Neon sign crafter serves Hampton Roads amid turn to LEDs

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NORFOLK – One of Bryan Riehl’s latest jobs as a local sign-maker is a celebration of the craft he loves.

Riehl, the owner of Riehl Deal Sign Co. at 2401 Fawn St., is helping install the art piece “Seep NFK” on a building on Granby Street in the city’s new arts district. The work, from a Chicago artist, is a celebration of neon lighting and the powerful, vibrant glow of its gas-filled tubes. It’s also a reminder of the peak of an advertising medium that has long since passed.

Most businesses now use LED lighting in their signs – a technology that takes less time and money to make than neon, Riehl said. People also have concerns with the hazards of neon lights, though technology has improved, preventing the signs from continuing to send power once it shorts out, he said.

Bryan Riehl with an antique porcelain sign he restored (Courtesy of Riehl Deal Facebook)

Bryan Riehl with an antique porcelain sign he restored (Courtesy of Riehl Deal Facebook)

“People who understand neon and respect it will ask for it every time,” Riehl said.

He has hand-crafted “open” and “closed” signs for businesses and specific advertising signs like “pizza by the slice.” He serves the seven cities in Hampton Roads and is one of just a few who offer custom neon signs in the area. American Sign and Neon Corporation in Virginia Beach offers neon signs but rarely receives requests for them; sometimes it even seeks Riehl’s help for materials or with filling glass tubes with gas.

“People just aren’t buying neon signs to speak of anymore,” said Erwin Hutchins, owner of American Sign and Neon Corp.  “Now that LEDs have come into focus, every sign we’ve done in the last year-and-a-half or two years has been with LEDs.”

Riehl said he does well in Norfolk’s arts-focused NEON District (which stands for New Energy Of Norfolk), but almost all of the work consists of repairs to old signs. He also installs pieces for customers and has worked with many students at the Governor’s School for the Arts on art pieces, he said.

It’s a struggling field, but his passion for the art drives him.

“The craftsmanship and feeling of accomplishment when I finish a project and how good they look is worth all the money in the world,” Riehl said, “to know everywhere I go my work is out there – I made things from basically nothing and turned it into wonderful artwork or advertisement or anything really.”

Neon is labor-intensive and requires a lot of precision, Riehl said. He most enjoys working on signs from the 1920s to the 1970s. For a restoration job, he begins by the entire sign in detail, including its missing pieces. Then he strips down the sign, crafts and adds the missing pieces, and rewires the whole thing.

The work requires research. Often when restoring older signs, Riehl will seek old photos of the signs online and visit auction websites to understand the original state of the sign, he said.

While he loves the creative aspect of neon, Riehl has accepted the new market demands of the changing times. He will take jobs switching out neon for LED lights, and hopes to land the work to swap out neon with LEDs at Military Circle in Norfolk, he said.

Riehl hopes to turn his business over to one of his children some day.

“I really think neon is going to be such a dead art,” he said. “I think it’s going to be priceless what they can do. On the East Coast, we’re definitely not paying attention to how much it’s going to disappoint when it’s gone. There’s never going to be anything like it.”

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