By Julia Ashley of The Artistic Framing Company
Of all the processes that go into creating a picture frame, gilding is what I get asked about the most. Not surprising as gilding is the adornment; the last few steps that bring all the hard work together.
Gold has long been associated with beauty and luxury, and if you get gilding right it can give an object the appearance of solid gold.
So imagine creating your own gilded item from scratch. Or maybe you have an old picture frame (or any other gilded item, for that matter) that you’d like to restore. You can learn how to do it here.
Don’t be put off by the exotic sounding materials (rabbit skin glue and gilder’s mops for example!) Most of these can be bought easily online.
What is gilding?
In a nutshell, gilding is the centuries-old process of applying gold leaf, paint or powder to a surface such as wood, metal or stone. It’s a process that has barely changed since it was first used to embellish Egyptian tombs around 3000 BC.
Did you know there are two main types of gilding: water gilding and oil gilding. Water gilding is more labour-intensive but gives a superior surface and sheen, and that’s what we’ll talk about here.
Note: Gilding is a tricky process because gold leaf is a fragile and expensive material to work with – it’s a case of practice makes perfect here.
First, you will need to prepare the frame. The basic steps are: sand the front and sides of the frame, then wipe the dust off. Apply two thin coats of rabbit skin glue with a soft bristle brush (20 minutes apart).
Apply 8-10 coats of gesso (a mix of calcium carbonate and animal hide glue), leave to dry. Smooth the gesso to a finer finish using a cotton cloth.
Further refine the surface with wet and dry sandpaper until it is porcelain smooth. Apply 6-8 coats of bole (a mixture of clay and animal or fish based glues) with a fine brush. Use a fine grade of sandpaper to carefully smooth the surface.
Now for the exciting part: applying the gold. Dip a gilder’s mop (a fine squirrel hair mop) in gilder’s water (a mix of rabbit skin glue, distilled water and isopropyl alcohol) and wet a small section of the frame. Then immediately apply gold leaf to that area using another brush called a flat gilder’s tip. Repeat this process, starting at the top of the frame and working your way down. Once this is done, leave the frame to dry for a few hours.
Next use a soft brush to lightly remove any excess gold. Then take a smaller brush and smaller pieces of gold to fill in any holes. Lightly brush the surface as before. Once this is done, you can re-gild the entire surface! After each re-gild, leave to dry and lightly brush off any excess, as before.
Finally, you can burnish the gold with an agate stone, or leave it matt if you prefer, and you’re finished!
Tip: Make sure that any gilding water you apply receives gold on top; otherwise it will discolour the surface.
Long-term care – do’s and don’ts!
Late 17th Century Rococco frame gilded with 24ct gold
It may look like solid gold, but a gilded surface is very delicate, and less is definitely more when it comes to maintenance. With appropriate care however, your gilded object should last a very long time.
Keep the furniture spray well away and don’t clean it with water (water is especially damaging to a gilded item as it can dissolve the glue that binds the gesso). Avoid damp and excessive heat.
What you can do is keep it dry and dust it occasionally and lightly with a feather duster.
About Julia Ashley
Julia has 40 years’ experience working within the specialist picture framing industry. Her field of expertise is in preparing and gilding bespoke picture frames and she has gilded a frame for several original Monets, a Lowry, a Pissarro, as well as frames for the Bloomsbury Group of painters. Her favourite frame style is Louis XV from the 18th century.