Bright lights, big business: Wichita’s Wholesale Neon makes old signs new again
Bright lights in the big city … and the guy who keeps them that way.
Roger Stewart is part craftsman, part mad scientist.
His Wholesale Neon shop in Wichita’s Delano district is piled full of old or broken neon signs, and he spends his days getting them working again or molding clear glass tubes into flickering new works of art.
Over the past few decades, most neon has been replaced by incandescent or LED signs, which are cheaper to make and more efficient to operate. But Stewart is still at it.
“You know when the automobile came out, the big joke about the buggy whip makers going out of business? They didn’t all go out of business,” he said.
“I had to make sure I was that one guy that was still left. And here I am.”
Neon signs are electric signs lighted by long glass tubes pumped full of neon or other gases. First unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in 1910, neon experienced its heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s — with a brief resurgence during the “Miami Vice” era of the 1980s.
That’s when Stewart learned the art. While in college at Wichita State University, he took a part-time job with a local sign company, repairing signs at Taco Tico restaurants around the city.
His supervisor wanted to do the easy stuff, Stewart said.
“He let me start messing around bending glass, and I thought, ‘Well, this is kind of fun.’”
Using a propane torch, he heats glass tubes until they soften enough to be pliable, then bends them into letters, shapes or patterns. The flame is more than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
“As many years as I’ve been doing this, I cannot touch anything with my fingertips and tell you whether it’s hot or cold,” Stewart said.
With each bend, he checks the shape of the glass against a pattern, every now and then pressing a wood block against the tube to equalize its width. He fuses an electrode to the tube, attaches it to a pump, vacuums out air and injects the gas.
The type of gas determines the color of the light. When it’s hooked up to high-voltage electricity, argon with a pin-drop of mercury glows blue or white; neon turns red.
It’s the same scientific principle that creates the northern lights – highly charged electrons collide with gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, then calm down and release glowing light.
“I like to tell people I get to put the aurora borealis into glass tubes,” Stewart said. “Kinda cool.”
When the previous owner of Wholesale Neon retired in 1989, Stewart bought the business. He has been running it ever since.
Now he’s one of few people in the region who makes and repairs neon signs. If somebody inherits a sign or finds one at a yard sale and wants to get it working again, they come to Stewart’s shop.
The vast majority of the signs are beer related — castoffs from bars or nightclubs that get a second life in basement man caves.
“And about three-fourths of them are projects I’ve acquired that they can probably bury me with because I'll never get around to working on them,” Stewart said. “But hey, they’re here just in case.”
A restaurant owner in Phoenix recently hired Stewart to make some custom neon for his barbecue joint — a smiling pig wearing a cowboy hat, with a smiling cow next to him, and the letters “BBQ” right in the middle. With those signs flashing in the window, Stewart noted, it should be easy to find the place.
There are a lot of options for signs now, including faux neon made with low-voltage LEDs. But Stewart said you can see the difference.
“Fake neon is like anything else that’s … fake. It looks like fake neon, you know?” he said. “And if you want the real deal, you have to get it.”