Gilding Overview

overviewbannerHere is an overview of the techniques and materials used in gilding. You may also wish to view the Gilding FAQS for additional information.

Where is gilding found?
Gilding is the application of thin sheets of beaten metal (usually gold) to a solid surface as a means of surface decoration. Gilding is commonly seen on decorative items such as picture frames, mirrors and furniture. In addition, artists have used gilding techniques in the creation of Fine Art. Gilding has been used in the religious and secular arts for several centuries, examples including Iconography, Illuminated Manuscripts and reverse gilding and painting on glass (otherwise known as Verre Eglomise). Architectural gilding, which also has long-standing historic roots, can be seen on the exteriors and the interiors of churches and government buildings. Often, architectural gilding can be found in lobbies and public spaces of commercial buildings such as hotels and corporate headquarters. Sign Gilding is another discipline within the Gilding Arts. Sign makers will create gilded signs for exterior and interior applications. Often sign makers will apply gold leaf to the interior surface of glass for lettering and other decorative commercial applications.

The two primary methods of gilding -- water gilding and mordant gilding -- are described below.

Do gilders use special tools?
The gilding process requires a specialized set of tools and materials. Because leaf is so fragile and will disintegrate in the hands, these tools have been developed over the centuries for easier handling.  The tools are:

Agate Burnishers and Brushes

Agate Burnishers and Brushes

  • Gilder's pad and knife, for handling and cutting leaf.
  • Gilders tip, a flat brush-like implement for transferring leaf from the pad to the object being gilded. Tips are available in various widths.
  • Burnishers, tools with polished agate (or other stone) tips for rubbing the leaf to develop a highly polished surface (in water gilding). Four burnishers are shown above, together with two "mops" --brushes for tamping and brushing away excess leaf.
    Burnishing a water gilded frame

    Burnishing a water gilded frame

What is Water Gilding?
Of the two types of gilding, water gilding allows the surface to be burnished. Burnishing compresses the gold, bonding it securely to its support resulting in a deep, reflective shine. Water gilding is only used for interior applications and is most frequently used on frames, furniture and objects. Preparation of the surface for water gilding is as follows and is illustrated in the image below:

  • Glue size is applied to the surface (usually wood).
  • Numerous coats of gesso (rabbit skin glue and chalk) are applied, sanded and polished.
  • Several coats of bole (gilder's clay mixed with rabbit skin glue) is applied and polished.
  • Gold leaf is then applied using gilders liquor (water, sometimes with additives), which activates the glue present in the bold and gesso.
  • At this point, the leaf may be left as is, providing a matte appearance, or it may be burnished to a high shine with the polished agate. In order to further accentuate the burnished surfaces some areas of the gilding are left matte.

What is Oil Gilding?
Oil gilding or Mordant gilding requires that the surface be completely sealed and then a size (oil varnish or acrylic) is applied. After a period of time the size comes to "tack", where the size is no longer wet but still slightly sticky. At that point the gold leaf is applied. This technique does not allow the leaf to be burnished, and thus does not provide the brilliant finish of water gilding. Oil gilding allows gilding on a wider variety of surfaces than water gilding, and is the technique used for exterior gilding projects such as signs and architectural gilding.

Gilding Specialties
Now that you have an understanding of basic gilding technique, you may want to learn more about the following gilding specialties:

  • Manuscript Illumination
  • Verre Eglomise
  • Signage
  • Restoration and Conservation
  • Fine Art Gilding
  • Frames, furniture and objects