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Phil White

Oil Gilding Process

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Oil Gilding Process

 

I have created the following essay on the process of creating a gilded wood sculpture, largely because there is very little information in print on the subject, and I thought that it may be of interest to some carvers and sculptors who wish to expand their repertoire of finishes. Normally, this information is passed along person to person, as part of an apprenticeship or internship, as was the case with me.

 

There are essentially two types of gilding that can be applied to wood sculpture: oil gilding and water gilding.

 

Water gilding involves a considerable amount of surface preparation including a ground layer of gesso, (a mixture of rabbit-skin glue and whiting) followed by a coloured gesso-clay called a bole which provides the adhesive and an underlying color for the gold. The surface must be perfectly prepared by scraping and or burnishing. The area to be gilded is then wetted with water by brushing in small areas, which dissolves a small amount of the glue in the bole and provides adhesion for the gold, which is applied immediately. The raised surfaces are then burnished to bring out a brilliant smooth finish often associated with Baroque period mirror frames and furniture.

 

The technique of oil gilding, which I will be describing, is quite ancient and is commonly used on polychrome sculpture, lettering, outdoor work, and some picture frames. Unlike water gilding it is quite weather resistant, and can be applied to virtually any surface that will take a coat of varnish. Gilded ironwork, for example, is quite commonly seen. The carved surface is either given a coat of gesso, or simply primed with paint to seal the pores and provide a smooth non-porous surface to which the oil-based size can be applied. The size is a type of sticky oil-based varnish which provides the adhesion for the gold.

 

The subject of this gilded sculpture is a heraldic lion, which forms the crest of the high-relief sculpture that I recently completed of the recently granted arms of the Canadian Nurses Association.

 

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The process of creating a gilded sculpture begins like any other carving, with the working out of the forms on paper. Figure 1 shows the use of a rough sketch to formulate the shapes and ideas, followed by a more formal sketch with color for approval by the client. This is not intended to be a two-dimensional work of art, but rather a design concept to convey to the client in two dimensions what is intended to be realized in three-dimensional form.

 

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In figure 3, the design is transferred to laminated block of basswood (similar to lime wood in the UK) 4 inches or 10 cm thick. The transfer was done with a projector, but the grid system works well also, and I have used both. The intention here is to transfer only the most basic forms, essentially the positive and negative spaces.

 

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Figure 4 shows how the rough waste material has been removed by drilling and sawing to prepare for the following steps.

 

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The shape is gradually refined in figures 5 – 8. At first, the essential silhouette is carved, and then a roughly blocked shape is created to define the planes of depth. The forms are then rounded and given a basic shape, and undercut from behind. Finally the details are refined and the carving part is finished. There is very little sanding involved, except for a quick pass over some of the crevices to remove fine fuzzy shavings which are otherwise difficult to eliminate. Otherwise, the surfaces seen here are largely carved smooth.

 

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In preparation for the gilding, the surface must first be sealed. In figures 9 & 10 the surface is primed with ordinary white paint and painted with various tones of oil based enamel to add depth to the gilded surface. Yellow is used for the highlights, reddish burnt sienna for low lying areas, and burnt umber for the deep shadows. As the gold leaf used is extremely thin these colors affect the appearance of the gold in the final product, and add to the depth and richness of the finish.

 

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Once the under-painting has thoroughly dried, the size is applied, as in figure 11. This is a pre-prepared oil-based varnish specifically formulated for this purpose. It is available in various formulations, usually noted for their drying time. A 24hr size was used in this case, meaning that the gold should be laid down 24 hours after the application of the size. However, this is not always the case, and the drying times should be monitored closely as the size gets older. The size is applied in a thin even layer, being very careful that it does not pool or run anywhere. Once it is almost dry, that is to say, when touched it feels just slightly sticky but doesn’t come off, it is ready to apply the gold.

 

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Figure 12 shows the necessary gilding tools including, from left: gilder’s leather-covered pad with a cut sheet of gold leaf, gilder’s knife in hand, two black-handled mopping brushes, two gilder’s tips, small and large, and a book of gold leaf.

 

The pad is used to hold the gold while working, and functions like a tray and cutting board. It is often advantageous to cut a large leaf into smaller sections, particularly when applying to complex surfaces, small areas, or lettering.

 

The knife is very similar to an older-style table knife in shape and sharpness. It has a very fine clean edge, without the slightest hint of a burr, but can be run across the hand without cutting.

 

The mops are used for pushing the gold around once applied.

 

The gilders tips are a fine flat brush made of squirrel hair pressed between two flat cards. They are used to handle sheets of gold from the book to the pad to the work.

