By Chris Meehan | Apr 30, 2015
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City
Founded: 1929 (or possibly 1930)
Brimley Bros. has been making neon in Salt Lake for so long, no one is exactly sure the exact year the company started.
"My grandfather and his brother started the business in 1929 or 1930. We don't have accurate records," says David Brimley, who currently runs the business. "They started it because of The Great Depression and they were both looking for a way to feed their families."
Then came the golden age for neon. "In the '40s and '50s, there was nothing but neon up and down every main street in the U.S.A.," Brimley says.
A lot has changed. The advent of plastic sign cabinets in the mid-1950s disrupted the sign business. By the 1970s, neon fell out of favor. "It was associated with nothing but bars and old-fashioned stuff that nobody liked anymore."
Now neon is making a comeback, and demand remains pretty constant for Brimley. "We'll always produce neon because it's what we like doing. It's family tradition and there's still a demand for it," Brimley contends. He works with his daughter and son-in-law today.
Brimley Bros. has long lead times. "Neon repairs can be backed up from eight to 12 weeks. New production is four to six weeks without fail," says David Brimley, who currently runs the business.
"We don't do any advertising at all," Brimley says. "We can't discount and we're not trying to find new work. We're trying to figure out how to do all the work we have."
Brimley Bros. also installs other signage, like LED lighting, when needed. "They're small and easy to fit inside tight places," Brimley says. "We've gone to LEDs for almost all of channel letters. They're easier to service and more efficient."
The company also installs LCD or LED panel displays. But Brimley says they're heavy and changing rapidly. "It's one of those products that in 10 to 15 years you won't recognize," he bemoans. "Even now on the market, there are giant screens you can roll up like a big sheet of paper and store away."
But Brimley's bread and butter will always be neon, a unique commercial art. "There are no products out there that can imitate the shape of letters as effectively, tightly and neatly as neon," Brimley contends. "We've specialized and gone backwards to what we enjoy doing, which is vintage neon sign restoration, repair, and reproduction and new production of vintage styles. That's the fun part of the business."
Numerous production companies are customers. "We've done work for something like 160 movies," Brimley says. The company made signs for television shows like Touched by an Angel and Everwood, among others. "There's always the time challenge with them because their shooting schedules are tight," Brimley says.
Brimley Bros. can also age signs. "The ones we have on our own building are reproductions of what my dad had on his shop in 1940. They're heavily patinated," Brimley says.
But not everyone wants an aged sign, he adds. "We work for a lot of collectors who like signs in pristine neon condition." They don't want a rusty, worn sign next to a restored classic car.
Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is getting material and components that we feel are quality enough to not be causing problems with our product," says Brimley, including purchasing from sign companies that go out of business.
Opportunities: "Cities are starting to realize that neon signs are landmarks and people love them," Brimley says. Salt Lake City,he notes, is encouraging businesses in the city's onetime Chinatown district to use vintage-inspired neon signs rather than modern ones.
Needs: "More qualified people that can do the type of work we do without having to be trained for years," Brimley says. He says it takes at least three years to apprentice people for neon work and those opportunities aren't readily out there. He says he only knows of one school in the U.S. that still offers neon classes -- down from about 200 in the 1980s.