Sign business dimming, not dead

For 15 years, Port Orchard resident Chuck Hamling has had no shortage of foot traffic at his home business on Olney Avenue, where he makes and repairs neon signs.

“I call it the human bug light,” says Hamling of the glowing, gas-filled glass. “It draws people’s attention.”

It’s no wonder then that the process of trapping neon gas in clear tubes was first invented for advertising in the late 1800s, he said, explaining that while regular signs could only be seen during the day, neon ones could attract customers to your business all night long.

As a career, neon didn’t attract the 48-year-old like a moth to flame, however. Instead, Hamling admits he stumbled on the path that led to neon after he hurt his back and was eventually laid off from his job with the military.

So he went back to school and began searching for something that could combine his electrical, mechanical and artistic interests. It all clicked, he said, when his wife brought home some books on neon.

“And I began teaching myself,” he said, describing the process of learning how to make neon signs as a long, arduous one that included “a lot of trial and error, a lot of blisters and a lot of books.”

Blisters come when you’re handling the hot glass tubes, which he said must be heated to allow you to join them, then twist and blow them into shape.

“It’s real tempting when you’re first starting to grab the glass,” he said, explaining that at certain points during the process the tubes can reach 400 degrees.

The trial and error began in his basement, but soon Hamling took his blisters and fledgling “Anything Neon” business above ground, building the large workshop and storefront on his property that can be seen from the road just past the Retsil cemetery.

“Everyone loves it,” he said of the “Neon Diner” where he not only creates new signs, but collects and displays mementos from a bygone era of roadside diners, gas stations and stores with porches where people sat for hours just talking and sipping soda pop.

“I built it like a diner, only instead of burgers, I’m serving neon,” he said, standing behind the store’s counter that offers puffy, vinyl-topped stools for customers to sit on.

On Friday, one of those customers included a woman who drove all the way from her home in Pacific near Auburn to pick up an antique Coca Cola sign she wanted Hamling to put neon around.

Hamling said such requests provide consistent work for him, but the “bread and butter” of his business — repair work from beer distributors — has been declining recently.

“I’m not sure this will be enough for my retirement,” he said of the neon work, explaining that he just launched a part-time business as a local distributor of Ultimate Smile of Washington equipment.

In the meantime, however, Hamling said he is not giving up his neon business and will continue to do it at least part-time.

“The economy is hurting everyone,” he said, explaining that another economic reality known as “faster, cheaper” is also affecting his bottom line.

“People are starting to get their signs made in China,” he said, adding that businesses there make signs quicker and for less money by using white tubes that they later paint the color the customer needs.

“But eventually the paint peels off, and that’s why you get signs with missing letters and holes,” he said. “But that doesn’t happen with my signs.”

Hamling creates his colors by expertly combining either neon or argon gas with different-colored glass tubes lined with phosphorus. All sorts of variables, he said, create all sorts of colors and shapes.

“Everything is done by hand, one step at a time,” he said, adding that it took years of experience to get to the point where he can hold a heavy, 10-foot long section of glass up to a flame and seemingly effortlessly bend it into the proper letters.

“People think you can just get these out of a box, ready to go,” he said, adding that although people like him who carefully craft neon by hand may be a dying breed, he’s not ready to quit.

“I really enjoy this, and I think I’ll be doing it forever,” he said.

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