 

The gold used is 23 carat hand-beaten leaf, sold in books of 25 three-inch square sheets, each separated by a single later of tissue. Most gold leaf is produced in Europe, and the better the quality of leaf used the better the working qualities and end result. The choice of gold is extremely important and can not be taken lightly when it comes to work on any scale. Gold is also sold in various colors, which can be a factor for consideration, depending on the desired effect. Some colors are quite warm with red or dark yellow tones, and others can be cool with green or blue tones.

 

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In Figures 13 & 14 the gilder’s tip is used to lift the leaf from the pad and transfer to the work. The handling of gold leaf is often one of the- most difficult and frustrating aspects of gilding to master. There are several factors to consider. Gold is the most ductile element, and as such can be beaten into unbelievably thin sheets. So thin in fact that static electricity plays an important role in gilding. Static can be used to control gold by brushing the gilder’s tip through your hair immediately before picking up a sheet of leaf. Using this technique, the gold actually leaps up off the pad onto the tip, and is held there until applied to the surface of the work. Again, the quality of the gold is important. Heavier gold handles more easily. The humidity in the room is also important. If it is too dry, static will work against you, in that you can become positively charged to the degree that the gilder’s tip will actually visibly drive the leaf into the leather pad making it impossible to transfer to the work. Some gilders actually wet the floor right before gilding to control static, which actually works quite well. I keep my pad on a chair next to the work to further isolate myself from and build-up of charge. Your footwear can be a factor as well, in that rubber-soled shoes will isolate you from ground and you will become more easily statically charged.

 

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When the gold is transferred to the work, the tip can be used to a certain extent to manipulate the gold into the surface. The leaf immediately sticks to the high points on a complex form and breaks as to flows over. It is important to apply enough gold to fill all surfaces, but not to waste the material. Using a soft brush as in figure 15, to mop the gold, or push it into the crevices allows it to flow over all surfaces, and spreads the small pieces around seemingly paint-like to flow over the surface. This is without a doubt the most satisfying part of the process, watching wood turn to gold.

 

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Once the gold has been applied the gilded surface is finished by toning it down as desired using a variety of possible techniques, according to personal taste and expression. In this case it was desirable that the three-dimensional aspect be emphasized, since the sculpture will be seen from a slight distance. In figure 16 a light dry brushing of artist’s oils in burnt sienna and burnt umber have been applied to the recesses to add shadow and warmth.

 

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Figure 17 shows the piece finished. The gilding has been toned with a very light coating of asphaltum varnish to tone down the brightness, and varnished with clear acrylic varnish to protect the surface. The red on the wreath has been finished with artist’s oils.

 

Any and all comments or questions welcome

 

Phil

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Thank you Phil! You have made the process very understandable with your demonstration of oil gilding. Also noted is the great tool rack just behind the crest. Many thanks to you for taking all of the photos in preparation for this tutorial and for the good descriptions of the process.

 

Janel

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Thanks, Janel & Jim.

 

Jim, You should try it out. It would make a great finish for the inside of one of your small boxes.

 

Phil

 

I hadn't thought of that, but I think you're right, like the inside of David Huang's little vessels.

Huang Vessels

 

Thanks,

 

Jim

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Jacques Vesery has also gilded the inside of his forms in the past. See some here. I do not know what his gilding technique is though. Also some ceramics folks use gold leaf one way or another, but I won't take time to cite those.

 

I will still consider its use when it might enhance what I am doing. It would add a zing to the quiet work that I do! (or is that "bling"?)

 

There are so many good things to learn about!

 

janel

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Thanks, Freda,

 

I like to keep a little bit of the carved character to add interest to the surface, and in the recesses to add shadow, particularly in the leaves where the combination of tool marks in the recesses and smooth carved high points tends to emphasize the depth from a distance.

 

Jim, I hadn't seen Huang's work, but I would imagine that he is oil gilding his pieces, judging by the patina on the outside. I have a friend who is a sculptor who works in bronze, and produces some stunning combinations of patina and gilding.

 

Janel, Yes, I think it would really add to your turnings.

 

There are some very interesting colors of leaf available, as well as white gold leaf and silver leaf.

 

For box or turning interiors I would suggest double gilding to build up a good substantial finish. To do this you would gild the piece, as described, then apply a second coating of size and leaf over the first layer, then a good clear coat of acrylic varnish to protect the gold.

 

Sepp Leaf in New York sells a very good varnish for this.

 

Phil

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Phil,

 

I'd like to ask a couple of questions. One is about whether the sorts of wood I might use in regards to what sort of base paint should be used. You said to prime the wood with an ordinary white paint, would that mean a latex paint or an oil-based paint? Would one select mat or semi-gloss or gloss... such choices one could make! Would different kinds of wood need different paints? I typically use very dense hardwoods, fine grained... but now with turning, the world of wood is opening up to more new experiences. There are very dense, almost resinous woods, dryer more open grained types, to describe just a couple scenarios.

