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These dreams light up the night

One in an occasional series.

Like moths to a flame, people are drawn to neon lights.

William Nehls became drawn to neon lights when he moved to Tampa and got a job working with a sign company. He liked the patterns he could create with the colored lights.

Two years later, when he started D'Brite Signs, the attraction became a passion.

"All this is like my children," Nehls said, while leafing through a book with photos of his handiwork.

One of his more famous pieces is a blue, red, yellow and purple fish riding the crescent waves of an azure sea that he did for the Shells restaurant on N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood.

"It's like turning up the volume on a sign," said Chip Roehl, a vice president for Shells Restaurants, which has registered the fish as a trademark. "It's hard to ignore neon. It just pulls your attention."

That's the power of neon. It attracts attention in unique ways, and can create a mood with an explosion of color.

"You light it up and the whole world is thrilled by it," said Glen Bogue, who makes most of Nehls' pieces in his shop on Lazy Lane in Carrollwood.

"(Neon) does make nightclubs better, or restaurants nicer," he added. "It enhances life and doesn't put it down."

Bogue said that 70 percent of the neon tubes he makes actually go behind plastic cutouts to make back-lit "channel letters" that spell out store names in shopping centers.

Nehls said D'Brite, at 1715 E Fowler Ave., produces more channel letter signs than the classic neon ones _ but the bright, shiny, bare neon lights are what people remember.

Not all of those brightly colored tubes are technically neon lights. Neon gas is used to make the warm colors of red and orange while argon gas _ mixed with about 20 percent neon _ is used to make cooler blues, greens and purples.

To make those lights, a glass-blower must stand over a hot flame, heating and bending 4-foot tubes of glass to make letters or shapes. For signs that need more glass, the tubes are welded together over the flame. Then the tube is capped on each end with electrodes, and burned pure with 30,000 volts of electricity. Finally, neon or argon gas is pumped into the tube.

Electricity, traveling from one electrode to another, touches the gas atoms to make the light. "It excites them, and they're bouncing off of each other and are glowing," Nehls said.

The gas then reacts with a phosphorescent coating on the tube to produce the various colors.

Even with all that activity going on inside the glass tube, Nehls said making the lights can be relaxing.

"You sit there over the flame with your 4-foot stick and you roll it slowly between your fingers, move it over to the table, lay it down, do your bends _ whatever it is you're doing, it's a very slow, easy process," Nehls said.

The finished product, Nehls said, is cheap to operate. A 60-foot glass tube and one power transformer uses as much power as a 100-watt bulb. The lights themselves cost about $8 a foot, depending on how much bending is required. For a small sign, that translates to roughly $25 a letter.

Nehls sells smaller neon sculptures _ he had a palm tree that could fit on a desk for about $150 _ but he has no showroom and usually makes everything to order.

Though signs are his bread and butter, Nehls said he dreams about creating light sculptures or outlining the side of a building, such as the round 31-story NationsBank building in downtown Tampa. He imagines neon ringing the building every six floors.

"When the tourists drive through, the locals drive through, their eyes would be focused on that building," Nehls said. "There would be nothing like it."