THE LAST BENDER
Nicholasville neon sign maker Richard Garr keeps a dying art alive
BY KEVIN NANCE
Time was, any new restaurant, diner, watering hole, theater marquee, auto dealership and gas station in Central Kentucky had to have a neon sign. With their sinuously curving glass tubes, richly glowing colors and nostalgic appeal, the signs were required equipment for any establishment looking for a signature brand statement and/or a sleekly retro nighttime ambiance.
“We love the handcrafted aspect of his work and really respect what he does.—Tim Jones, co-owner of Boonedogs, along with Hilary and Charlotte Boone.
The times, they have a-changed. Two decades or so after relatively low-cost, energy-efficient LED lighting became the dominant technology used by sign-makers around the country, the demand for neon signs has been steadily dwindling. Accordingly, almost all of the area’s independent neon tube benders — or just “benders,” as they like to call themselves — have retired or moved on to other enterprises.
Not Richard Garr. The longtime owner of Advent Signs & Neon, just off Nicholasville Road in northern Jessamine County, is hanging in there, taking advantage of the lingering affection for neon signage at businesses like Boonedogs, the new gourmet hot-dog joint opening soon on Old Richmond Road, and The Burl in the Distillery District.
“I’m the only independent neon bender left around here,” says Garr, 62, in a recent interview in the glass-strewn, garage-like space where he works with his wife, Shelia, and their two huge German shepherds, Lucy and Shep. “You can run an LED sign off 12 volts, whereas a neon sign, depending on the size, might need 15,000 volts. Plus, neon signs break easier. So in terms of money and longevity, LED signs make a lot of sense — but they can’t replace what you’re doing with this.”
“This” was an O’Doul’s sign, glowing green and two shades of red on a nearby workbench, that Garr was repairing. No one in the darkened room — including me and two Ace staff ers present — could take our eyes off it.
“People love their neon,” Garr says with a grateful chuckle. “And they love their beer signs. Yeah, neon kind of went out of style when the LEDs kicked in, but I also think people started missing it, too.”
But to make a neon sign — and Garr has made more than 100 of them on display in businesses around Kentucky — takes a lot of time, patience, specialized knowledge and expert craftsmanship, all of which he’s been applying to the art of sign-making since buying Advent from a previous owner in 2003.
“Neon kind of went out of style when the LEDs kicked in, but I also think people started missing it, too.”
The process, parts of which Garr demonstrated for Ace during our visit, is complicated and fascinating. Using designs usually provided by his clients, he creates his own ink-drawn mockups for each piece, then applies various colors to the insides of 8mm-, 13mm- or 15mm-thick glass tubes.
Then, in what he calls the “Dr. Frankenstein” phase of the process, he heats sections of the glass between or over powerful gas torches, bringing the tube to up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, softening it to the point at which he can bend it like a pretzel maker handling dough. While the glass tube is so malleable at those extreme temperatures, he prevents it from collapsing in on itself by blowing air into it through a mouthpiece, maintaining a perfectly steady pressure on the tube’s interior with his breath. For all the technology involved, it’s Richard Garr’s lung power that makes the process work.Once the glass tubes are shaped and joined to form the design, they’re filled with argon or neon, both naturally occurring noble gases that create blue and red, respectively. The colored glass tubes themselves complete the palette.
“Yes, there’s a nostalgic aspect to our food itself — hot dogs — but for us it’s more about being authentic, being real, and being all about quality, which is why Richard seemed like a great fit to make a sign for us,” says Tim Jones, co-owner of Boonedogs along with Hilary and Charlotte Boone. “We love the handcrafted aspect of his work and really respect what he does. And he’s local, which was important to us.”
Even during the coronavirus pandemic, businesses like Boonedogs are still keeping Garr busy — not to mention the occasional private client such as the friend who recently ordered a blue nude “mudflap girl” sign in honor of his wife for private display in their home.
“She really liked it,” Garr says with a smile.
This article also appears on page 14 of the December 2020 print edition of ace magazine.
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