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Imitation Gold Leaf Vs. Real Gold Leaf

Authentic gold leaf is a decorative material made by hammering gold into very thin sheets varying in gold content and weight. Imitation gold leaf, also called composition gold leaf, Dutch metal, or Dutch gold, while made to imitate the appearance of gold, is made from a combination of copper, zinc, and brass. Both real and imitation gold leaf serve a common purpose- to coat a surface in order to give the appearance of solid gold.

Real Gold Leaf

How to Choose?

There are two factors to consider in choosing gold leaf, its value and weight.

Gold Content

Gold content expresses the purity of the leaf and ranges from 6 karat to 24 karat which is 100% gold. The degree to which the gold is mixed with silver or bronze will determine the karat value-- silver will give a cooler tone and bronze a warmer tone. Gold content should be chosen in light of the project to be done, specifically whether the project is indoor or outdoor. All exterior projects should be gilded with gold leaf no less than 23.75 kt, since gold being the nobelist of metals is resistant to corrosion-- the purer it is, the stronger it will resist rain, snow, sleet, and wind. Gold leaf of such value will maintain its integrity for 30+ years. Interior projects, since they are not subject to climate changes, can be gilded with gold leaf of less than 23 kt.  Typically, interior gilding of architectural features is 22 karat. The 21-22 karat is good for interiors and has been used for centuries because it is extremely durable. The gold leaf used for interiors if alloyed with other metals can actually make it more durable to withstand general wear and tear and cleaning.

An important note when it comes gilding and the size you use.

For architectural oil gilding, long size/slow drying size can only be used for exterior because of its elasticity that takes into consideration the changes of the climate conditions in the gilding process. Both the gold leaf and size will expand and contract with weather changes. If the quick/short size is used the gold leaf will be more brittle, less durable and not last as long. The wrong size being used could result in loss of the gold leaf integrity after one season vs the 30+ year when the correct gilding process is used. The long size/slow drying size can take days to harden and brittle which is what is required for exterior gilding.


Gold leaf is weighed in grams per 1,000 leaves. The heavier the gold leaf, the more resistant it is to the climate and environmental issues. For this reason, a substantially heavy leaf is required for all exterior gilding projects-- domes, statues, weathervanes, ornament. Typically, 18-23 grams per 1,000 leaves is recommended for exterior projects. As a studio, we will only use 21 or 23 grams. Interior gilding projects are considerably less vulnerable to climate and environmental issues and are therefore permitted to use a lighter leaf.

In conclusion, exterior projects require gold leaf with a certain value and weight while interior projects allow for more flexibility.

John Canning & Co. has used authentic gold leaf to execute a number of projects pictured here including the San Francisco City Hall, the West Virginia State Capitol, the Prometheus Statue at Rockefeller Center, the Horace Bushnell Memorial Theatre, the War Memorial Opera House, and many others.

Imitation Gold Leaf

Imitation leaf gives the appearance of solid gold despite the fact that it does not contain any gold at all. It is composed of some combination of copper, zinc, and brass and is much less expensive than gold leaf which is its primary drawing factor. Much like the low karat forms of authentic gold leaf, imitation gold can be more sensitive to climate and environmental issue and is therefore not recommended for exterior projects. It is often used indoors and its desirability comes from its inexpensive nature and the fact that it is easier to handle.

Imitation gold leaf gilding in progress at a private residence can be seen here.

Which is Better?

If it can be afforded, it is usually more beneficial to use authentic gold leaf for both appearance and durability. The aesthetic of authentic gold leaf is much more consistent, rich, and brilliant than imitation leaf. Authentic leaf is also more practical since it will maintain its integrity for many years. Imitation leaf is subject to oxidation and tarnish and, even if sealed with a protective top coat, it will often not last more than a few years without acquiring a green, dull haze. Circumstances aside, using authentic gold leaf for a gilding project is usually worth the investment. Although for the most part gold leaf is recommended, imitation leaf can be ideal for certain projects, especially interior gilding projects containing a lot of surface area to be covered. Additionally, ceilings, cornices and other out of reach areas are most suitable for imitation gold.  
John Canning & Co. performed interior gilding projects at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, WI as well as Radio City Music Hall where over 180,000 square feet were gilded with some type of metal leaf. The gilding at Radio City Music Hall consisted of both real and imitation leaf.
If you have any questions or a project you would like to discuss, please contact us.
Canning C

July 09, 2021

Featured Projects

San Francisco City Hall Gold Leaf Gilding Restoration

Our skilled restoration team used traditional gold leaf and gilding methods and materials to restor the exterior roof on San Francisco’s City Hall.

Close-up view of the West Virginia Capitol dome and its intricately detailed exterior gilding.

West Virginia State Capitol

Our team of artisans restored and fabricated metal elements then applied sizing and gold leaf to specified areas of the West Virginia State Capitol.

Rockefeller Center Gilding Feature

Prometheus Fountain Gold Leaf Restoration

We restored the Prometheus Statue, a National Historic Landmark located in Rockefeller Center using gold leaf gilding.

Interior of the Radio City Music Hall Lobby in New York City, New York featuring an ornate curved ceiling with gold leaf detailing, elegant red draperies, and classic hanging light fixtures.

Radio City Music Hall Restoration

We applied over 180,000 square feet of metal leaf and glazes in order to properly restore the 1932 historical golden interior of the Radio City Music Hall.

bushnell dome

Horace Bushnell Memorial Theater Restoration

John Canning & Co. restored and gilded the dome and cupola of the Bushnell Theater.

War Memorial Opera House Restoration

We carefully applied traditional gold-leaf gilding and glazes on 500,000 linear feet of historic architectural elements at the War Memorial Opera House.

John Canning & Co.'s Art of Exterior Gilding and Domes Resource
John Canning & Co. Resources

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.

Check Out Our Art of Exterior Gilding & Domes Guide