Gilding Tutorial

Michael Bootz
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 4:10 pm #1

This is a little tutorial where I want to show how to gild wood (other surfaces work similarly) with gold leaf.
While gilded objects look beautiful and fascinating, fortunately the acutal gilding isn't all that difficult (and not necessarily expensive).

A couple of words before I start:
There are several gilding techniques. I'll cover the simplest one here, which is usuallly referred to as "oil gilding". The technique itself is very simple:
  • prepare surace
  • apply glue
  • apply gold leaf to now-sticky surface
This is NOT the same technique as "water gilding" (which I haven't done so far). Water gilding is more complicated and involves more steps (preparing and applying gesso & bole). After applying the gold leaf, it is polished with agate-polishers (which cannot be done with oil gilding), so the gilded surface looks better.

However, oil gilding does have advantages, too (besides being easier to do): it can be waterproof, meaning objects gilded with this technique can get wet without damaging them (good for objects that are outside).




So let's start. I carved I a little something for this tutorial:






I want to gild the flower petals here.
Last edited by Michael Bootz on December 27th, 2015, 4:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 4:37 pm #2

Let's start with step 1: Preparation of the wood surface.
This is important for two reasons:
  • Oil gilding needs a non-absorbent surface (which wood is clearly not), so we need to seal it
  • The gilding will look as good (or bad) as the underlying surface. Ideally, the gilded object should look like gold (= metal), so the surface needs to be as smooth and shiny as possible. Any imperfections will be visible through the gold leaf, because it is so thin (between 1/3000 and 1/9000mm!)
So the surface has to be as perfect as possible. This affects the wood choice as well: To achieve a smooth surface we will later fill the wood pores. To facilitate this step it is best to choose a fine-grained wood. I used linden wood here.


Start by sanding the wood smooth using sand paper with various grits (going from coarse to fine). How fine you go depends on the wood you use (the harder the wood the finer the final sand paper). I'm using linden wood here, so no need to make a big fuss (I think I stopped after 600 or 800 grit paper). At this stage is also the time to take care of any imperfections in the wood. Let's look at the carving again. You can see that there is a little twig-hole in one of the flower petals:




Before sanding the petals smooth, I filled the hole by putting a drop of epoxy on top of it. After it had hardened I sanded excess epoxy on the surface down and then sanded the petal.


For further preparation of the wood surface we will use shellac and acrylic paint. Both will make the wood fibers rise, which doesn't look nice. While this might not be a problem for larger objects (these can simply be sanded with fine grit sandpaper after the first coat of shellac) this does not work really well for smaller or intricately carved objects. Getting these cleaned up after applying the shellac and subsequent rising of the wood fibers can be next to impossible. A way around this I've found is to simply oil the object with linseed oil.

Apply some linseed oil with a brush:



(Note that I have oiled the background already. Normally I would oil the whole thing in one go but for demonstration purposes I left the petals out and oiled them separately)

You can of course use other hardening oils as well (but don't use anyhting that has wax in it - shellac/paint/glue might not stick to the wax!). Before continuing let the oil dry completely. Drying times will depend on what type of oil you use (linseed or other oil, with or without siccatives). I used pure boiled linseed oil without siccatives so it took about a week to dry.
Last edited by Michael Bootz on January 24th, 2016, 8:19 am, edited 4 times in total.
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 4:44 pm #3

Now we'll apply some shellac to seal the wooden surface. A thin shellac solution of 1 part shellac dissolved in 5 parts ethanol is used for this. The solution is easily prepared by simply putting the shellac in a jar with the ethanol and letting is sit for a day or two, stirring from time to time.


Use a couple of brushes of appropriate size to apply a thin coat of the shellac solution. I used a very fine brush for the edges and a wider brush of the inner part of the petals.
Before applying the shellac:


After applying a coat of the shellac solution:


Let the shellac dry completely before continuing, I usually give it a day or so.
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 4:51 pm #4

Now we need to fill the pores of the wood. Remember, we want a smooth surface that looks as perfect as possible. You don't want to see the wood grain/pores through the gold leaf (that would make it look like wood that was painted golden). To achieve this acrylic paint mixed with finely powdered chalk is used:


Buy the chalk powder in an art supplies store. Don't grind it yourself (unless you're absolutely certain that you can grind it finely enough). The chalk is supposed to make the acrylic paint easier to sand (we're going to sand an polish the surface after apllying the paint). I guess it helps with filling the pores of the wood, too.
A note on the acrylic paint:
Because gold leaf is so extremely thin, the color of the surface under the gold will affect how the gilding looks. For this reason, warm colors like yellow or red are used.

