Getting That Neon Sign Look Without All The Hassle

We all love the look of neon signage, but the between the glassblowing equipment, gas cylinders, high voltage, and the associated skill set, it’s not practical for everyone. Luckily, these days there’s a good alternative: “neon” flexible LED strips. This is the approach [Benni] recently took in making a large logo display, and the results speak for themselves.

[Benni] sourced the strips from AliExpress. They’re 8 mm wide and can be cut to length in multiples of 4.2 cm. Inside, there are strips of RGB LEDs, making the displays that much more versatile than actual neon. Covering the LEDs is a silicone diffuser strip that completes the illusion of a neon tube. The flexibility of the strips make them easy to bend into different shapes, but also mean a solid substrate of some sort is required to make them hold their shape. In [Benni]’s case, he used a metal frame to which he glued the strips with cyanoacrylate adhesive. He used zip ties to clamp the strips in place while the glue cured, and the fact that he clipped the tails of the zip ties is a testament to his detail-oriented nature; we would probably have left them on. All of the attention payed off though because the end product looks awesome. The finishing touches are supplied by some 3D-printed bezels carrying acrylic diffuser panels and traditional LED strips for the eyes, plus a DMX LED controller.

We’ve seen [Benni]’s work before, like this slick USB rotary encoder peripheral, and like that time, there’s a video which really shows off the project. Have a look, after the jump.

26 thoughts on “Getting That Neon Sign Look Without All The Hassle

  1. The thing that Ted is totally missing is that neon is not just one art, but the mastery of many arts. And a well constructed neon display can have a lifespan of decades of continuous use. This display is neat, no doubt, and if all you are after is flashing colors he nailed it. However, if you are looking for technical artistry that takes a multitude of skills this is not the thing. It is like comparing this type of LED display to neon is like comparing a hand made Rolex watch to a digital casio. The Casio is flashy, and may even keep better time, but it will never ever have the artistry of a Rolex.

    1. The trouble with neon is that it’s got a heavy cultural association. To me it’s almost a symbol of something we don’t have words to say, at least when you do it in the classic neon sign look.

      It’s nightlife, it’s bars and motels, it’s the place right on the edge of the Broadway musical and the bar where someone’s been drinking their sorrows away. It’s the Big City in it’s purest form, not as a place where people start tech companies, march on the streets, work their way up the corporate ladder, or even fall into poverty.

      It’s about the city for it’s own sake and living for the night. I know these things mean different things to different people, but to me it takes a *lot* of artistry to make neon not look like it belongs in an old fashioned downtown.

      1. Then STOP calling this plastic fake “neon” it’s not. It never will be. It is funny though that the cheap fake is often sold to ignorant people as “neon” and with the neon price tag. Not exactly a fit to your nice clean living example or stereotype.

        1. It’s not so much about strictly enforcing clean living or anything like that as it is about using aesthetics to carry a message. If you’re building something meant to be modern in every way, or something meant to remind of a historical era, you’ll probably want to avoid elements that don’t seem to fit.

          Neon is a really cool art form and there’s a few really good uses of it not far from where I live.

          But yeah, there’s no reason to call this Neon, unless it’s “LED Neon” or something, in the same way we have “Solar Generators”.

          I think it’s a better choice than neon for the sign he’s using it for, but it’s probably not the right medium to say what neon says.

          And even us LED bulb users who like digital better than film have to admit it’s pretty cool that something like that still has relevance today and hasn’t quite been replaced.

      2. If you haven’t seen it, PBS put out a fantastic documentary on restoring some large Las Vegas neon signs that I would highly recommend called “Restaurant Neon”. They were restoring them to put in the neon museum in Las Vegas.

        But then again maybe living in Vegas has changed my view of neon since most of our neon is custom and not the typical mass beer produced beer signs that you get elsewhere. There’s actually a law in the city of Las Vegas that every business needs at least some element of neon in external signs so that adds a bit to the ‘custom’ factors as well. I get where you’re coming from, but I can’t really agree having seen so many here that between the painting, fabrication, and glass can only be described as handmade works of art.

