Neon Signs: a full guide to how they work and what you need to know before buying one

With so many options and designs available, buying a neon sign can be an exciting experience. However, it is vital to first understand how neon signs work and the important technical aspects of neon. This piece will provide functionality information and practical guidance about how the signs are created and how they work. We will also cover the benefits of using LED neon, as well as how the signs are commonly used.

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How are LED neon signs designed?

In traditional neon signs, soft lead glass (crystal) is heated, bent and twisted by hand, then cooled and fused. They are later filled with various gases to achieve different colours. Pure-iron electrodes surrounded by a glass jacket are welded to both ends of the tube and wired to the transformer using high-voltage cables. The glass tubes are then mounted to a backing panel.

Faux neon signs (LED neon) signs have a different manufacturing process than traditional glass tubing neon signs. Rather than using glass or neon gas, LEDs are designed from made from acrylic—a thermoplastic better known as Altuglas or Perspex. Designing a LED neon sign consists of the following steps:

  • Our team machine the sign’s backing out of acrylic, metal or wood. The acrylic tubing that will hold the LEDs is cut.
  • The cut parts are then prepared and ready for paint or vinyl.
  • Depending on the intricacy of the design, the sign is then either painted or finished with vinyl. Most often, we paint very detailed designs.
  • Low-voltage LEDs are closely embedded together inside the tubing.
  • The parts of the sign are put together and mounted onto a backing board.
  • The sign then goes through an extensive quality control process, ensuring the sign appears perfect and is of the highest quality.

For more information on how LED neon signs are designed, you can read our step to step guide to creating a LED neon sign.

How do neon signs work?

In traditional neon, there is an electrode at either end of the tube—one is negative, and one is positive. The gas inside a traditional neon tube is a noble gas, which means it only undergoes chemical reactions under high-energy conditions. When the gas comes into contact with electricity, it undergoes a chemical reaction. If you apply an alternating current to the electrodes, the electricity creates enough energy for the neon atoms to separate inside the tube.

Some electrons become positively charged ions, which fly towards the negative electrode. The free electrons have a negative charge and are drawn towards the positive electrode at the other end of the tube. As the neon atoms, ions and electrons bounce around the tube, they collide with each other, gradually increasing in energy. When the ionised atoms recapture their electrons to become neutral again, they release a particle of light known as a photon, which is what causes neon to give off a bright, coloured glow.

With LED neon, the reaction comes when electrons pass through a semiconductor, which is typically a material known as aluminium-gallium-arsenide. The LEDs must be positioned close to each other so they produce a steady source of light. This is similar to the effect of neon gas glowing inside a glass tube.

What are the benefits of using acrylic LED neon signs?

  • LED neon signs can change colour, unlike traditional neon. You can read more about how LED neon signs can change colour here.
  • LED is regarded as a safer and more environmentally friendly choice.
  • LED neon signs provide a lightweight, shatter-resistant alternative to traditional neon. Acrylic is lighter and stronger than glass and if broken, will not shatter into small pieces as glass does. As they are designed with acrylic neon tubing, they are also more robust.
  • Acrylic is optically clear and provides a “glass effect”.
  • Acrylic neon signs are significantly less expensive to run than traditional neon. The signs provide 80% reduced running costs in comparison to traditional neon.
  • With the addition of thermally managed LEDS, the faux neon system runs cool to the touch.
  • LED signs generate little heat. LED neon signs generate little heat and are safe to touch, unlike neon signs that become extremely hot when on.
  • The range of colours available for LED signs is almost limitless. This makes it easier to express image more closely is easier because of this, maintaining brand integrity.
  • LED neon provides brighter and more consistent light than neon and can be seen further away.

You can read a full list of the pros and cons of LED neon and traditional neon here.

What are custom neon signs?

Custom neon signs allow you to choose from a wide variety of letter designs, colours and finishing touches. Having a custom neon sign designed also means you can choose the size of the sign, and some manufacturers can accommodate requests for whatever size you need. However, others can sometimes restrict you to certain standard sizes. There are very few limitations of what design you can have with LED neon.

