While neon illumination is still part of today’s sign industry, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have largely replaced it, both for skeletal ‘script’ designs and inside channel letters. These so-called ‘faux’ neon applications have become increasingly popular because they better meet clients’ requirements in terms of energy consumption and safety, as LEDs are more efficient than neon, do not use mercury, and are less likely to break.
Even as sign shops try to mimic neon with LEDs, however, it is important to consider the differences between the two illumination methods, as such differences will play a role in how signs are engineered for optimal performance.
Different by design
As light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have evolved to become slimmer, they have enabled very thin strokes for a more polished edge and look when installed along the sides of a sign can with a routed acrylic face.
LEDs really ‘arrived’ in the sign industry in the early to mid-2000s, but the technology has come a long way since then, thanks to continual research and development (R&D). As a result, client requests for a vintage neon look, without actually using neon, can more feasibly be addressed today.
That said, the two technologies are very distinct. And when people look at a neon sign in comparison to an LED-based mimicry, their eye will always pick up which one is not the real thing.
The appearance of an LED-based sign might be similar to a neon sign when looking at it straight on, for example, but since LEDs are direct light sources, they cannot achieve a 360-degree circular illumination effect. Their limit, by design, is 180 degrees, which affects viewing angles and shadow effects. Also, the sheer brightness of neon and glass cannot be achieved with LEDs and plastics.
On the other hand, as LEDs have evolved to become slimmer, they have enabled very thin strokes for a more polished edge and look when installed along the sides of a sign can with a routed acrylic face. This arrangement can provide a more refined appearance for an upscale client’s sign than the glare of neon, particularly for indoor applications, which tend to be viewed from closer up than their outdoor counterparts.
On that same note, an indoor sign is more likely to be within reach for passersby. Using LEDs to mimic an ‘exposed’ look for a sign people can touch is a safer option than installing a neon sign that needs to be protected with a polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) face.
Supply and demand
Border tubing, for example, has transitioned away from neon and toward light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Another reason for the popularity of faux neon is the dwindling supply of the real thing. It has become increasingly difficult to source neon transformers and related components, let alone find and hire a neon glass blower.
Traditional neon signmaking has become something of a niche industry. It has found renewed interest for one-off projects, including backdrops for video shoots. When a client needs numerous signs, on the other hand, the logistics and safety issues of neon arise, as does the difficulty of sourcing enough components.
Even sufficient supply can be countered by reduced demand. Montreal-based Groupe Dynamite’s Garage fashion retail brand still uses neon for its big storefront signs domestically, but as it has expanded overseas, it has turned to LEDs instead. In Saudi Arabia, for example, this is because companies are prohibited from importing glass and mercury.
These types of concerns have driven both the retrofitting of neon signs with LEDs and the design and fabrication of wholly new signs. The last six to seven years of R&D have helped narrow the gap between the two technologies’ esthetic effect, but there is still room for improvement.
Taking a custom approach
Ultimately, achieving the desired appearance is not a matter of sourcing the right materials, but of how those materials are processed. Acrylic is acrylic; it’s a question of how it is machined with a computer numerical control (CNC) router to best mimic the edge and finish of glass. The final thickness and polish of the acrylic will have a significant effect on the appearance of the sign, as will the colour of the back of the LEDs’ lenses. There are specialty films and products that can be incorporated into a project.
With this in mind, a sign shop may well need to tool its own dies and meshes, rather than rely on off-the-shelf (OTS) tooling. Components can be mixed and matched in-house for optimal effect.
Even the best-quality LEDs need to be well-managed. While white neon signs used to encounter performance issues in cold temperatures, LEDs have just as much of an issue with heat buildup, which can be challenging to avoid when they are made available in ever smaller, more compact modules. Hence, North American sign shops need to find ways to work with major LED manufacturers, which are largely based in Asia, to ensure their signs can be engineered to meet their customers’ needs, including safety and longevity.