 

When sanding surface prior to applying the leaf, I usually sand until I see no evidence of the grit scratches. That means the wood is very smooth. Would this present a problem for the paint, sizing and leaf with adherence?

 

Does the application of paint and the sizing leave brush marks that would appear once the leaf was applied? I have more questions popping into my head, so I will stop asking and discover some of the answers once I get the materials together.

 

Okay, that was more than a couple of questions. Thanks for the good information.

 

Janel

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Hi Phil

Thanks for the very clear and comprehensive tut.

I shall eagerly await your answers to Janels Qs

Toothy

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Toothy, glad you enjoyed it.

 

Janel,

 

The type of wood shouldn't be an issue, though porous woods would require more surface preparation to fill the grain. It was/is relatively common the use gesso as a first layer or ground on many woods to fill the grain and prepare a nice smooth surface prior to gilding. Gesso can be scraped or sanded more easily than wood to prepare a flawless surface on a large area, although for a small piece, this would not really be necessary. A well-sanded scratch-free wood surface is absolutely ideal as a base, but if you are working with a porous wood with open pores, like walnut or oak for example, you should build up a smooth finish first.

 

The amount of work that you put into finishing and preparing the surface at all stages prior to gilding will have a direct effect on the end result. It is important to keep in mind that the slightest imperfections will come out in the finish, and become obvious. This is particularly true with brush hairs, pet hair (dog hair in my case is a particular problem) and dust. As you know, the smaller the work, the more obvious the imperfections. It is a good idea to gave a clean studio prior to gilding, or to do it in a clean room away from floating dust, and to wear clean dust/hair-free clothing.

 

In general, I like to use similar materials together, so since the size is oil-based, it follows that an oil-based paint would be more compatable. Also, oil paints tend to have a longer drying time, which means that brush srtokes will have time to flow out and leave a smooth surface. I have also used spray paint, which works very well, and can be sanded between coats with wet emery paper to make a near-perfect surface. I like to use a high gloss paint, but you could use an eggshell or matt.

 

Phil

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Phil:

 

Great tutorial!! I've a couple of questions for you about copper, aluminum and variegated metal leaf.

This will be my first experience gilding with metal leaf. Due to the fact that metal leaf is much thicker

than gold will I still be able to use the same size as with gold (I use 12 hour LeFranc)? Also will this

metal push down into crevices and tight spaces?

 

Thanks,

 

Kas Taylor

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Phil:

 

Great tutorial!! I've a couple of questions for you about copper, aluminum and variegated metal leaf.

This will be my first experience gilding with metal leaf. Due to the fact that metal leaf is much thicker

than gold will I still be able to use the same size as with gold (I use 12 hour LeFranc)? Also will this

metal push down into crevices and tight spaces?

 

Thanks,

 

Kas Taylor

 

Hi Kas,

 

Glad you enjoyed it.

 

Yes, you should be able to use the same type of size as you would with gold, but the other metal leaf types (except palladium or white gold) never really flow as well into the deep crevices. The artificial gold is always a bit stiff, and doesn't really flow quite as well. It is really best for covering large relatively flat surfaces, but it will work on carved details, with some patience. It is never really a substitute for gold though. Aluminium and copper will flow a little better, but are still more stiff. You might want to think about double gilding the piece you are working on, if complete coverage is important. Also, be prepared to collect the small pieces that fall off to work them into the crevices as needed.

 

Phil

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Fine tutorial and a fine carving.

 

The most useful book I've found on gilding is a little volume called Practical Gilding, by Peter and Ann MacTaggart. It's a typically thorough Brit book, right up there with Charles Hayward's Staining and Polishing. I got my copy from the late and much lamented Baggot Leaf Supplies. Grace Baggot is still with us but her great little store on Broome St in NYC, alas, is not. Sepp Leaf Company may stock it.

 

The Sepp catalog itself is well worth having, lots of good info in there. Their sample leaf charts are also worth having if you are picky about the color of your leaf. Important to know that certain colors from certain brands are not as thick as others and can be a little harder to handle (for example, some of the colors from Dauvet, which I like very much).

 

Sepp requires a $100 minimum order and they don't really like to sell retail anyway. They will likely refer you to a distributor. NY Central Art Supply can get you any leaf Sepp sells.

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Thanks, Musket

 

Yes, Sepp is a wonderful resource. They are also very helpful, and willing to take the time to talk to you. I have never had any problem ordering direct from them, but when I place an order, it usually starts with a box of books of leaf. This piece was gilded with their Monarch brand dukaten double gold leaf. One of their sales people recommended this to me as their best general purpose gold, and it is a wonderful product. The extra weight makes it much more controlable. A bit more costly, but you get what you pay for.

