Neon never dies

RENO, NV (KOLO) The hum from a neon sign is music to the ears of Ken Hines. He is the last remaining full-time neon artist in Northern Nevada.

The family sign businesses and the lights that illuminate them chose him, instead of the other way around.

”It is all I know,” Ken says. “My college and my education. It took me 7 years to get good at it,” he says.

That love affair with glass, neon, argon and mercury has continued for nearly four decades.

He says while business is not what it once was, there is still a demand that keeps him and graphic designer Dennis McKinnon busy every day.

"I'll probably burn myself three times today for saying that," he tells us as he stands over an open flame.

Once a design is agreed on, Ken gets to work shaping glass tubes into words or figures. While heating the glass, he blows into rubber hosing to prevent the glass from collapsing on itself.

"So I blow and suck a little bit, to make sure I don't have any holes. Seals it all up,” says Ken as he continues to shape the glass.

“There it is--VAC for vacancy," he says as he shows us the white glass tubes shaped into letters. “It’s going on a motel,” he says.

Hines is halfway there.

“This is 20,000 volts,” he says as he shows us a Jacob’s Ladder in his warehouse.

Hines says the inside of the glass needs to be void of all elements. He heats it and waits for a piece of paper to gauge the temperature. He then fills the tube with neon or argon.

“Now we will hit it and it will light up green,” Hines says as he sends a current through the glass tubing.

He holds the VAC letters that are illuminated with a green glow.

“There's a little ball of mercury right there,” he says, pointing to a little silver ball at the end of the glass tube.

Mercury makes the light brighter.

“And that's what the mercury does,” says Hines, as he holds up the letters.

The letters get brighter one section at a time in a matter of seconds.

“So it is dull here, the mercury vaporizes, and turns it as bright as this,” says Hines.

And unless broken or damaged, the light will continue to glow---with a hum of tiny beads of electricity jumping through the gas.

Copyright KOLO-TV 2019