Take a bit of the chalk powder:


And then mix it with a little water to from a paste:


Now add acrylic paint. You want a ration of acrylic paint : chalk of about 1 : 3. Mix well:


Finally, thin the mixture with a little water. It should have the consistency of cream:
Last edited by Michael Bootz on January 2nd, 2016, 10:54 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 5:02 pm #5

Time to apply the acrylic paint/chalk mixture. I'm using a couple of ordinary brushes, larger ones for the larger areas and very fine ones for the edges etc.:


Try to fill the pores of the wood by "pushing" the paint into them, holding the brush at a right angle to the wood and pushing down on the surface:


Be careful when painting the object: If you have an object (like I do) where only parts will be gilded (as opposed to the whole object), then make sure that you only paint the areas that are supposed to be gilded!

After one layer of paint:


After letting it dry a little, I applied a second layer:


Depending on how porous your wood is, two layers might be enough or you might need more. Now let the paint dry completely (two or three days).
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 5:08 pm #6

Once the acrylic paint has completely dried we can continue. As you can see, the paint left a rough surface:




Use sand paper of various grits to sand the painted areas smooth and polish it. I usually start with 320 grit and move up to 1000 or 2000 grit. Take your time with this step as this is crucial: If the surface is not well polished at this stage, the gilding will not look good. As I wrote above, any imperfections will be visible.

After sanding and polishing:


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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 5:12 pm #7

Only one more step and we're ready to gild. As I wrote in the beginning, oil gilding needs a non-absorbent surface. Acrylic paint is porous and absorbent, so now we have to seal the paint layer with shellac.
Use the same shellac solution you've used before and apply several layers of shellac with a brush, until the surface is glossy:




Let the shellac dry for a day.
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Michael Bootz
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December 27th, 2015, 5:30 pm #8

The wood is now ready for gilding. The actual gilding is very easy: apply glue to surface, then stick gold leaf on glue.
First, a word on glues:
Basically, there are two different glues (called mixtion) for oil gilding: a water-based glue (left) and an oil-based glue (right):


Both glues have advantages and disadvantages:
Water-based glue
  • Advantages: doesn't smell, can be thinned with water, fast drying time: gilding can be started 15 minutes after applying the glue
  • Disadvantages: the resulting gilded surface does not look as smooth and shiny as with the oil-based glue, because the water-based glue does not dry hard (it remains sort of rubbery). It is very hard to apply an even layer of glue, usually when I do it the brush strokes remain visible (and are therefore visible through the gold leaf). The glue is water-soluble, so cannot be used for objects that will come in contact with water.
Oil-based glue
  • Advantages: the resulting gilded surface looks better because the glue dries hard. Easier to apply a smooth even layer of glue. The glue is "water-proof" so it can be used to gild objects that will be outside and come in contact with rain etc.
  • Disadvantages: smelly (but not too bad), must be thinned with turpentine. Longer drying times (3 or 12 hours) before the gold leaf can be applied

Choose the glue that best suits your needs depending on the advantages and disadvantages I listed above. If you make an object that will get wet (like something that will be outside and exposed to rain) then you have to use the oil-based glue!


I chose to use the oil based glue for this tutorial. There are two varieties of that one: one that needs about 3 hours of drying time before the gold leaf can be applied and another one that needs about 12 hours of drying time. I use the 3-hour-variety as 12 hours requires too much planning ahead for my taste (I've read that results look better with the 12 hour glue, however).

No matter what glue you choose to use, thin it down first. I thinned the oil-based glue with turpentine, about 50:50 (1 part glue, 1 part turpentine). If you use the water-based glue, mix it with water (again about 1 part glue and 1 part water). Thinning the glue helps to apply it in a very thin, even layer.

