A Beginner's Guide to Gilding
Small glints and gleams make the greatest impression—use precious metals to add a Midas touch to heirlooms, décor, and tableware in your home.
You've likely seen and admired an antique gilt picture frame or opulent gold fireplace mantel in a museum or even in someone's home. These objects are coated in tissue-thin leaves of metal that are carefully glued to the surface in a process known as gilding. The technique dates back as far as 1500 B.C., when Egyptian craftsmen coated wooden furniture and sarcophagi in gold foil; many of these precious objects have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs.
Examples of gilding appear in artwork from many traditions—among the most renowned are Orthodox Byzantine iconography, Italian Renaissance paintings, and aristocratic furniture from the 16th century. Traditionally, gilding is done in gold leaf, but you can also use other types of metal leaf. There are multiple methods for gilding—some quite complicated and labor-intensive—yet, for the purposes of the home crafter, all you'll need are a few supplies, an object to gild, and several hours of free time. The real beauty of this craft is that in relatively little time you can turn the humblest object (a flea-market chest, decorative ornament, or even an Easter egg) into something truly luxurious.
Tools and Materials
Gilding leaf is essentially metal pounded into a very thin layer. Gold leaf, such as Monastery Gold Leaf (from $41.99, dickblick.com), comes in a variety of colors including pink, yellow, and white. White gold is actually half gold, half silver. Because pure silver leaf can tarnish, most silver gilding is actually done with metal leaves made from non-tarnishing alloys. Metal leaf is the catchall term used for imitation gold (also called composition leaf), aluminum, copper, and other gilding leaf that is not genuine gold or silver. Beginners should practice with metal leaf, like Speedball Mona Lisa Composition Gold Leaf ($9.99 for 25 sheets, amazon.com). Gilding leaves usually come separated by tissue paper in a booklet. Some gilding leaf comes attached to tissue paper; the leaf is transferred once its surface is pressed onto an object. Gilding leaf is very thin and delicate; you will need to handle each sheet very gently to prevent it from tearing. Close windows and turn off fans when working with the leaf; the smallest movements in air—even your breath—can make it more difficult to work with.
Size is what is used to apply gilding leaf to wood or other surfaces. Like paint, size can be oil- or water-based; oil-based size is often used for outdoor applications and will give the leaf a shinier, more luminescent appearance. Oil-based size also tends to be more toxic, and it takes longer to dry. Water-based size like Speedball Mona Lisa Metal Leaf Adhesive Size ($7.79, amazon.com) is used for many of our projects. The size is white and can be used for all colors of leaf. Let the size set and become tacky, per manufacturer's instructions, before applying the gilding leaf.
A gilder's tip is a boxy brush used to apply the gilding leaf to the object. To use, first create static on the brush by rubbing it against your hair or a sweater. Lightly touch the brush against the leaf; it will rise up off the stack and stick to the brush, at which point you can transfer the leaf to the item you're gilding. Touching the delicate leaf directly with your hands can cause it to rip or even disintegrate. Brushes come in a variety of widths; Mack Brush Gilder's Tip ($23.96, amazon.com) is good for beginners while smaller ones are better for working with small or intricate objects.
When handling gilding leaf, always work in a draft-free room; wear a dust mask ($13.45 for 50, amazon.com) to keep your breath from disturbing the paper as well as white cotton gloves ($11.99 for 12 pairs, amazon.com) to keep the oils on your hands from staining or tarnishing the leaf. This will also keep the leaf from sticking and tearing.
How to Apply Gold Leaf
This technique can be used for any gilding project; in this case, an Easter egg. Coat the eggs with size and set them gently onto a foam pin board for drying; let set until size is tacky, following manufacturer's instructions (about 20 minutes). Set your gold leaf sheets and paintbrush nearby so that they are easily accessible as you work. Put on gloves and mask. Rub a thin gilder's tip brush on your hair or a sweater to create static, and lift one gold sheet from the packet. Drape it over the egg and smooth it with your fingers. Go over the egg with a soft, natural-fiber paintbrush to even out the texture and brush off any extra flakes.