Mark Kennedy: Boyd Buchanan student and her dad find togetherness making neon signs

Oct. 25—Visiting Barry Twitchell's hilltop garage off East Brainerd Road is like walking into a kaleidoscope.

Twitchell, 58, is a pilot for a major airline. He is also a structural engineer who has spent part of the last two years creating a garage that looks like a cross between a Rube Goldberg cartoon and a Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum.

The jumbo garage was built on an old tennis court lot, ostensibly for Twitchell's Porsche collection. And indeed, he owns six German sports cars, lined up in the garage like Popsicles in a freezer.

But the space has grown into so much more.

Raise your hand if you have any of these items in your garage:

— A computer numerical control router to make LED neon signs.

— An under-construction, four-passenger, single-engine airplane that will, when completed, cruise at 200 mph.

— A collection of model airplanes numerous enough to stock a small museum.

— A vast array of international flags (representing all the countries to which Twitchell has flown airplanes).

— A wall covered with neon signs that represent the inventory in a new tech-art business called Gizmo Gadget's Garage.

— A replica of the aerial tramway at Ober Gatlinburg that Twitchell calls Ober Twitchellburg.

— And the piece de resistance: a 21-speed mountain bike driven by an AC-drive motor, which controls a drive belt that is connected to six ceiling fans with blades made from German license plates. (Breathe here.) Mixed in are King Kong flying a biplane and a Pink Panther riding a unicycle.

"It's been an adventure," Twitchell says of the garage. "I'm attracted to bright shiny objects."

No doubt.

We met Twitchell at the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival earlier this month where he, his wife Shannon, and his 13-year-old daughter, Sydney, were staffing a vendor's tent promoting their sign business.

It turns out the venture is sort of a father-daughter enterprise that began about a year ago when the two visited a neon sign craftsman in Atlanta to learn more about the signmaker's art.

The Twitchells soon discovered they could make attractive signs using LED neon instead of the traditional gas-filled tubing.

"I had read a lot of books on traditional neon, but I knew I would never have the spatial orientation (to make them)," Twitchell said.

LED neon is inexpensive and runs on household electric current, and the tubes are almost indestructible, he said.

"There's a lot of craftsmanship in real neon, but also a lot of craftsmanship in this, too" said Sydney, an eighth-grader at Boyd Buchanan School who also has a deep interest in engineering and aeronautics.

The Twitchells cut and paint wooden discs to look like metal. They carve lettering into the material, which they then fill with colored epoxy. Automotive-themed designs are their bread and butter, and their finished signs sell for about $250 to $300.

"They are attractive to the eye, [and] colorful," says Barry Twitchell. "It's a great advertising medium, for sure.

" I kind of feel like with these LED neon signs we are not even halfway through our evolution in where we want to go with it," he said. "I want to do a lot of stuff with animation. I always thought that was cool."

Once they scale up the process, Twitchell said he believes he and Sydney can produce up to six signs a day. The enterprise has just launched a website for Gizmo Gadget's Garage ( to market the signs.

For her part, Sydney said she likes the artistic part of the business, but she also just likes working alongside her dad.

"I'm just having fun doing this tech art, just doing the family thing," she said.

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at