Gilding is the decorative process of applying a layer of metal to a certain surface in order to provide it with a unique beauty and richness. This is done using very thin sheets of the desired metal called leaf, which, when applied to a surface using adhesive, gives the appearance of solid gold, silver, copper or whatever metal leaf is used. The astounding effect of gilding is so enticing that it has been an element of decoration since the 23rd century BC. Certain forms of gilding date back to as early as ancient Egypt, having been found integrated into paintings from Egyptian tombs.
The art of gilding requires delicacy, precision, and attention as metal leaf is very thin and must be handled with care. There are five basic steps to the gilding process.
The Gilding Process (Work Being Performed at the San Francisco Opera House on the Grand Lobby Ceiling)
1) Prepare the Surface
Make sure the surface intended to be gilded is clean and free of damage. This cannot be overemphasized. A light sanding will often help smooth the surface. Primer is applied in order to give the surface a uniform color, or to set a desired undertone for the leaf. Warm colors like red are used to give a warm, rich effect to the end product while blue and gray tones are used to give a cooler undertone. Prior to any applications of primer, finish coat of paint or the application of adhesive, the surface must be cleaned with a solvent, such as mineral spirits to remove any grease, dust or other contaminants that may adversely affect that coat system.
2) Apply Adhesive
The adhesive used to secure the metal leaf is called gilding “size” and can be water based or the traditional oil based. Water-based size should never be used for exterior gilding projects since it is subject to damage when exposed to moisture. For interior projects, either size may be used. Water-based gilding is more labor intensive but often achieves a more refined appearance and is therefore commonly used on projects handled at more intimate distanced such as picture frames or furniture. The oil size is the equivalent of a slow drying oil varnish. As it dries, the oil film becomes tacky, but not wet. This sweet spot is the point when the leaf should be applied and is called the ‘tack.’
3) Apply Leaf
Sheets of the desired metal leaf come in either loose leaf form or attached to wax paper which allows for precise transfer of the metal to the tacky size.
4) Remove Excess
Due to the fragility of the leaf, the excess lining the overlap of leaves can be removed easily using a soft brush, such as sable hair, or cloth, such as velvet.
5) Seal and Finish
Composite leaf such as dutch metal, are usually sealed with a protective coating (varnish/sealer) after being applied to the adhesive in order to preserve the metal and keep it from tarnishing. Other metals such as silver, copper, aluminum, and palladium typically do not require a protective coating. Genuine gold leaf, does not require a protective coating.
San Francisco Opera House – Grand Lobby Ceiling Gilding Completed
The scope for the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House restoration project included re-gilding the foyer, the auditorium, the proscenium, the mezzanine boxes and all interior architectural elements throughout the Opera House.
Purpose of Gold Leaf
Of all gilding types, gold leaf is the most common material employed. Gold is a noble metal. It is magnificent to behold in its beauty, boldness, and shine. Representing power and wealth due to its expensive nature, gold is often used in political buildings and expensive homes. Gold has also been used for hundreds of years to represent nobility, divinity, and anything worthy of respect. Gold has a power to elevate the mind to higher things. For this reason, gold leaf has been especially used throughout history in the decoration of religious buildings both exteriorly and interiorly.
Radio City Music Hall Lobby, NYC
Gilded Promethius Statue
The re-gilding of the 18-foot Prometheus Statue located at Rockefeller Center in New York City was accomplished by the company using authentic gold leaf
Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe Gilding in progress.
As a conservation studio and restoration contractor, our team of highly skilled craftsmen, artisans, and conservators are experienced in the use of traditional methods and materials. We understand the importance in sharing our expertise and knowledge in our field.