Before you start applying the glue make sure that your object is clean and dust-free and make absolutely sure that you work in a dust-free environment. Specs of dust WILL be visible through the gold leaf!

Use one or more (depending on your object) soft brushes to apply the glue:






This step requires maximum care! The gold leaf will stick everywhere where glue is so you have to make absolutlely sure that you apply glue only to areas that you want to gild.

Now, using your brushes, apply the glue in a very thin and very even layer. You don't want pools of glue anywhere and you don't want to see brush strokes! Here's my flower after applying the glue:






It can be a bit tricky to see which areas are glued already and which are not. Good light and tilting the object usually helps. I've recently read that some people mix the glue with yellow or red oil paint to facilitate that. I've never tried this, though, and don't have any yellow or red oil paint at the moment.

After applying the glue, let it dry for the appropriate time - 3 hours in my case. As mentioned above, leave your object in a dust-free room.
Last edited by Michael Bootz on December 28th, 2015, 10:30 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Michael Bootz
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December 28th, 2015, 12:15 pm #9

Now you're ready to gild. First, prepare your tools and work area. You don't need a lot of tools and materials:
  • gold leaf (obviously)
  • a knife for cutting the gold leaf into managable pieces. The knife should have a long, straight blade
  • ethanol to degrease your knife
  • a surface for cutting the gold leaf on. I'm using a cork trivet from the gardening store
  • one or two brushes for transferring the gold leaf pieces to the object. These are special brushes called "Gilder's Tip" made of very soft squirrel hair
  • a bushy squirrel hair brush called "Mop" to brush away excess gold leaf and kind of "polish" the gold

Here's my work place:




Cork trivet, kitchen knife and gold leaf. Gold leaf is usually sold in little booklets containing 25 sheets of gold leaf, measuring 8cm x 8cm.

Note: There are special gilder's knifes with perfectly straight blades and leather cushions called "gilder's cushion". While I don't doubt that these work better for cutting gold leaf, an ordinary kitchen knife and a cork trivet have worked fine for me so far (and are way cheaper, of course).




First, thoroughly degrease your knife with ethanol:


Gold leaf will stick to any traces of grease, and we will use the knife the transfer the gold leaf from the booklet to the cork. Therefore the knife blade must be absolutely grease-free, otherwise the gold leaf will stick to it and won't come off again!
When you're done degreasing, let the blade dry.

A word in advance about handling gold leaf:
Close all windows to avoid draft and breathe carefully. A gust of wind or even breathing heavily can easily blow a piece of gold leaf away.


Now open the booklet with the gold leaf to expose the first sheet:


On one end of the leaf, carefully slide the knife blade under the leaf:


This takes a bit of practice. You might have to wiggle the blade a bit to be able to slide it under the gold leaf.
Once you've slid the blade all the way under the leaf, carefully lift the knife:


Slowly and carefully transfer the leaf from the booklet to the cork trivet:




Place the gold leaf on the trivet and carefully move the knife out from under leaf:




This is actually the hardest part of gilding. But don't worry, it isn't all that difficult. You might destroy one or two pieces of gold leaf until you get the hang of it.
As you can see I tore the leaf when transferring it to the cork, but that's not a big problem.
If the gold leaf doesn't lie nice and flat on the cork, you can carefully and very softly breathe at it from above. In case it is badly tangled after transferring it to the cork, you can most of the times slide the knife under it at some spot and either pick it up again or try to untangle it as well as possible.
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Michael Bootz
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December 28th, 2015, 12:31 pm #10

Now you can cut the gold leaf into pieces with your knife:




Carefully cut it by moving the knife back and forth. There's no need to exert to much pressure (remember, gold leaf is super-thin so it doesn't take a lot of force to cut it).
The size of the pieces you cut depends on the object you want to gild. You want to cover your object with gold leaf without wasting too much, so cut the gold pieces accordingly:




