Share story

As Seattleites watch the new 12-foot Rainier Brewing “R” being hoisted atop the old brewery along Interstate 5 later this week, some onlookers will be holding their breath.

“When you go to plug it in, you just hope that it works,” said Andre Lucero, president of Western Neon, which fabricated the new “R.” “During travel, while the crane is picking it up, anything could break. And then you have this major countdown, and it doesn’t light … ”

The pressure is understandable. The original Rainier “R” was a Seattle icon, and the replacement of it with a big green “T” by the Tully’s coffee company in 2000 was met with dismay.

The news of the restoration of the “R,” albeit a spruced-up, newer model, was welcomed warmly.

Even Tully’s chairman Michael Avenatti said in a recent news release, “The replacement of the ‘R’ with the ‘T’ some 13 years ago was a mistake. That part of the Seattle skyline has always truly belonged to the ‘R.’ ”

However, Western Neon has a soft spot for the “T,” since the company manufactured it as well. In fact, the sign, green neon tubes unlit, now leans against a wall outside Western Neon’s SoDo workshop.

Lucero eyed the solemn structure and called the exchange of letters “bittersweet”.

“We were very, very proud of that ‘T,’ ” he said. “In the 13 years it was up there, we only had one bad transformer and two bad tubes. It’s really been one of those maintenance-free signs, which is what we rest our hat on at the end of the day.”

But it’s on to new oversized consonants.

Visibly identical to its older fraternal twin, the new “R” will, however, feature technological enhancements.

Made of rolled aluminum rather than the steel of the original, the new structure weighs in at around 1,100 pounds, half the weight of its predecessor.

(For true “R” aficionados, miniature replicas measuring 14 inches by 14 inches can be purchased for $285.)

Western Neon also decided on 470 LED bulbs, which will glow brighter and last longer than the previous, incandescent versions.

Lucero knows that the new “R” has a lot to live up to, since Western Neon was also responsible for restoring the older version, now on display at the Museum of History and Industry.

“It sat up there for [almost 50] years, and to just have some paint peeling is not bad compared to some of the junk you see out there today,” he explained. “It’s such a historical landmark. Everybody drove by it as children, grew up with it.”

It’s no surprise Western Neon was called on to manufacture both signs. The company is responsible for dozens of recognizable neons around town, including the green Filson sign in SoDo, the rotating, illuminated pink pachyderm at Elephant Car Wash, the charming fishing fly above the door at Steelhead Diner and many more.

Opened in 1985 and originally focusing on fabricating neon elements for fine artists, the company added large-scale sign manufacturing to its portfolio around 2000.

“To keep the lights on,” Lucero said, no pun intended. “We weren’t selling tons of art, and it became passion without a reward. We had to do something commercial in order to continue creating our art.”

Western’s 18 artists work with different mediums outside the shop, but all bring imaginative talent and attention to detail in custom-sign building.

“It’s a very eccentric group, because you are working with a lot of creative artists, who kind of see things completely differently,” Lucero said. “Everyone plays a key role in it … it’s all very passionate people wanting to stamp [the project] with their approval.”

As the team finishes the project, they anticipate teaming with Rainier Brewing for Tuesday’s “R Crawl.” The “R” will be loaded onto a flatbed trailer upright and driven through Seattle neighborhoods, starting in Georgetown, “to give back to the neighborhoods who have consumed a lot of Rainier,” Lucero said.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, the Rainier “R” will be hoisted into the darkened sky. After it’s fused to the building and lit, the Western Neon team will finally, truly, exhale.

For his part, Justin Fraher, the main man behind weeks of frame bending and constructing, isn’t worried.

“Once it’s welded in, it’s not going anywhere,” he declared.

After forecasting the “R” to hold for 100 years, he grinned. “All right, so we’ll go with 51. We’ll just beat that first one by one year.”

Devon Geary: