419 Neon Demonstrates the Science Behind Signage

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

419 Neon is as much a laboratory as it is an artist studio. Owner Roger Borg works glass, gas and electricity into everything from commissioned projects for Google and sculptural works of art to fixes for broken beer signs.

“I always tell people, basically, if you can draw it with a pencil, we can fabricate it in neon because neon is so linear,” said Borg. “It’s basically just a giant, long line that you bend into shape.”

Of course, the process is slightly more complicated than that. It starts with a drawing. Today, Borg finally has a break in his schedule to work on a very special project — a piece based on his 5-year-old son’s artwork. A lined-out version of the drawing is created digitally and then printed.

“It will literally take what’s on the screen — I set what height and width I want it to be — and it gives me a full-size pattern,” Borg explained. “And then from that pattern, that’s what I use to bend the glass.”

There are many ways to manipulate what’s essentially a single line into a complete design, and Borg doesn’t take the task lightly.

“I just kind of have to figure out which is the least circuitous and most efficient way to bend it,” he said.

“This is like a logic puzzle,” I remarked.

“Yeah, it is. And every project is different, and every bender is different,” he said.

Then there’s the matter of creating those eye-catching colors with noble gases. Neon appears reddish in color and argon appears blue.

“There’s the neon and argon gas, and you take that gas…and you mix it with different phosphors that are coated on the inside of the tubes,” explained Borg. “So you take the color of the gas, the color of the phosphors and then there are some bulbs also…which the glass is actually colored.”

But before the long glass tubes can be filled, they have to be shaped. Borg turns on a mixture of pumped air and natural gas and lights a torch. He blows into the glass tube to prevent it from collapsing on itself or to expand the width.

Is it dangerous at all?

“The gas itself is not,” he said. “More dangerous is the electricity that you play with. Some of the bulbs do have a trace amount of mercury, but it’s minuscule, so…it’s something you get tested for and it comes out fine and you’re like, ‘OK, I can go back to work.'”

That being said, Borg doesn’t consider this work. He says he gets lost in his projects and the hours fly by, which is a good thing. Earnings from his business allow Borg the means to experiment with the art form.

“If I didn’t have the business, I wouldn’t have the studio, I wouldn’t have the capacity to take on those personal projects and really see what I can push the medium toward,” he said.

Right now, that includes creating high-design lighting and a flower for his 5-year-old son.