- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

Bruce and Kelly Taylor can make a crab dance, a plane take flight and a musician strum a guitar. Their creations — custom-crafted glass tubes charged with heat and neon — are a throwback to an earlier era of storefront advertising that winked, blinked and beseeched people to eat, drink, shop and party.

“We have a lot of fun making this stuff work,” says Kelly Taylor, as she watches her husband, Bruce, working on the couple’s latest neon sign.

Inside this small garage workshop behind their Damascus home, the Taylors operate Rainbow Neon, a company specializing in signs for businesses. The shop is packed with long glass tubes, noisy machinery and dozens of completed signs featuring everything from big reindeer to fish.

Bruce Taylor is standing over a broad table, looking at a sketch of the latest project. To his left is a rack of boxes, each filled with dozens of long, hollow glass tubes. Behind him is a machine called a ribbon burner, which pumps out a narrow flame creating about 700 degrees of heat.

He carefully takes a 3-foot-long, hollow glass tube from a nearby box. Considering it, he holds a section of it over the ribbon burner, watching the glass slowly soften.

Deftly, he then bends the glass to make a round curve. For more intricate curves, he uses a tool called a hand torch to heat the glass, and blows into a tube to keep the glass from collapsing. It takes about an hour to bend and shape between 12 and 15 feet of glass tubing. It is a slow and delicate process, one which Mr. Taylor mastered more than a decade ago as a scientific glass blower.

Mr. Taylor, 46, began working on neon signs as a career with a local graphic-design company. Mrs. Taylor, 31, was the receptionist there, and the two began dating and eventually married. Together, they bought a neon sign business from a friend in 1990, and incorporated Rainbow Neon in 1992.

Between 1994 and 1995, the couple worked in the Netherlands as part of a special program to teach the craft. During that time, requests for business in the United States picked up, and the two decided to move back.

“In that one year, I forwarded my calls overseas and business just boomed,” Mrs. Taylor recalls.

Now, the couple has enough business to remain constantly occupied. They work directly with about 30 local sign companies, and turn out as many as 10,000 pieces per year, most of which hang in storefronts and shop windows in the area.

It’s a tough business, one which requires the Taylors to work almost constantly, with only short breaks and few days off.

“If you’re awake, you’re working,” Mr. Taylor says.

Bending and shaping the glass is the most time-consuming and difficult part. In most cases, the sign is made of one continuous tube. If dirt or dust gets inside the tube, the sign won’t glow as brightly. If the glass is cracked, it may not glow at all. To make sure the glass is clean, it is sterilized using a heating machine called a bombarder.

Rubber-based, black paint is glazed over any portion of the sign that is not meant to be seen. Then, neon or argon gas is pumped through the sign. Neon gas is red and argon is blue. To make different colors, the tubes are lined with tinted phosphorous.

To design a sign, Mrs. Taylor asks the customer for a mirror-image sketch of the sign. The image is reversed in the design, because it is easier to craft the sign when it is facing down. Mrs. Taylor then draws a life-size design of the sign, which Mr. Taylor uses as a guide.

Mr. Taylor does most of the sign-making himself, while Mrs. Taylor helps with the designs and takes dozens of calls on her cell phone each day. The couple also stays busy taking care of their four children, between 3 and 7 years old.

In addition to doing signs for businesses, the Taylors enjoy making neon artwork. They entered in several contests that celebrate the history of neon, of a time when such signs were nearly ubiquitous. The Taylors have entered many award-winning pieces, with one design featuring a skyline of Washington and another depicting a colorful rock band. Several of their artistic pieces are on display in the window of National Pawnbrokers on Lee Highway in Arlington.

Eventually, the Taylors would love to concentrate on neon artwork full time.

“You can only make so many open signs and phone numbers,” Mrs. Taylor says. “We think we can make that grow.”

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