 

Phil

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Thanks, Musket

 

Yes, Sepp is a wonderful resource. They are also very helpful, and willing to take the time to talk to you. I have never had any problem ordering direct from them, but when I place an order, it usually starts with a box of books of leaf. This piece was gilded with their Monarch brand dukaten double gold leaf. One of their sales people recommended this to me as their best general purpose gold, and it is a wonderful product. The extra weight makes it much more controlable. A bit more costly, but you get what you pay for.

 

Phil

 

Yep, I would think that ordering a pack or anything close to it (for those who don't know the terminology, a book contains 25 leaves, and a pack contains 20 books), would tend to overcome Sepp's resistance to selling retail. I have no need for that much leaf, but they've always been very pleasant and helpful with questions. They once sent me sample sheets of four different brands of leaf at no charge even though I hadn't requested any samples at all. Still, since I don't buy a book at a time, they've always referred me to NY Central. Monarch dukaten leaf is indeed excellent, as is every other Monarch leaf I've tried. I'm especially fond of their 23.75kt Rosanoble.

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Phil:

 

After reading your tutorial on gilding, I begin to understand why my efforts failed so miserably. Lack of preparation and proper materials sure can make you suffer!

 

I think I'll try again, and keep in mind the static electricity factor.

 

Thanks for the posting!

 

Debbie K

 

P.S. It goes without saying, great carving!

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Thanks for your kind words, Debbie!

 

Yes, surface preparation is everything. Since the gold is soooo thin, absolutely every little flaw in the surface will show through. With water gilding, there is the ability to burnish the surface down and correct some minor flaws, but oil gilding is not very forgiving.

 

Phil

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Good question, Hyllyn

 

I have seen his work before, but I am not sure exactly which technique he uses. Oil gilding on metal is quite easy, following the techniques previously described, but it is not the best way to do a small piece like this. It looks like an amalgam gilded surface, or one produced by depletion gilding, but he refers specifically to the use of leaf.

 

Gold leaf is a funny thing, in that it tends to have an affinity for bare clean metal. It is possible that he is preparing the surface by pickling, or with emery paper, then applying the leaf directly to the surface and just burnishing it in. I made a pair reproduction epaulettes this way once for an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The original epaulettes, which I was copying, were amalgam gilded copper sheet. The gold leaf was just applied directly to copper that had been cleaned with medium emery paper, then degreased with acetone. The leaf stuck quite well, and was burnished in.

 

Another technique that was quite commonly used on arms and armour, particularly of middle-eastern origin, was to tin the metal first by flowing in thin layer of solder or tin with a flux, then effectively soldering a layer of gold foil of leaf over top, followed by a burnishing of the surface.

 

He seems to be open to sharing information, perhaps we should ask him directly?

 

Phil

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Good question, Hyllyn

 

I have seen his work before, but I am not sure exactly which technique he uses. Oil gilding on metal is quite easy, following the techniques previously described, but it is not the best way to do a small piece like this. It looks like an amalgam gilded surface, or one produced by depletion gilding, but he refers specifically to the use of leaf.

 

Gold leaf is a funny thing, in that it tends to have an affinity for bare clean metal. It is possible that he is preparing the surface by pickling, or with emery paper, then applying the leaf directly to the surface and just burnishing it in. I made a pair reproduction epaulettes this way once for an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The original epaulettes, which I was copying, were amalgam gilded copper sheet. The gold leaf was just applied directly to copper that had been cleaned with medium emery paper, then degreased with acetone. The leaf stuck quite well, and was burnished in.

 

Another technique that was quite commonly used on arms and armour, particularly of middle-eastern origin, was to tin the metal first by flowing in thin layer of solder or tin with a flux, then effectively soldering a layer of gold foil of leaf over top, followed by a burnishing of the surface.

 

He seems to be open to sharing information, perhaps we should ask him directly?

 

 

Phil

 

 

Phil:

 

Maybe the technique is Kum Bo. I did a little of this, I used fine silver, but you can depletion gild sterling. The gold leaf used is heavier than the leaf used for wood, more like foil, they sell it at Rio Grande. The trick is to bring the silver to 500 degrees and burnish the gold in and (supposededly) a molecular bond is formed. I got one of those small electric cooking elements, a 18 gauge piece of brass and a barbeque thermometer. I put the thermometer and piece on the brass and heated it up to 500 and placed foil on the piece and burnished it. You can also use a kiln. I used an agate burnisher, but you can use a metal one as long as you keep it cooler than the silver, otherwise you run the risk of it getting gilded too.

 

Debbie K

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