Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Gilding is the process of applying metallic leaf to a surface. You can get gilding in a number of different finishes, but the most common are gold, silver, and copper. It comes in both sheet form and flake form. For flat surfaces, the sheets are the easiest to use, which is what we’ll show in this tutorial; I’ll be using gold.
All the supplies you will need for gold leafing.
There are a number of brands of gilding supplies but the most popular is Speedball’s Mona Lisa. Speedball is a great company and produce quality products, so I highly recommend them. You can get the supplies for this at most any craft store or online from the usual suspects. For this craft, you will need the following list of supplies:
Gilding leaf/metallic leaf/gold leaf/silver leaf
Gilding Size (a fancy word for glue)
2-3 soft bristle brushes
Wooden box or other surface to gild
To start, paint your box with the color of your choice, including the area you plan to gild. You may paint the entire box with the same color, or you may choose to paint the area you will be gilding with a matching metallic paint. When you gild, there are sometimes small areas where the gilding won’t stick, the paint will help hide this and it will also seal your wood so it doesn’t soak up your size.
After you have painted your box and it is completely dry, apply a thin layer of size to an area about equal to the size of the leaf you are working with. Note: Size is a particular type of glue that works best for this process, no you can’t substitute Elmer’s – go ahead and get the correct glue for the job. After applying, let the size dry for a couple of minutes so it can get tacky and then apply your gold leaf. The surface should be tacky, not wet. If you let it dry too long, the leaf won’t stick, so test it with your finger before you apply the leaf. If it’s too dry, just reapply and wait a little longer. When you are ready to apply your leaf, there are a couple of tricks to doing this.
It is important to note that the leaf is very thin and very fragile, so the less you touch it the better and the cleaner you keep your workstation, the fewer accidents you’ll have. Static cling is going to be your friend in this process, because the leaf will stick to the paper backing it comes in and it will stick to your brushes. It is so light, it will generally stick to anything it touches, really. You can use this to your advantage when placing the leaf. You can take the leaf on the paper backing and turn it over (very carefully) and place it on the tacky size. It will instantly stick in several places. Once you have got the leaf on your surface, you will take a clean, dry soft bristle brush and gently press the entire sheet down onto the glued area until it is completely adhered to the surface.
The things to remember when you are working with the leaf are: don’t touch it with your bare skin if you can help it – it will stick to your fingers and tear. Don’t try to reposition it after you place it either, it won’t move – it will just tear. And don’t give it any dirty looks, it will tear. As you are working, do your best to keep your hands as clean as possible. The more glue you get on your hands, the more likely you are to accidentally snag the gold leaf and tear it. Are you sensing a theme here?
Once you have got this first piece down, brush on more size and repeat all over covering as much surface as possible. As you are placing more and more pieces down, try to overlap them a little so you get full coverage. It is nearly impossible to line leaf up exactly, so don’t even try – you will have some waste when it’s all said and done, and that’s ok. Once you have got as much area covered with the sheets as you can, go back with your clean, dry paintbrush and use the static in the brush to pick up and place smaller pieces to fill in any gaps in the gilding.
(This is a great time to use any of the waste that has fallen off the larger sheets as you were working before.) If you don’t have enough scrap to cover all your bare spots, cut your gold leaf down to size while still in the paper. If your size has dried and the leaf won’t stick, go ahead and brush on more size gently and sparingly so as not to pull the other leaf off, then apply more leaf once it is tacky. Do this all over until you have as much of the surface covered as you like. This is where it is nice to have painted the base first because if there are any pesky places that you are having a hard time getting covered, the paint should either show through as an accent (if it’s a different color) or hide the spot (if it’s the same color as your leaf.)
Shortly after any size that is still exposed has dried, lay a piece of paper over the gilded surface and use your finger to gently but firmly burnish the surface to make sure all the leaf is in firm contact with the adhesive. At this point, you can leave your newly gilded surface as-is, or if you like, go over it with your favorite clear coat. I recommend a spray for this because a brush-on finish can lift the leaf off while you’re working, although this is an option if you can’t or don’t want to do a spray. Give everything 24 hours to set and you are ready to go!
So, to recap:
Apply size and let dry until tacky.
Place gold leaf onto tacky size with tweezers, the backing paper, or a paintbrush
Press into place with paintbrush.
Brush off any excess with the paintbrush.
Clear coat if desired.
Keep your hands clean!