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Gild like an Egyptian

Gilding is an ancient art that dates back to Egyptian times. Get some time-tested tips from modern-day pros.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Gilding with gold leaf is the ancient art Egyptians used to decorate King Tut’s coffin, but 21st century artisans are continuing the tradition on everything from automobiles to store windows.

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  • The techniques haven’t changed much since 1400 B.C. and neither has the appeal. High quality gold is durable. It won’t fade or tarnish. It glimmers in the light and attracts attention from long distances.

    So long as you take a tender loving careful attitude toward the craft by selecting the right gold, adequately preparing the surface, paying attention to timing and arming yourself with a few tips and tricks, gold leaf can add a distinctive touch of class to your work.

    Selecting the Gold
    Whether you are working with dense sign foam, carved wood or glass, successful gilding starts with selecting the right gold leaf for the job. There are more than 30 varieties of gold leaf, including deep, patent, moon and ribbon, in various shades and alloys. Each variety yields a different effect. Loose gold leaf, for example, presents a brighter gild than patent gold leaf because patent gold picks up the texture of its paper backing.

    Gold selection depends on budget, speed of use or what’s appropriate for the design and placement. When Kent Smith, owner of Smith Studio Enterprises in Greenley, Co., was asked to gild a sign with raised letters at a plant near the Gulf of Mexico, he knew there was a good chance that the combination of salt and refinery air would tarnish less pure alloys of gold. So he chose a 23-3/4 karate rose gold.

    “Pure 24 karat gold is too soft for most work,” says Smith, author of Gold Leaf Techniques. “The 23 karat gold may have discolored in that environment. Pure gold tends to look somewhat green from a distance. Because the letters were large and set up rather high I wanted them to have that rosy golden color. So 23-3/4 karat rose gold was perfect for this application. You have to know your gold.”

    Prepping, Powdering and Timing
    You also have to know your substrate. When working with carved wood, sanding, priming and painting is vital to the durability and beauty of the finished product. Creative gilders are experimenting with colored undercoats, like red or patina green, that cause a slight change in the gold’s appearance. Red undercoats will produce a bright shiny jewelry gold look while patina will result in an antiqued look.

    Gilding gurus recommend cleaning glass with BonAmi, a faultless starch product that won’t scratch the glass or leave any residue. Regardless of the substrate, cleaning is critical because any variation in the substrate is magnified under gold and the end product will have ugly spots.

    With a prepared substrate, you can safety apply the gold size, the glue-like material painted onto the areas where the gold leaf is to be applied. There are two basic types: water- and oil-based. Oil-based is the standard choice for outdoor signs. Lorie Michaud, owner of Carved Designs in South Berwick, Maine, recommends mixing in a smidgen of white paint so that you can clearly see what areas have been covered after the size dries.

    Now it’s time to apply the gold leaf. But before you do, Michaud has a gilder’s trick. “Put a little talcum powder on the sign so the gold leaf won’t stick to the tackiness of the paint,” she says. “Even if you let the paint dry two or three days there’s still little spots where the gold will stick. Then you have to repaint and match the color.”

    Timing is of the essence when putting this ancient art into action and is in fact the biggest challenge in the gilding process. Once of the biggest mistakes is applying the gold too soon, which causes the leaf to sink in the size and present a dull appearance. But if you wait too long, then the size is not tacky enough hold the gold leaf and you might have to gild twice.

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    Richard Royce, owner of Royce Sign Works in Whippany, NJ makes it a standard practice to double-gild glass to avoid pinholes. Of course, gilding on glass is somewhat more difficult. If the backing paint, which is made up of size, distilled water and gelatin caps, isn’t thoroughly dried it can chip when you apply the gold leaf and that chip has to be repaired. Royce says the repair process requires rubbing steel wool and reapplying the backing paint a second time. The problem is that patch is usually visible and diminishes the gold’s glory.

    Timing wise, gilding gurus agree it’s best to let the sizing dry almost completely until you can touch your knuckle to the size without it sticking. The longer you wait, the brighter the gold.

    Applying the Leaf
    When surface gilding, you can use a gilders tip to pick up the gold leaf. Create static on the brush by rubbing it against you and watch as the static lifts the gold from the paper backing. Then transfer the gold to the sizing. There are no shortcuts with gilding, but there are a few tricks and tips.

    “If you are working with cursive fonts or small square serifs, then cut the gold leaf into strips,” Michaud says. “That strip will fold down into the curves and then you take your brush and pounce on it and it folds right down into the crevices where you want the gold to go.”

    With glass there are additional concerns. “The real trick with glass is to lay the gold flat so that you don’t get any wrinkles,” Royce says. “Get as close as you can to the glass with your gilder’s tip, then actually bring the brush on a slight upward swing and almost slap it against the glass.”

    Gilders agree that it’s a big mistake to shellac or varnish a finished sign because the sun will dry out the varnish and the gold could flake off, but you can alter the gold’s look during the burnishing process. Rubbing the gold with velvet, for example, will produce a smooth look while rubbing it with a brush will cause a texture that creates more dimension and brilliance. Adding vinegar on top of the gold leaf can create some unique patters and spraying polyurethane on the applied gold leaf causes it to bubble up and creates a three-dimensional lacey pattern that holds up well with indoor signs.

    Selling Gold Leaf
    There are classic books that share a myriad of gilding techniques, but few talk about the practical side of the business: selling the signs. Smith says overcoming the fear of the customer’s perception of the cost is the first step to a profitable gilding shop.

    “I have been gilding for almost 50 years and I typically don’t sell gold leaf signs,” he says. “I market them as custom signs. The fact that I choose to use gold as part of the customizing process is my choice. If they are willing to pay the price for a custom sign then the use of gold becomes incidental to the project. We are in the business of selling sign, not the business of selling gold.”

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