You can read our guide to custom neon signs to find out more about your options of lettering and colours for our custom signs.

A unique LED neon gift box for effective merchandising

A pink edging and illumination brand name to add character and personality

What do I need to prepare for a neon manufacturer?

You don’t need to be talented to art to present a design to a manufacturer. Many sign makers can work from a simple and quick concept. This could be something you’ve drawn, created online, or an image or photo you’ve taken. If you’re struggling to pinpoint a specific idea, you can take inspiration from a gallery of previous designs a manufacturer may have made.

You can take a look at our design gallery to see some of the designs we have made for other customers.

You should also provide the following information to a sign manufacturer:

  • The size of the sign.
  • What colour lighting you want to use. LED neon signs offer a wide variety of colours, which you can read more about here. With traditional neon, you can expect an option of around 10 to 50 colours.
  • What text you want to display if you are creating a design with text, including your preferred style of lettering.

Do neon signs use a lot of electricity?

Most modern traditional neon signs come equipped with a 240v transformer and use about the same amount of electricity as a single domestic light bulb (60W–100W).

A typical LED neon sign will consume only 15%–20% of the power traditional neon uses on a similar job.

How long do neon signs last?

Neon signs are usually expected to last between 8 and 15 years. However, taking care of your neon sign means you can prolong its life span. Ensure you don’t leave your sign switched on for unnecessarily long periods, such as overnight with no supervision. This leaves it at risks of sustaining damage from electrical surges. You can read how to clean your neon sign here.

Do neon signs get hot?

Due to how traditional neon signs work, energy generating from atoms, electrons and ions colliding with each other inside the tubes can sometimes occur as heat as well as light. The lower voltage of LED neon signs means they don’t get hot and will stay cool to the touch. The fact that LED neon signs don’t get hot means they use electricity more efficiently than traditional neon that wastes large amounts of power as heat rather than just light.

How to clean neon signs

Signs in busy areas generally require more cleaning. Modern LED neon signs are wrapped in a protective polymer, whilst traditional neon signs use a neon glass tubing that is much more fragile. As LED neon signs are not hot to the touch when lit, they are much easier to clean. There are also no dangerous gasses within, unlike traditional neon signs. Although LED signs are much safer to touch, you should still switch off your sign and unplug it from the power source when cleaning.

To clean, you should first use a feather duster to lightly remove dust. For any remaining dust, you can use a nylon brush with soft bristles, using light pressure. If your sign has stains on, you can mix ½ cup of household ammonia with ½ cup of water in a plastic container. Dampen a cloth with the mixture to wring out any excess. Gently rub out any stains or grime from the surface of your signs.

How can I use a neon sign for my business?

Neon signs are an effective way to promote your business and reach out to your desired audience. Using a neon sign for your business enables customers to find you at any hour of the day or night, providing an invaluable branding asset. Using a neon sign to promote your business can help achieve the following:

  • Create unique and recognisable branding
  • Draw customers in with a sign that lights up in the darkness
  • Add personality and an element of fun to your business
  • Use creative marketing to promote a product or element of your business
  • Use imagery or quotes that will appeal to your specific desired audience

Neon tube lights are quite popular for placing in business windows, as they are flexible and create a unique, animated effect. You can read more about the benefits of using acrylic LED signs for your business here.

Are you interested in seeing our previous faux neon designs? Take a look in our gallery for inspiration.

Choosing the right space for your neon sign

You should consider the following factors when choosing where to place your neon sign:

  • Consider the intended purpose. If you are using a sign to promote your business, think about whether it is in a highly visible area that is likely to catch people’s eye.
  • Think about child precautionary measures. If you are installing a sign in a busy area where there is typically a lot of children around, it is recommended that you put the sign out of easy reach.
  • Choose a room that could benefit from some additional light and decoration. If you are placing a sign in your home, consider a room that could benefit from some more exciting and eye-catching decoration.
  • Avoid installing a sign somewhere where people can easily knock it over or bump into it. Particularly if you are installing your sign in a busy public area, try and avoid an area where people are likely to knock into it.

You can read our section on where and how to use neon signs for more guidance on this.