Everybody loves neon signs, right? Those colorful symbols of allure that beckon us to bars and restaurants. Turns out people love neon the way they love typewriters and film cameras and vinyl LPs. Neon is fading as a technology - and as a craft. Tom Zickuhr wants to make sure that in this corner of the world, at least, that doesn't happen.
Zickuhr owns Neon Lab Signage and Design, the last neon shop in Madison. He designs the signs, from sketching initial concepts on the computer to hand-drawing stencils that will form the shapes of the letters. He blows the glass for the tubes, fuses the tubes together, makes sure they're airtight with a machine called a "bombarder" and uses a vacuum pump to "suck everything else out" before filling the tube with gas. Who thought this up, anyway? A Frenchman named Georges Claude, around 1910, says Zickuhr, following a long train of scientific work that started with scientists who were originally "trying to catch lightning in a bottle."
These days, LED lights are taking over from neon in signs. LEDs are "not necessarily more energy efficient," says Zickuhr, but they are less breakable, and if they do break, sign owners "don't have to hire a special guy to fix them." LED colors are way behind neon's vibrancy, though, he notes.
Zickuhr bought the Lexington Avenue workspace from Denis Eckstein, "a wonderful glass worker" who retired last year. At the shop, he fixes older signs - familiar logos like Budweiser and Hamm's - for collectors and business owners. "One of my favorite restoration projects was an old Blatz sign from probably the '60s," he says. He also creates signs for new businesses. But a lot of his work "starts with a piece of broken glass."
Zickuhr, whose undergrad degree is in sculpture, moved to Boulder, Colo., to intern in neon glass for three years. "I begged my way into that apprenticeship," he says. "I worked hard to get this skill, so I'm putting faith in the neon." In addition to commercial work, he makes neon art, and has shown with Firecracker Studios printmakers. A sign is "not as expensive as people think," he says, although cost of course depends on the complexity of the design. He's done numerous signs downtown, including City Bar, the Ivory Room, Artist and Craftsman Supply and Underground Kitchen.
"If the day comes when I have to deliver pizzas at night to do this during the day," says Zickuhr, "I will do that."