Updated: April 6, 2014 at 8:48 am
At a hole-in-the-wall storefront south of downtown Colorado Springs, Boyd Struble bends glass tubes that help light this town.
He's among the last of the city's neon tradesmen, and his work - produced with practiced hands and a selection of torches that spew a sapphire-blue flame - has illuminated department store come-ons, Sizzler windows, flashy retail displays and untold "man caves."
Ever check a motel for vacancy?
You've probably seen his work.
But after 30 years on a mission to "Light up the Night" - Struble's slogan - it's getting to be a struggle just to keep the lights on.
The combination of a poor economy and new lighting options has wreaked havoc on the neon industry, people in the business say. In 2005, hard times helped drive one of Struble's competitors into a home workshop, and now Struble's shop is threatened, too.
"I'm basically hanging on by my fingernails," Struble says. "One bad month could probably do it."
Struble, 53, is the proprietor of Boyd's Neon, 1450 Burnham St., near South Academy Boulevard and Interstate 25. It's where other sign makers send their neon work, and where Boyd does commission jobs for people who want to spruce up a home bar or add a glowing Denver Broncos sign to a den.
Neon lights dominated the roadside in Colorado Springs and much of the nation in the 1950s, when merchants turned to the gas-lit tubes to add eye-catching appeal.
The industry endured an attack in the 1970s, when fluorescent bulbs took a big bite out of the business, but neon came roaring back to life in the 1990s.
The latest threat comes in the form of initials dreaded by neon craftsmen everywhere: LEDs.
Consumers might not realize it, but lighted signs at department stores, mini malls and other retail outlets once had neon tubes inside. Increasingly, store operators are replacing them with LEDs in a bid for lower costs and higher energy efficiency.
"That was 90 percent of my business, and that's what LED is taking," Struble says.
Once bursting with demand for neon, Colorado Springs now supports two or three neon craftsmen - among them Struble and second-generation sign maker Steve Cimino, who closed down a retail location on West Cucharras Street in 2007 and operates from a home workshop.
"Boyd's a good neon man, but so am I," says Cimino, who advertises his services at CiminoSignCo.com.
Another Colorado Springs provider, Neon Highlights Sign Co., has a listing online, but a representative couldn't be reached for comment.
Tube benders use a variety of hand torches to heat and bend glass tubes, and they add luminous gas to help light its interior - neon for red and argon for blue.
Colored glass and powdered films allow for a wide range of colors.
Cimino learned from a neon bender who worked for his father, who founded Cimino Sign Co. in 1948.
Struble says "luck" brought him to the trade. When a tile warehouse that employed him was about to go out of business, a co-worker introduced him to her husband, who ran a sign shop. The sign maker in turn introduced him to his neon craftsman, who taught Struble the tricks of the trade.
At the time, finding someone to learn from wasn't so easy, Struble says.
"You'd walk into a shop and they'd stop bending because they didn't want anyone to know their secrets," he recalled.
Said Cimino: "People like Boyd and me learned through practicing - burning your hands, cutting your hands, redoing work. It's a hard trade. You're just not going to give away the secrets of the business. You just don't do it."
After 30 years in the industry, Struble can bend 10 feet of neon tube per hour. He learned the hard way how to avoid the red-hot glass.
"It's like grabbing a stick of butter. Your skin just melts," he says.
There was a time Struble worked six or even seven days a week to keep up with demand. Now, he rarely works weekends, and during slow periods at the shop he sometimes makes neon displays simply to keep himself busy - a pot leaf here, a frog flashing a peace symbol there.
It's a far cry from the days when Struble was commissioned to craft dozens of neon segments for a 4-foot-by-8 foot Jimi Hendrix portrait - a job that required more than $1,000 in neon work alone.
In another glimpse at boom times, Struble once built the lights for an "endless bamboo" forest dreamt up by a well-heeled Aspen homeowner -with argon-filled tubes positioned in front of a mirror.
The way business has been declining, Struble says he can't see himself being open 10 years from now.
But he's seen neon weather other cycles, and he's holding out hope.
"There will always be someone doing neon," he says. "I think eventually it'll come back."