes to sketching our designs, we’re given a sheet of paper and 1.5 metres of glass tubing to bend in whichever way we want. We can choose between a variety of colours, including red (the only shade that actually relies on neon gas), purple (argon) and blue (argon laced with mercury). I plump for an electric blue cloud as I have an aversion to anything bearing names or initials and want a nice abstract shape for my neon.

To become a proficient “neon bender” – yes, that is a real term, though Richard says he prefers “shaper” – takes significant skill and practice. Which means there’s no way that we would be able to turn out a beautiful finished product in a day. Instead, I get to learn about and try out each part of the process with Richard, while Julia makes my cloud design under my direction and watchful eye.

Aside from teaching, Julia has produced signs for a Star Trek film, the Millennium Dome, a hotel in Dubai and a Burger King in Barrow-in-Furness. She also worked on several signs for Piccadilly Circus before LEDs took over – the last neon hoarding, for Sanyo, was switched off three years ago.

Cutting the glass, it turns out, is a cinch – I simply run a blade across the surface and snap it with my hands. But bending it is a lot more daunting. I have to manipulate the tube to a precise angle marked out on a template, by holding the glass over an 800C flame while turning it constantly in my fingertips. Your hands have to get alarmingly close to the torches to pull off the manoeuvres and there are no gloves. What’s more, there is no visible sign that the glass you have just melted is scorchingly hot.

At the same time, I am meant to blow into the glass tube at a crucial moment to stop it from buckling. In nervous anticipation, one classmate takes a big breath in, instead of out, leaving the glass limply imploding.

When the melting and bending is complete, and we have fused the electrodes on to the end, Richard invites us over to the electron bombarder, the “pumping heart of any neon workshop” and a machine that looks and sounds like something pilfered from the Tardis. Using 20,000 volts, it pumps helium through the glass to clean it and create a near-vacuum, before our gas of choice is injected and the alchemy is complete. It will give off light for more than 50,000 hours (about four to seven years) before needing to be repaired. In the end, Richard says, with a little care “it will probably last longer than you”. My neon cloud bursts into electric life – and I know it will be a long one.

  • Richard and Julia’s one-day workshops in Wakefield and London cost up to £330; two-and-a-half hour taster sessions cost £60. For more information, visit neonworkshops.com/courses.htm



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