Part of a Series
In this fifth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different types of industry in Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.
At night, one of the most visible features of the Knoxville skyline is a cluster of three large letters: the white BB&T logo atop the bank building at the corner of Gay and Main.
To find the place those letters came from, you have to look a lot closer to the ground. In an industrial stretch of near North Knoxville, on a narrow side street off Bernard Avenue, squeezed between the small gully of Second Creek and the elevated rumble of I-275, there is a squat blue-gray building with a corrugated roof. Only two things give any indication of what goes on inside: a jumbled pile of commercial signs of varied sizes and ages, including a large Weigel's Farm Store marquee and a smaller, faded cartoon depiction of a leaping lamb; and, on top of the building, another sign that says, simply, Neon Service Co.
Here, in this 6,000-square-foot building, is what proclaims itself as "Knoxville's oldest and most reliable sign company." Since 1953, under a succession of different owners, Neon Service Co. has manufactured, maintained, repaired, and replaced signs of all kinds for businesses of all kinds, large and small.
Current owner Tony Saffles walks through a small warren of cluttered offices to the shop floor. Saffles is a friendly, enthusiastic guy with a trim build, a goatee, and graying hair that falls past his shoulders. He got into the sign business by accident, not long after graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1990. He wound up at SunTrust bank, right around when it was formally changing the names of all of its Third National branches. Corporate name changes are a big deal in the sign business. Saffles says he has personally overhauled and rebranded thousands of ATMs alone, in Tennessee and elsewhere. From SunTrust, he got a job with the company then known as Plasti-Line (now ImagePoint), and then a few years later went out on his own as an independent sign contractor. When Neon Service Co. came up for sale seven years ago, Saffles saw an opportunity to combine its long-standing client base—including Weigel's and TVA—with his own growing business. He has 18 employees, and he says that even with the recession, his core customers have kept him fairly busy.
In the shop, about a half-dozen workers are scattered around various work stations. A few are working on what appears to be a large, aluminum dog bone, which will house a neon sign for River Dog Bakery, the pet-cuisine specialists on Northshore Drive. Another is assembling long, narrow metal boxes that will become lighted canopies for new Weigel's locations. They will be outfitted with strips cut from a pile of thin, maroon slabs of acrylic. "That's Weigel's red," Saffles says. A jumbled pile of letter forms sits to the side, e's and i's and g's in the font familiar to anyone who has frequented the convenience-store chain.
Those letters are made right here, over at another table. That's where David Killion works, carefully bending thin strips of aluminum into the precise shapes requested by clients. Today he's working on a sign for Hardin Valley Orthodontics, from a logo sketched on paper. To get the curves just right, he uses a tool he made himself, a collapsible collection of metal tubes of different diameters that he bolts to the end of the worktable. Out in the world of big-money sign manufacturing, there is a computerized machine that can do much of the work Killion is doing. "It costs $150,000," Saffles says with a laugh. He'd rather pay for the hand-crafting.
But there is a more high-tech side to the operation, up a set of wooden stairs in a loft-like office. Steve Major works here, designing logos on a computer that then transmits them to a sort of industrial printer equipped with a small, swiveling blade. In the corner are rolls of vinyl of varying shades, which Major feeds through the printer. What comes out are sheets of letters cut to exact specifications. Major's been with the company for decades, and he speaks reverently of the man he learned his trade from, a local artist named Larry Burton. Burton, who now has his own gallery in Gatlinburg selling prints of Smoky Mountain scenes, used to draw and cut the letters by hand, Major says. When the new printer arrived, the first thing Major printed off was a replica of Burton's signature, with "Jr." added at the end. Then he stuck it to the machine, and the printer has been known as Larry Burton Jr. ever since.
All this vinyl, acrylic, and aluminum somewhat give the lie to the company's name. Saffles says that demand for actual neon signs has been declining for years, with the emergence of new, better lighting technologies. Neon Service Co. will even produce computer-driven signs on demand, though it doesn't make the digital hardware: "We buy the message centers and incorporate those into our signs," Saffles says. But there is still a market for neon, and a room across the stairs from Major's office houses the company's stockpile. Neon tubes are piled on wooden shelves, some already formed into the shapes of letters or logos, others just straight rods awaiting an order. Saffles says there's too little neon work these days to justify space on the factory floor, so the hand-shaping is actually done at home by one of his sales representatives.
Outside in the yard are all those old signs, generally removed and reclaimed when Neon Service goes out to install a new one. Saffles says his crews salvage what they can from the signs, and what's left is eventually recycled. The junk pile is also a reminder of the functional, anonymous nature of the work that Saffles and his employees perform. They can drive all over town and see their own handiwork, but most people barely notice it.
Saffles doesn't care. "It's just fun," he says, with a shrug. "I make stuff. I tear stuff up. And I get to see it when it's done."