BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – It’s been here for more than a year, and a lot of people didn’t even know it.
Like a chameleon on the west end of town, disguised by neon lights, the drive by what used to be the Nowhere Bar, still looks like….well… the Nowhere Bar with neon lights grabbing peripheral glances. But Michael Stevens’ The Neon Shop isn’t a bar, but ironically, makes the same lights that adorn most bars.
A step inside the retrofitted one-story building on the south side of Hwy. 61 shows the remnants of years gone by, not only in the bar still being in place and signs up reflecting the times of not so long ago, but a growing manufacturing business. Twenty-foot tables lined with glass tubes, standing pumps for neon and argon gases, flame torches and tools of the trade.
On Friday, the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Ambassadors paid a visit to Steven’s business and got an ad-hoc demonstration on tube stretching and bending and how colors in lights are generated using different combinations of glass, gas and phosphorous.
Neon lights are slowly being replaced by LED lighting in a lot of businesses, but many restaurants and smaller businesses still use the lights and still need repair but Stevens wants his customers to know that he prides himself in high caliber workmanship.
There’s quality and quantity as in any business, Stevens said. “I take more pride in my quality than I do of my quantity. A lot of people don’t look at things the same way I do, they just try to get the product out and the money in.”
Stevens said a lot of his business comes regionally but his local business is starting to grow.
“We’re starting to get a lot more business locally. Ive got some north of Burlington and down past Quincy. I get a lot of business word of mouth. It’s picking up a little bit.”
He started his career in 1989 with Color-Ad signs in Quincy.
“I did a a three-year apprenticeship and then moved to Memphis in 1992. I’ve been doing it ever since. In 2000 I opened up my first shop down there.”
The light creation process starts with a pattern or drawing. Customers give Stevens an idea of what they want either through a picture or drawing or even just a discussion and Stevens draws up a design. The design gets approved and then Stevens goes to work on heating up and bending the glass to fit the pattern. He bends it to the pattern over a screen so the pattern doesn’t catch fire and goes from start to finish.
An average sign would take 3 days if you work 8 hours a day on it. Most signs you can have completely done in a week.
A large FOX sign was in the building at the time on Friday. It is the original sign from the theater in downtown Fort Madison. Stevens said the metal was very thin and they are going to rebuild the sign with new metal and then Steven’s can put the neon lighting on the sign.
Stevens said he can make almost any color combining the gases and then glass.
“You can make just about any other color with neon, black, brown and gray are the ones y0u really can’t make with neon,” he said.
Your classic colors sometimes have the glass itself colored. Stevens pulled out a three foot section of a classic color that the glass had been dipped into paint. But he said when that is done the paint has a tendency to chip over time and then whatever color is behind the painted glass comes through.
“When I do a repair on the beer sign, I will replace the glass itself that has the color in it so we don’t have to worry about the chipping.”
Stevens said he left the original bar in the building so people could come in and see him work.
“We left that so people could come in, have a seat and watch the work being done,” he said.
For more information on the business or to see how it all works contact Stevens at 319-669-9436.