See If Caitlin Can: Neon Sign Making

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) Darryl Thompson performed a basic maintenance check on the H & C Coffee Sign in downtown Roanoke, and WDBJ7’s Caitlin Francis joined him.

He checks over the lights, and electrical equipment, and Caitlin takes a good look around at the Star City.

Something Thompson’s done since he was a kid.

“Born in eastern North Carolina, we used to come visit my grandparents in Roanoke. And one of the biggest things for me when I come to Roanoke, most people it’s the Star, but for me it’s the H & C coffee sign downtown,” Thompson said.

That shaped his future working with neon. And back in Thompson’s studio, you can’t help but get lost in the glow and the buzz of all the neon.

“Neon is posh. That does set you apart from a plastic sign or a little sticker sign, or a banner. Neon is there, it’s there to stay.”

He starts working on a new sign, and shows Caitlin the old-school way of working.

“It’s actually the oldest sign company in VA, second oldest neon company in the country,” he said of Kinsey, which was formed back in 1907.

Thompson starts with a perfectly drawn out design, and then things really heat up.

“I don’t have any secrets with neon, I’d prefer that more people learned. Everybody has that little disconnect when they see it, they’re like, ‘oh it looks really, really easy, oh it’s not bad or so-forth.’ But once you actually get close to it, it’s like, oh there’s fire, it gets hot,” he said. “It’s got its own set of inherent danger, but that’s the part of neon that makes it cool.”

He matches the tubes up with the designs, and piece by piece, melts the glass together. Once the first part of the sign is done – it’s time to test it.

He says even though he doesn’t consider what he does art, he knows it is an art form, it’s a science, it’s part of our sky line. And now it’s part of our newsroom.

Kinsey created a “7” logo for us, which will hang in the front of the station, proudly.

“Still the old way is the best way, and when you get a sign from Kinsey, it’s going to be there for many years to come, as they have built many years ago.”

They’re in the process of moving to a much larger location in Roanoke, and come fall 2018, they’re anticipating offering classes on neon work. Thompson says he hopes this will help neon from becoming a dying art form.

Kinsey does all of the maintenance work on the Mill Mountain Star, and they donate all of their work for the H&C and the Dr. Pepper signs downtown.