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  • Gilt - Traditional Finishes Series

Gilt - Traditional Finishes Series


Gilding is a method of enhancing and disguising wood to give a better appearance. It was performed either as water gilding or oil gilding, both requiring a high level of skill to undertake successfully.  It was quite popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in Europe and Asia.

The most common forms of gilt were to decorate and highlight furniture.  Both oil gilt and water  based  gilt  can  deliver  highly  decorative  result  and  each  is  highly  distinctive.  The application  of  gilt  does  require  a  combination  of  specialist  skills,  specialist tools  and  a great degree of patience and experience.  Of the two types of gilt, water gilt tended to be the most common.

To apply a gilt finish, it needs to be done on a foundation of gesso coated in bole. Gesso is a mixture of powdered chalk,  rabbit-skin glue and boiled linseed oil.  It is traditionally mixed in a gesso  kettle over heat.  It was typical for a number of  coats of gesso to be applied to the surface to build a suitable profile.  If a textured surface was  required, fine sand  was  also  added  to  the  mixture.    Over  the  top  of  the  gesso,  a  coat  of  bole  is applied.    Bole  is  a  mixture  of  clay  and  water  and  can  be  either  red,  white  or  blue  in colour.  A size of alcohol,  rabbit-skin glue and water is then applied.  When dry, this is the foundation to which the gold leaf is applied.

The gold used in gilding is produced by  repeated machine  rolling then hand beaten into leaves of varying fineness.  The grade of gilt will depend on the number of carats of the gold  leaf.    The  gold  leaf  is  applied  using  an  agate,  which  pulls  the  sheets  of  leaf together.

Water Gilding - Stages

Gilt Toolkit

The tools  of the  gilder  have  remained fairly  constant for  over  200  years.  In their  original form, the  agate  burnishes were made from  dog’s teeth.  These  have  now  been  replaced by modern plastics.  

The agate burnishes come in a  range of shapes and sizes and are designed  to  bring  a  mirror  like  polish  to  the  gilt  and  ensure  that  all  gaps  in  the  gilt  are closed and sealed.

Then other key tools in the gilders toolkit includes:

● The suede pad as a work surface for handling the gold leaf.
● A flat blunt knife for cutting gold leaf.
● A  gilders  fitch  which  is  like  an  artists  brush. The  brush  is  rubbed  against  the skin to create a static electrical charge to help handle the delicate gold leaf.
● A  gilders mop  which  is  a  large mop-like  brush  used to  remove  excess  gilt from the work space.

The Gilding Process

The gilding process is one that requires attention to fine detail, patience and strict adhering to the the steps in the gilding process. High quality outcomes are unlikely to be achieve otherwise. High quality gold leaf can be expensive, so waste is not a option. As a general rule, the following steps will apply. 

1. Mix gesso ingredients and apply them to the wood surface.  When dry, the gesso can be shaped to the desired profile.

2. Lightly sand the gesso using a fine grade sand paper.  The extent of the finish w ill be guided by the desired texture of the finish.

3. Apply a coat of bole onto the gesso.  Red bole is being used here to match the original restoration colours.  The bole is applied w arm w ith a soft brush. Then sanded. 

4. Place a sheet of gold leaf on a suede pad and peel off the backing.  Care is needed in handling gold leaf as even the slightest draught w ill blow  it around. 

5. Because the leaf is so light and difficult to handle, one of the best techniques is to use static electricity.  Simply rub the gilders fitch against your skin to build up a little static electricity on the brush.  This enables the very fine leaf to be manipulated.

The second stage of the process is the application and finishing of the gold leaf to the surface. On highly carved surfaces, great care is needed to ensure that appropriate coverage occurs, particularly in grooves and sharp edges.

6. With fitch charged, simply touch the bristles to the gold leaf to lift it f rom the pad and place it on the work surface

7. Lay the leaf dow n on the sized area.  The size w ill pull it dow n into the various contours.  Repeat the process until all of the bole has been covered.  Rushing this step w ill affect the final finish.

8. Dust over the surface with the mop.  This w ill remove any loose or excess gilt, exposing any areas yet to be covered.  Gilt scraps can be applied to exposed areas. 

9. Use an agate to burnish the surface creating an even surface and toning it.

10.  A close up of the finished article after the completion of the gilding process and restoration.

Glossary of Terms

Agate: a tool traditionally made from dog’s teeth used to finish and burnish gilt.

Bole: A clay like substance that is used in the gilding process.

Fitch: A soft brush like an artists brush used to manipulate gold leaf.

Gesso: A plaster like substance that is used in the gilding process. Ingredients include - powdered chalk, rabbit-skin glue, and boiled linseed oil.

Gesso Kettle: A pot used to mix gesso ingredients.

Gold leaf: The finish applied in the gilding process.

Mop: A soft mop-like brush used to remove loose gilt from the work surface.

Size: A coating of alcohol and rabbit-skin glue placed on the surface to allow the gold leave to adhere to the surface. 

Article submitted by Don Jones, Carbatec Customer Care Team. 

As a restorer and preserver of beautiful furniture, Don often sees the results of years of neglect or misplaced good intentions on caring for wooden furniture of all ages. Whether you are caring for a 100 year old antique, a new purchase or something you have created yourself, Don shares some insight into caring for your furniture.

Click here to download a copy of Don's Gilt- Traditional Finishes Series