Gold Leafing or Gilding


Gilding is name of the the technique for gold leafing articles. Gold paint is not good enough when you want the metallic brilliance of real gold. Gold paint also dulls over time to a dead brown colour. The only way to get a metallic gold finish is to use metallic gold leafing. You can buy 24 carat gold leaf but it is very expensive. A special alloy of brass rolled into a thin foil called Dutch gold is commonly used for gold leafing. It comes in ‘books” of 100 sheets about 4 inches square. The only disadvantage is that, unlike 24 carat gold, it will tarnish over time so it must be sealed from the air.

Gold leafing technique

The surface for the gold leafing must be smooth as possible. An undercoat of red ochre acrylic is applied first. You can also use other colours like black, blues, yellows or green. Each gives a different ‘feel’ to the finish once it is gilded. Red ochre gives a rich, warm quality to the finish. Smooth the surface again when it has dried.

Gold size is now applied to the surface. Gold size is a liquid sticks the gold leaf to the surface. There are two types, Japanese gold size (or Jap gold size) and German gold size. Jap size is a brown coloured spirit based product. It gets very sticky and messy if you’re not careful but you can get very smooth finishes. German size is a milky liquid which is much easier to work with.

Wait until the size is touch dry – usually about three quarters of an hour to an hour, depending on the ambient temperature. It is best to experiment on a test object before you gild your prized work of art.

Handle the gold leaf with cotton gloves to stop the gold leaf sticking to perspiration on your hands. Carefully lift up one sheet of gold leaf, using both hands, and drape it over the section of the surface to be gilded as if you were spreading a tablecloth on a table. The slightest breeze will blow it the gold leaf everywhere. By handling it like a tablecloth you can actually get more control of the leaf as you move it through the air. You might have to practice the technique to get it where you want it to go. Alternatively you can cut the leaf into small squares but I find this gets very fiddly.

With a soft brush lightly push the leaf down onto the surface. Repeat the process with the next piece of leaf. Once the whole surface has been covered *dust* off all the loose flakes of gold leaf. A soft cloth is used to gently wipe the surface to smooth it down.

Wait about 24 hours for the size to cure and then seal the surface with a clear acrylic lacquer. Try the clear finish on a test sample first because some clear lacquers and polyurethanes will *kill* the brilliance of the gold finish. Feast Watson makes an excellent Crystal Clear finish.

Gold Egyptian artifacts made 3000 years ago still look like they were made yesterday so if you used 24 carat gold you will not have to seal the surface because it doesn’t tarnish.