Field Trip

True Artisan: I’ve Been To Neon Heaven And It’s In Oakland California

Somewhere in Oakland behind a somewhat unsuspecting exterior is a bright warehouse full of neon that could very well double as a signage time capsule for the entire Bay Area. Last summer I designed a huge two-story sign with neon components for Scuderia and I took these photos during one of my visits to our sign builder, Neon Works. I never got around to posting them but better late than never, right?

Neon Works has been in business since 1989 and Jim, the owner, has built or restored some of the most iconic neon signs in San Francisco including the Castro Theater and the old Yahoo! billboard. His warehouse is full of eye candy like this—colorful signs with retro typography that once graced every type of business imaginable. Needless to say, I was in awe.

In fact, I could barely believe my eyes when I recognized the complete neon sign that used to wrap around Tartine Bakery at the corner of 18th and Guerrero, then known as Carl’s. (#funfact for all the Tartine regulars out there: you can still see the Carl’s logo embedded in the Granite entryway at the front door.)

What’s more, not only did I get to tour this amazing workshop, I got to learn about the nuances of neon through the process of creating the Scuderia sign. Picking colors from “swatch books” of glowing tubes and deciding on bulb flash sequences was totally new territory for me.

I’ve always loved neon, but I haven’t looked one of these signs the same way since. The insanely specific knowledge required to craft these pieces is quite impressive and more than a little daunting. With the advent of LED lighting, neon is not nearly as common—or practical.. or affordable—so like many of these crafts it’s going by the wayside. But there will always be a niche for neon as long as the materials are available. The nostalgia and mood that is evoked by one of these signs on an otherwise dark street is impossible to replicate.

In other words, long live neon!



I was not prepared for the explosion of neon that lay behind this door.


The original Carl’s Bakery signage from the shop at 18th and Guerrero. The Bakery is now known as Tartine, a San Francisco institution serving up croissants that will literally change your life.


Cocktail glasses are apparently a very common request in the neon world.

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The completed Scuderia sign is seen by thousands of drivers and pedestrians every day. It’s located just past the Duboce Street freeway exit at Valencia Street.

Posted October 21, 2014 by Chris Fettin