    2. When people are buying a neon sign for their home, business, wherever, I don’t think most of them are looking for technical artistry. I agree there is probably an art to it, no different to custom suits and handmade shoes. That said, 99.9% of the world does not have the ability to create their own neon signs. Even if you have a cool idea, you are paying somewhere else to make it for you. With this at least you can design and create it yourself.

    3. That’s a good comparison, because even though Rolex is “hand made”, it’s still a mass-produced, not so unique, flashy accessory for people who care more about branding than artistry. The real, hand-made, crafted and designed with true artistry and mastery watches are from brands and watchmakers neither I, nor you would know or recognize. And Rolex compared to them is cheap. The same goes for neon signs: with enough money anyone can get one made t specification. It’s hand-made, like Rolex, yet still mass-produced, like Rolex. And it looks good, like Rolex. But it’s hardly something special or unique, like Rolex…

    4. Sign making is a craft or trade, not the same as art. Neon can be an artform, since pretty much anything can be the medium. Big difference between creativity and craftsmanship. A friend of mine vacationed to NYC a few years ago, and came back with a fancy watch, a Bolex. Looks just as good as anything the executives wear, and only $100… Hand-made is a loosely used phrase, mostly for marketing. Sort of like Made in America, but inside the case, the circuit board was made in china, the LCD display, is also chinese. But mostly, Custom made neon signs are insanely expensive. Fragile glass and high voltage isn’t as attractive anymore, cheaper, more durable, safer lighted signs have been around for quite awhile now. Neon will always have a place, but you will have to pay for it, like your Rolex. Finally, the dude made it himself! He didn’t spend an insane amount of money for a robbery magnet on his wrist. His sign is likely to handle getting an empty beer bottle chucked at it, or least be cheap and easy to fix or replace. Not everyone has millions to buy everything off the shelf, or hire out a job, and some people still take a little pride and satisfaction of doing stuff for themselves.

    5. That’s somehow true, but I still prefer my Casio (ProTrek). Features, Sensors, no moving parts, no (ticking) noise at the bedside table, no winding (solar charging). If I had the excess money for a genuine Rolex, I would not want to show it that obvious, I would not spend it on a watch.
      I have a look-alike, but I rarely use it – see above.

    1. Wow, sorry I failed to convey the gist of the project, and it was interpreted as anti-neon. That’s certainly not what the original project was about at all.

  2. As a neon bender I know the ins and outs of neon. If you are ok with a cheap knockoff of a neon sign then knock yourself out. But call it for what is is. A cheap led. Do not even mention neon at all.

    1. Hit the LED on the head! I’m also a neon artist and the ridiculous advertising of LED light strips as NEON is offensive. I have neons that have been almost continuously lit for 30 years. Neon is an art form the other is playskool.

    2. In the 80’s I learned how to bend and produce neon tubes. After 3 years I was only mediocre at doing it. Making neon tubes truly is an art form and takes tons of practice and incredible skill. Nowadays I work mostly with addressable LED strips and I love them, and have made many cool projects that a neon bender could only dream of. But they’re not neon, and neon has it’s own unique and special glow that LEDs just cannot replicate. And neon tubes, being stiff, can be formed thru space in all 3 dimensions, and viewed from literally any angle while still maintaining perfectly uniform illumination. I too have some ancient neon signs, one of which predates WWII. Will my LED strips still be working 70 years from now? I doubt it.
      I have been seriously considering buying the equipment from an old closed neon shop and relearning the skill.

  3. Sure it’s not neon, of course, but it’s within the means of a home hacker and it does something neon can’t do, change colour! (And to all the neon lovers, please don’t hit me with hollow glass tubes!)

    1. It’s merit is it’s thin and flexible nature. But it’s terrible with regard of lifetime. I think some are only rated for 3000h down to 50% brightness at nominal drive, what’s not very bright. And 3000h are less than a year if operated during the night. People above mentioned an inferior lifetime of LED vs. real neon discharge lights. But EL is more than one order of magnitude worse.

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