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Gold Leafing From A to Z

The ancient art of gold leafing has not changed much since Egyptian times. Learn some time-tested hand guilding secrets from the pros.

By Jennifer LeClaire

The art of gold leafing is an age-old process that can be traced back to Egyptian times. The goal of ancient artisans was to beautify statues, pictures and royal tombs.

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  • Today, gold leafing is applied to everything from automobiles to signage, but artisans are still working with centuries-old hand guilding techniques.

    Ancient methods, for example, include applying a base coat, sizing, applying the gold leaf onto the object, and burnishing the gold. The main difference between gold leafing in the 14th century B.C. and gold leafing in the 21st century A.D. is the availability of modern materials and tools that simplify the steps involved in hand guilding.

    Choosing your materials
    Most sign makers today guild on dense sign foam for larger projects. Some sign makers opt for mahogany wood for smaller jobs. One important tip with sign foam, said Professor Jim Garballey of the Butera School of Art in Boston, is to reinforce the sign foam with plywood to make it more durable.

    In terms of the actual gold leafing itself, it comes down to personal preference. While most sign makers work with either 22k or 23k gold, there are many different kinds of genuine gold leaf, including XX deep, patent, moon and ribbon gold, among others.

    Most sign makers, like Robert Malkamaki, co-owner of Little Mountain Signs in Concord, Ohio, prefer patent gold, also known as a transfer leaf or “guilding in the wind.” The gold leaves are attached to a paper backing. The gold is transferred to the sign when it is pressed or rubbed against a sized surface. With patent gold, the sign maker never touches the gold with his hands.

    Others, like Garballey, prefer “XX” deep gold, also known as loose or regular gold leaf. Individual gold leafs are placed on rouged paper that can be removed or picked up with a guilder’s tip.

    “Double-X gold is made differently than the patent leaf,” said Garballey. “It’s much thicker and it gives a much better luster and a much better guild. There are no pin holes or anything.”

    The most important thing, said experts, is to use real gold. Gold paints will fade and eventually appear dingy, but genuine gold will retain its brilliance even under extreme weather conditions.

    “The only thing that lasts like gold and looks like gold and is tough like gold is gold,” said Elton Hannaman of Hannaman Sign Crafters in Carlisle, Penn. Hannaman has won many awards during this 25 years working with gold leafing. “There is no acceptable substitute”, says Hannaman.

    Sealing the surface
    Once you have gathered the appropriate tools and materials and carved the letters into the sign foam, the first step of the actual gold leafing process is sealing the work surface. There are many different ways to accomplish this.

    Alcohol-based primers are the fastest, said Garballey.

    “Everything today is built on speed,” he said. “People aren’t as concerned today with age-old techniques. They just want to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘Z’ by skipping all the steps in between.”

    There are spray-on and brush-on sealants. Garballey said if it is a carved letter, spray primers are easier to work with than brushes, which can cause snags and runs.

    Hannaman uses at least three coats of oil-based paint to seal wood. With sign foam, he uses a latex paint first, followed by an oil-based paint. This technique requires the surface to dry for up to three days before the size, the material painted onto the areas where the gold leaf is to be applied, can be applied.

    A little-known secret of Hannaman’s is putting talcum powder on the material.

    “Sometimes little bits of gold stick on areas that have just been painted,” he said. “The talcum powder keeps the gold from sticking on the paint. You thoroughly wipe and vacuum the powder off ­ yet there is still some left, even though you may not see it.”

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    Sizing the surface

    Just as there are many different kinds of sealants, there are many different kinds of size. There are two basic types of size: water- and oil-based. Water-based sizes work with an activator.

    “The water-based size allows you to do a large job,” said Garballey. “You can size the whole thing and then just activate it as you feel like guilding according to your speed and available time.”

    This is the ancient method for hand guilding, but the end result can sometimes produce a gold that is too shiny in application. The trick with water-based size is acknowledging the depth and angle of the carved letter.

    “If there is a deep V-groove in the letter, the super shiny water guilded stuff is excellent,” said Garballey. “If there is a shallow cut where the sides of the letters are almost parallel with the surface, then there’s too much reflection and you almost can’t even read the letters.”

    Most sign makers today use oil-based size, which comes in quick, medium and slow drying speeds. The quick size typically dries in about an hour, but the working time is also shortened at only 10-15 minutes. Quick size, then, works well for small jobs, but is not typically used on carved signs because it does not have the same longevity as the medium and slow oils.

    For most applications, the medium size usually works well, said Garballey. It sets up in about eight to 12 hours and allows the sign maker about four hours to apply the gold leafing.

    The slow size can take up to three days to dry enough to successfully apply the gold leafing, even longer if the humidity is high. But the working time is exceptional, said Garballey. If you have an intricate job, the slow size is the way to go.

    Sizing challenges
    The biggest challenge with sizing is not in the application, said Malkamaki, but in the timing.

    “You want to make sure you get the timing right,” he said. “You can put the gold leaf on early, but then it sinks into the size material and you lose the luster. It may be tacky and accept the gold, but we find out later that it didn’t maintain the same luster as those that we held off on. Whereas if you wait until later in the drying period there is a greater luster, a greater reflection. There’s a trick in figuring out when that exact time is because if you overshoot it then it won’t stick to the sign.”

    Hannaman offers a couple of tips for sizing: First, wait as long as you can and let the size dry almost completely. When you touch a knuckle against the size, he said, it should have no tack at all. The gold will look even brighter the longer you wait.

    “I also put a small amount of artists oil coloring ­ usually a yellow color ­ in the size so that I know where I’ve painted the size,” said Hannaman.

    Applying the gold leaf
    Once the size is amply dried, it is time to apply the gold leafing. This can be a delicate job.

    “The gold leaf is very thin,” said Malkamaki. “We usually cut it into narrow strips so that we can apply it to narrow letters. You hold the paper, lay the gold part down onto the size, and then rub the back of the paper so that it transfers to the sizing.”

    The final step in the guilding process is burnishing the gold, making it shiny by rubbing it with a velvet cloth. You can burnish in different directions, said Garballey.

    “When you burnish the gold vertically it absorbs more light,” he said. “The horizontal scratches reflect light. You can actually get two different levels of brilliance.”

    When to sell gold leafing
    Now that you know how to hand guild, experts said it is important to know when gold leafing is appropriate.

    “You need to know where the sign is going before you decide on selling the client gold leafing,” said Malkamaki. “It almost looks cheap if it’s not in the right location. You don’t just want to put it anywhere.”

    Offices of professional services providers, such as doctors and lawyers are good locations for gold leafing, as are high-end living communities and places of worship.

    Another tip: Keep it expensive. Garballey said he always prices the job double to give himself a built in guarantee. No matter what goes wrong, he said, he can fix it without passing blame on anyone. The best strategy for an inexperienced guilder is to do several small jobs before attempting anything that is going to damage your company’s reputation.

    “If you are selling that quality of work it has to be right and it has to stay right,” he said. “You can’t have it falling apart out there.”

    For that reason, Malkamaki said it is tempting to seal the sign. But he warns against it.

    “People like to think that they are going to protect the gold by coating it with varnish,” he said. “But what will happen is that the heat from the sun will eventually crack that varnish and when it cracks it lifts off the gold.”

    Those who practice the ancient art of gold leafing agree that the beginner will make some mistakes. But as the old adage goes, practice makes perfect. Understanding the key steps involved, the materials available and a few tricks of the trade is a good start on the road of hand guilding.

    For additional information, read “Gold Leaf Techniques” by Raymond Leblanc.

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