I've seperated the pieces I've cut for these photos for demonstration purposes only. Of course there's no need to do that.
Now we need to transfer the gold leaf pieces onto the object we want to gild. Gold leaf is much too thin to touch with your hands (and would stick to the grease on your fingers anyway) so we need a tool for that: A squirrel hair brush called a "Gilder's tip" that I've mentioned above already. These are available in different sizes. I like to have a wide and a narrow one, for large and small pieces of gold leaf:


First, brush your tip against your forehead or cheek several times. This will help make the gold leaf stick to the brush. Some say because of the grease on your skin, some say because it charges the hairs of the brush electrostatically. Probably both is true.
Simply touch a piece of gold leaf with the brush and it will stick to it:


I've turned the brush around here so you can see the gold leaf sticking to it:


Now place the gold leaf on the glued surface of your object. It will stick to the glue immediately:




You can now gently push the leaf down with the hairs of the brush. Hold the brush at a right angle to the object and very gently push down on the gold leaf:


This is done to make it "stick properly". When transferring the gold leaf onto the object, it will stick to it at the first point of contact. And because the gold leaf is so light, the rest of the leaf might flutter around.

Continue like this, transferring the gold leaf piece by piece onto your object until you've covered all of the glued are with gold leaf. Make sure that the gold leaf pieces overlap a bit and that the gold leaf hangs a bit over the edges as well (you want to avoid having "bare spots" between pieces of gold leaf and on the edges):




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Michael Bootz
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December 28th, 2015, 12:48 pm #11

Everything's covered with gold leaf now, but the gold still only sticks somewhat losely to the surface and it doesn't look to good yet. To fix that, we need a bushy, very soft squirrel hair brush called a mop:


First, hold the mop at a right angle to your object and very gently push down on the gold leaf. This will push the leaf onto the surface and into all the corners and recesses:


Looks much better already:


As you can see, there is still lots of overhanging gold leaf on the edges and at the spots were separate pieces of gold leaf overlapped. Plus, the gold leaf tore in several spots when pushing it on the surface, exposing the underground. We're going to fix that with the mop now. Hold your object over a card board box and gently polish over the gilded surface with your mop in circling motions:


This will do several things at once:
  • it will brush off all the loose skewings (loose pieces of gold leaf on overlaps and edges)
  • it will brush the skewings into areas where no gold leaf is (because of the leaf tearing when pushing it down onto the surface of possible spots you missed)
  • it will sort of polish the surface
The carboard box it to catch all the pieces of gold dust that you'll creat by the brushing. In case you detect any bare spots just pick up som gold dust from the box with the mop and brush over those spots.




Done:






I took two more photos outside in sunlight:











Now let it dry for about 3 days until the glue has hardened completely.
As you can see I got some gold leaf sticking in spots where I don't want it to be. This might either be becase I wasn't careful enough when applying the glue (the edges of my petals are vertical, so some glue might have run down) or because of grease from my fingers touching the object. I'll try to polish the gold off of the "unwanted" areas later.

Once the glue has dried completely you can try to carefully and very slightly polish the gilding with a piece of cotton wool:


This can make the gilding look a tiny bit smoother by removing some "fuzzy" spots from the overlaps that the mop did not remove. Just make sure to be very gentle - you don't want to rub the thin gold layer off.


Last edited by Michael Bootz on January 3rd, 2016, 1:54 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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December 28th, 2015, 12:58 pm #12

If you don't want to gild part of an object like I did here but the whole object instead, then you will not be able to do it in one session (you have to hold it after all).
Just hold the object in one spot and gild as much as you can. Do not apply glue to the spot where you hold it and wear gloves when holding it to avoid getting grease on the surface (the glue might not stick to greasy surfaces!). When you're done gilding, brush off the loose skewings with the mop and put the object down and let it dry. Then gild the remaining parts. Pick it up (again with gloves) on a spot that is gilded already, apply glue to the areas that are not gilded yet and gild.

In case you forgot to apply glue some areas (this will become apparent after "mopping" when these areas are exposed as no gold will stick to them) you can simply apply glue to them afterwards and gild them.
Likewise, often tiny "seams" are visible between the pieces of gold leaf. If you don't like these, you can gild the whole object twice. Simply gild once and when done and the glue has dried, apply glue and gild the whole object again.

