Beginners Guide to Gold Gilding Techniques

What is the Art of Gilding Gold?

The practice of gilding gold is a method of decoration involving the application of a thin layer of gold leaf to a surface. Gold leaf is simply a very thin sheet of gold that is designed for this purpose. Artists, sign painters and craftsmen who undertake the gilding process will do so because the resulting items or work of art will be more beautiful than if they hadn’t done so. 

Whilst items are often gilded in gold. Silver or indeed any other kind of precious metal leaf are also used frequently for gilding. In fact many hobbyists and beginners will typically use imitation gold rather than genuine gold leaf. This is because whilst genuine gold leaf will last longer than imitations such as bronze or copper leaf, it’s prices are also significantly more expensive.

Supplies Required for Gilding Gold Leaf

When undertaking gilding projects it is important to have all the correct equipment and materials on hand since the timing of each step can be very precise. However, some of these items are more suited for some jobs than others.

Adhesive Size: Oil Gilding vs Water Gilding

During the process of gilding metal, whether using gold, silver or copper leaf, adhesives called an adhesive size will be used to stick the metal leaf onto the gilt surface. An adhesive size can be either water or oil based but these can’t necessarily be used interchangeably.

Oil Sizes

Oil based sizes are the more modern type of size. They are typically more popular due being simple to use along with being more versatile. The caveat however is that a gilt surface which uses an oil size will never have a mirror like finish and will instead have a matte sheen. Despite this though oil sizes are more commonly used these days since they can be used both indoors and outside.

These sizes can also be slow and quick drying in nature depending on the products you buy, meaning that one oil size may be better suited for a project than others. Quick drying oil sizes are typically better for smaller projects whilst slow drying ones are more suited to larger ones.

Water Sizes

These sizes are less commonly used due to the convenience provided by an oil based size. However water gilding methods can provide an overall mirror like finish which oil based products are simply unable to replicate.

Whilst it is not ideal for outdoor use, water gilding methods are great for for interior gold leaf gilding work. This is because the size not only provides a better finish but also stays tacky for longer after drying. As a result you will be able to transfer leaf to it for longer periods.

Gold and Metal Leaf

Gold, silver and metal leaf typically come in a book of 25 sheets of leaf which rests on backing paper or tissue paper depending on whether you buy surface or patent gold leaf. However it is also often available in rolls.

Genuine Gold Leaf vs Imitation Gold Leaf 

When getting into the hobby most people will only be able to find imitation gold leaf. This is simply another kind of metal leaf with a passing resemblance to gold leaf. Typically these will be akin to brass however and as opposed to genuine gold. 

However these are easier to find due many hobby shops not carrying much if any authentic gold leaf. This is because a single book of gold leaf sheet can often cost over $50. Additionally, you may have to order a pack of books instead of one if you want the real thing, which can cost over $750. The same is true for silver leaf as well with the replica metal leaf found in hobby stores typically being aluminium based. 

Due to it’s rather prohibitive price, one of only gold leaf distributors left in the United States is Barnabas Blattgold. However, there is also a market for edible gold leaf.

Despite the steep price, genuine gold leaf does have it’s advantages. An item with a surface gilded in gold leaf will retain the luster of looking like real gold forever whilst an imitation leaf will darken and fade over time no matter how much skill is put into its creation. 

Primers and Sealants

The first and last steps respectively in the gliding process are priming and sealing. Both of these steps are crucial as they will enhance and help maintain the colour of your final product.

Priming

Priming provides the undercoat for your gold leaf, with typical colours being red or yellow depending on how warm you want the gold leaf gilding to look. A gilder may use them both on the same piece. Reds will typically be on the top of more detailed areas to help destress the gold and make details stand out.

Sealants

Once your gold leaf or imitation gold leaf has been gilded then comes the decision of whether or not to use a sealant. On imitation gold leaf this is a no brainer since over time, especially in high traffic areas the gilding is guaranteed to fade.

However, for genuine gold leaf the answer is not quite as simple. If the gold is less than 22 karat then it will fade or become damaged without a sealant coating. However if the sheets of gold are over 22 karat, sealing is not necessary and should be avoided as it can diminish the final results of your hard work.

Gold Gilder’s Tools

When gilding, along with the raw materials you will need some tools. To get started here a some basic necessities:

  • Gilders Cushion: This provides a safe surface for cutting your leaf.
  • Gilders Knife: Used for cutting the gold leaf sheets into shape.
  • Variety of High Quality Synthetic brushes: Used when applying your size to a surface.
  • Gilders Tip/tips: Used to cut gold onto the surface of the object you want to gild.
  • Gilders Mop: Used for brushing the gold into place and removing any excess. 
  • Brushes made of Sable and Camel Hair: Used to paint on gilded surfaces.

Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, it along with the aforementioned supplies should be enough to get you started.

How To Gild With Gold

Below is a basic set of instructions on how to gild a surface with gold leaf. For these instructions it is assumed that you will to use an oil based adhesive size as this will provide beginners with an easier first experience:

1. Preparation and Priming

  • Thoroughly clean the surface you wish to gild. If necessary, also sand it until the surface is smooth.
  • Apply a suitable primer and ensure that the surface is not porous. This is because a porous surface will absorb some of the size and prevent the leaf from properly adhering.

2. Applying Your Adhesive Size

  • For this guide we assume you’re using an oil based size. As such make sure that if working on a small project that you use a quick drying solution. Alternatively, use a slow drying size if working on a larger scale one.
  • Apply your size in thin, even coats using a large sized brush.
  • Wait until the adhesive is tacky in consistency before applying your leaf. If you don’t, the final product will turn out blotchy. 

3. Applying The Gold Leaf

  • If using a transfer leaf then simply take a sheet of your book of gold leaf and place it face down on the surface you wish to gild. Then gently rub the backing paper to release the leaf.
  • If using loose leaf however, gently use your gilders tip to lift the leaf from the book. 
  • Then gently use your gilders’ mop to tamp the leaf into detailed areas.

4. Finishing

  • Allow the size under the leaf to dry. This should take a few hours.
  • Gently use your gilders mop to brush away any skewings (overhangs of the leaf).  
  • With the skewings carefully touch up any gaps.
  • Thoroughly inspect the piece to ensure there are no gaps or skewings still attached.

5. Sealing the Surface

  • If using genuine gold leaf with a karat of 22 or higher this step is unnecessary and will in fact detract from your finished piece.
  • For imitation leaf or or gold less than 22 karat, this step is essential however since the leaf can oxidise.
  • Use a clear sealant. Whilst doing this ensure you make clean and even strokes to cover the entire surface.
  • Afterwards wait around a day for the sealant to cure and congrats! You’ve finished your first gilded piece.