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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Gilding

The Craft of Gilding

The Craft of GildingIntroduction to Gilding

Gold has been an object of desire since the earliest civilizations, not only because of its value, but also because of its appearance. The aim of gilding is to give the illusion of solid gold by decorating an object with a thin layer of gold leaf - even a gossamer thin layer can lend a sumptuousness to the surface it ornaments.

Origins of Gilding

Gold leaf was used in the architecture and art of the Byzantines, and the first examples of the gilded mirror frame occurred in Egypt at around 1300BC. The illustrated manuscripts of medieval Europe are superb examples of the gilders craft, while the 17th and 18th centuries produced magnificent carved furniture, some of which adorns Britain's finest historic houses and castles.

Today the craft is undergoing something of a revival and gold leaf is used to decorate furniture, books, picture frames, mirrors and architectural details. Much work is also being done restoring gilded antiques. Although it is a craft traditionally done by specialist craftsmen with years of experience it is quite possible for the amateur to achieve some satisfying results.

Gilding styles

There are two styles of gilding:

Oil gilding - this method is the easiest to do and can be used on just about any surface, from wood, to metal, fiberglass and plastic. An added advantage is that it is also durable enough for use out of doors

Water gilding  - this highly skilled craft is more difficult to do. It can be used on wood only, but produces a superb, sophisticated finish which can then be burnished for even greater variety.

Water gilding

Surprisingly, all that glistens in this case is not in fact gold. The real impact of the gilded surface comes from the layers of preparation beneath it.

Before the gold leaf can be applied the surface needs to be cleaned and sized with animal glue. Layers of gesso are added and a new surface carved or the existing surface redefined. Bole is brushed on after the gesso and it is this that determines the intensity of the gold surface.

Boles are available in a range of colours from light pink to purple and glows through the transparent gold. So much detail and preparation is required that the gild forms part of the furniture's character. It becomes therefore, more than just a decoration but an integral part of the woods personality


The first step is to clean the wood, either smooth or carved, and apply a couple of coats of animal size glue to help form a firm bond between the gesso and the wood.

Layering with gesso

Gesso is the substance used to prepare the surface before gilding. It is made from animal size, water and finely powdered chalk whiting, mixed to creamy paste. The gesso is applied in many layers, while still warm, using a brush.

The number of layers applied depends on the condition of the actual surface to be gilded. If the original quality is superb only a thin layer of gesso is needed and there will be no recutting required. If you are planning to carve a new design then the layer of gesso will have to be quite substantial. Sometimes the application of gesso will mute the crispiness of the design - it will then have to be redefined by skillfully carving away some of the gesso.

The application of gesso can vary from 1mm up to as much as 6mm - that's literally hundreds of layers! Skill also lies in knowing how much to let each layer dry before applying the next.

Applying the bole

Bole is a clay mixed with size (rabbit skin size is the best type to use for this and when layering the size). It comes in a variety of colours from light pink and yellow to red and purple, and can be bought ready mixed and prepared. It is very smooth and can be highly polished. Layers of bole are built up by brushing it over the white gesso surface.

The shade of red is very important in the finished product. The depth of colour reflects through the gold leaf and affects the sense of density. The paler it is, the lighter and cooler the effect of the gold.

The colours have altered though history as fashions changed. For example in the late 18th century a lighter look was preferred and the red clay used in the early part of the century was toned down to produce a soft brown.

It is vital at every stage that the surface is smoothed with fine sandpaper, damp rag or brush. The final surface needs to be immaculately smooth. The smallest grain will tear the gold leaf completely disrupting the smooth effect sought.

Applying the gold leaf

Water is brushed on to the polished bole surface and the loose leaves flopped on top using a pad and tip. The gold is so fine that the water is sucked down, it draws the gold with it. It follows the shape of the surface molecules exactly and forms a very fine bond.

The leaves themselves, while being among the most delightful materials to work with, do not respond well to grease or draughts. Contact with your hands or fingers will make them disintegrate and windows should be kept firmly shut at all times.

The final surface

When the surface is thoroughly dry the gold can be burnished by rubbing with a smooth agate stone, to press the molecules down into the surface. This makes it even smoother and more reflective.

By burnishing some areas of the surface and not others, you create fabulous interest through the light reflecting from some areas and not others. Burnishing is used particularly to enhance the richness of a carved piece.

Oil gilding

Oil gilding is simpler to do and there are far fewer stages involved. It can be used to great effect on an extensive range of surfaces. For example architectural decoration such as cornices. It can also look effective when used in conjunction with paintwork, and with lacquer for detailing reproduction Chinese furniture. Outdoors, gates and railings are given regal treatment.

Oil gilding is pure decoration. The gold used is transfer gold as opposed to golf leaf. Transfer leaf is attached to tissue paper by a wax film which makes it much easier to handle. Cover the surface of the object you wish to gild with gold size. This is available with a variety of drying times ranging from 1 hour to 24 hours. When the size feels almost dry to the back of the hand, press on the transfer gold from its tissue backing and press down with cotton wool.

No complicated gesso work is required. The skill is knowing exactly when the size is ready. This can vary depending on temperature and humidity, and the surface and weight of the leaf. The heavier aluminum and Dutch metal leaf can also be used.

The surface cannot, however, be distressed to provide the light reflecting variety of water gilding, so it is best used on flat panels or for detail. If you cover a whole picture frame, for example, it will just look like a blob because the definition of the mouldings will be lost. That's why water gilders go to such lengths to distress their work. Bear in mind that not all things are suitable when you are choosing an article to guild using this technique.

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