Restoring the Finish on the Metal Housing of An Antique Neon Sign

The original factory finish on the metal housings of many Pre-War neon signs has a wrinkled (textured) appearance.  Once considered unsightly it eventually become a standard application used by sign manufacturers because it lowered their production costs. Instead of having to discard parts that had small nicks, scratches or dents or having to sand or hand finish solder and weld joints, textured paint covered up all of these imperfections because they would not visually project back up through the paint and be seen.  It also was faster to apply:  whereas a mirrored finish required much surface preparation like sanding and primer, textured paint could be applied in one shot with minimal prep, if at all.

As this type of finish has aged over 80 years it is quite common for small cracks (called checking) to appear on the surface.  Some antique collectors call this form of checking “alligatoring” because it looks like an alligators skin. Part of the charm of these vintage signs is seeing the age and usage that contributes to their antiqueness.  The decision of whether to restore or not to restore is a delicate one; however, some signs are simply too far gone and therefore benefit from a restoration.  While it may not be possible to achieve the same patina and finish in the process of restoring a sign that does not mean you cannot achieve a beautiful looking finish similar to what the factory applied originally.  To duplicate a similar looking appearance this article will walk you through some of the steps to refreshing the finish of your sign.


WRINKLE FINISH SPARAY PAINT - The paint that I recommend is made by VHT.  Their ‘Wrinkle Plus’ textured spray paint can be purchased at many retailers, including Amazon and nearly all major automobile supply companies.  You can visit the VHT website to find retailers:

VHT Wrinkle Finish Used in Sign Restoration Projects

TEST SAMPLE BEFORE YOU BEGIN - It is advisable to test on scrap piece of metal to get your technique down first before you paint your sign.  A test sample is forgiving to first-time mistakes; your restored housing is not.  Follow the manufacturer’s safety and application instructions that are on the label.

HOT/DRY ENVIRONMENT - Ideally you should apply the spray paint in a warm environment (70 degrees to 95 degrees) or outdoors in the sun on a hot and dry, but not humid day.  As a general rule a high humidity environment of less than 50% is optimal, but this also depends on the temperature outside. The risk of spraying in a high humidity environment is your paint will not set up as it should.

TIP - You will be applying at least three heavy coats spraying in a crosshatch technique of of spraying the first coat vertically (top-to-bottom), the second coat horizontally (left-to-right) and final coat diagonally so that the paint coats the entire surface at three different angles.


STEP ONE:  Apply the first coat using a sweeping motion from the top of the sign to the bottom and allow the paint to dry to the touch before you spray your second coat.  The paint should be dry to the touch in 10 minutes.

STEP TWO:  After the first coat has thoroughly dried you may apply a second coat in a sweeping motion left-to-right.

STEP THREE:  After the second coat has dried (at least 10 minutes) repeat this process again by applying the spray paint diagonally. 

IMPORTANT:  After you apply the final coat use a heat gun you will be able to re-create the wonderful alligatoring-effect that makes the finish on the original signs so visually appealing.  Start out slowly and work the gun back and forth until you see the paint begin to set up and wrinkle.  If you see the paint bubbling it means that the heat gun is too close to the paint so back away to avoid damaging the finish.

STEP FOUR (Optional):  Some housings made by NPI were in colors other than black including red, green and to a lesser extent other colors.  If your preference is to paint your housing to be in a color other than black you can apply a final color coat after the textured paint has thoroughly dried.  Apply your color with just enough of a skim coat, not a heavy coat, until you are satisfied that the black color has disappeared.

With practice to get the technique down and following these steps you can achieve a final results that can look like this:

Close-Up of Wrinkle Finish on Neon Products Inc (NPI) Sign