If you gild an object that will be touched/handled repeatedly, then the gold leaf might wear off because it is so thin. To prevent this, you can apply some varnish over the gilded areas. The very unique color and shine of the gold will change a bit after it has been covered with varnish, though.
Last edited by Michael Bootz on December 28th, 2015, 1:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Michael Bootz
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December 28th, 2015, 1:15 pm #13

There are also alternatives to gold leaf:
Imitation gold leaf is basically brass. It has several advantages and disadvantages over real gold leaf:
Advantages:
  • much cheaper
  • much thicker, so handling is a lot easier
Disadvantages:
  • it's not gold and therefore doesn't look as nice (but I bet many people won't notice)
  • much thicker than gold leaf. While easier to handle, the result will not look as good
  • can oxidize so it might have to be protected with shellac or varnish
Imitation gold leaf is usually sold in sheets of 16cm x 16cm. Gilding with imitation gold leaf works as the same as with real gold leaf with one exception:

Transferring the leaf if much easier, because it is thicker. You don't need a gilder's tip. Transferring a sheet from the booklet to the cork for cutting can be done either with your fingers (wear gloves, though - you don't want to get grease on the metal leaf) or with a pair of tweezers (the ones that stamp collectors use work very well). After cutting, you can transfer the pieces onto your object also with a pair of pliers.




There are also silver leaf and copper leaf. Like imitation gold leaf, both are thicker and much cheaper than real gold leaf. Both can also oxidize and should therefore (if the accompanying color change is not desired) be protected either with shellac or varnish.
Last edited by Michael Bootz on December 29th, 2015, 11:00 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Michael Bootz
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December 28th, 2015, 1:21 pm #14

If you want to patinate your object to give it an aged look, you can do this with oil paint.
First, gild your object and then let the glue dry completely (about 3 days).
Mix some oil paint (Van Dyke Brown works very well for this) with turpentine until it is very thin. Apply the thin paint with a brush all over your object, then immediately wipe it off again with a very soft cloth. Wipe off as much as you want, until the desired look is achieved. Be careful though and don't rub like crazy, otherwise you might wear through the thin layer of gold. This is also the reason why you should thin the oil paint down quite a bit. Oil paint tends to be quite sticky and wiping it off again will be very difficult if it is too thick.

I've done this on this pendant:
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Alan H
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December 28th, 2015, 11:54 pm #15

That's a really detailed description, I've always wondered how it's done. Thanks for talking the time to share your knowledge.
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Tyrannocaster
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January 1st, 2016, 1:51 pm #16

Outstanding. I feel like I just gilded the piece myself; there should be an Oscar for paleo tutorials. I have to point out that the carving was wonderful n the first place, though. Anything I carved and then gilded would be an almost literal example of what we Americans call "putting lipstick on a pig".

Really nice work, Michael.

PS: How did you get the photo of your two hands brushing the leaf? 
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Michael Bootz
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January 1st, 2016, 6:04 pm #17

Thanks both of you!

Tyranno,
I took the photo with the camera on a tripod and a remote release. I took all the photos of the actual gilding that way. I wish there had been someone to take the photos while I worked - they would be much better then...
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ateyo
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June 24th, 2016, 1:54 am #18

El Paso. Texas is SO dusty that I would not dream of attempting this! Maybe some day I will have a hermetically sealed work space.
As usual, your tutorials are as expertly crafted as the art work you produce.
THANK YOU
Last edited by ateyo on June 24th, 2016, 2:02 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Michael Bootz
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June 24th, 2016, 5:56 am #19

Thanks!
You don't need a hermetically sealed work space. I'd guess that removing all (possible) dust with a brush or soft cloth before applying the glue should work fine. If using the oil-based glue (that needs a couple of hours to set before you can apply the gold leaf) then just cover the object, e.g. with a bowl turned upside-down. If you close the windows while gilding then dust shouldn't be a big issue (applying the gold leaf doesn't take that long).
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Quillsnkiko
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September 19th, 2016, 5:32 pm #20

Wow Michael...I just discovered this. Outstanding as usual. Quills
" You can't stop the waves .... but, you can learn to surf."
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