Art of Gilding

The art of gilding has never, to my knowledge, been fully explained. The language used by the professional gilder is worlds apart from that used by the layman. Also it is one of the hardest jobs an inexperienced hand can undertake. It is an awful lot of fun, though, especially when you do finally get a carving gilded and look at it in awe and wonderment at your handiwork. I will try to describe, as best I can, the steps I take to gild a carving.

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The carving being completed, I apply two coats of white lead and oil paint. I mix this myself out of ground white lead, raw linseed oil, some turpentine, and some japan dryer. The consistency is about that of medium cream. It should be very thoroughly stirred. The stirring blends the lead pigments with the vehicles. I think the more it is stirred, the better it flows. Allow at least two days between coats for drying—longer if the weather is humid. Usually, not always, the proportion of oil, turpentine, and dryer are given on the can of white lead. (I buy it in 5-pound lots.) If not, then write the manufacturer for these. He will be glad to send you any information he has on this matter.

After the second coat has set and is hard to the touch (usually three to four days), I apply a slow-set oil gilding size. This can be made at home, but I have found that Hastings and Company's size is extremely good and very consistent. I apply the gilding size in such manner that there are no skips ("holidays" to the initiate) and usually do the sizing about four o'clock in the afternoon. It takes about eighteen hours for the gilder's size to set up to a suitable tack. Tack, in this case, means the degree of stickiness. It is hard to define or explain.

The nearest I can come is to say that it is the degree of stickiness that, when you touch it with your knuckle, there is a distinct feeling of the size pulling at the flesh yet not coming off the stock onto your finger. When it has reached this degree of tack you are ready to apply the gold leaf. Gold leaf comes in books. There are twenty-five books in a pack. The leaf is supplied in either the "Board" or "Mounted" leaf. In the mounted leaf, the gold is adhered lightly to a thin tissue separator. It is used primarily for gilding on glass. Unmounted or "Board" leaf is, as its name implies, not mounted on tissue. The separators are rouged to prevent the leaf from adhering to them. The trick is to get the leaf off the rouged paper and onto the carving without having it fold out of shape. Mind you, this leaf is only two ten-thousandths of an inch thick.

Gilding must be done in a room where there are no drafts and where the probability of a door being suddenly opened is reduced to the irreducible minimum or else the draft will take charge and "there goes sixpence." To lift gold leaf from the book, use a fine camel's-hair, a red badger or a squirrel hair brush. I use a red badger brush one inch wide. It costs about $15.00 and is worth its weight in gold. I have tried gilder's tips without much luck, perhaps because I am in the habit of using the brush described.

Pass the brush across your hair, if you aren't bald. If you are, I don't know what you do, but in this case try a bit of velvet. What you are trying to do is to charge the bristles with static electricity. Then expose the sheet of gold by folding back the cover and pages of the book in such a way that the whole piece of the leaf is exposed on the rouged separator. Very carefully (and be sure that your hand is steady) place the brush against the edge of the leaf, lift with a slight circular twist and, again with care, float the suspended leaf onto the face of the sized carving. It cannot be moved once it touches the tack.

Here is a suggestion. Try all these steps on a practice piece. Plan to waste four or five books of gold leaf in the process of learning the trick. After all, you are spending a rather small sum to learn a new and, to me at least, fascinating part of the business. When I started to gild, I didn't know any more about it than a Hottentot. I spent three days, and I forget how much leaf, trying to learn some of the tricks of the trade. A very gifted sign painter was in the shop not long ago and saw one of my carvings that I had just gilded. He looked at it and, turning around, offered me a job doing all his gilding. Now, that could have been a line or he really meant it. I didn't press the point—nor am I gilding his lilies.

The final step in gilding is to brush all the fractured leaf back onto the face of the carving, using the one-inch brush. Keep it moving about the surface to be sure that no voids are left; that is, no places where you didn't get the leaf on exactly as you wanted it. These skips or voids can be touched up later by reapplying the size to the spots and regilding. Several days, perhaps four, after the gilding has been done (the time lapse is to be sure that the gilding size has made its final set and that it has hardened under the gold leaf), burnish the face of the gold with a piece of silk velvet. A piece about 8 inches square is large enough. This can be done with surgical absorbent cotton. Surgical cotton is sure to be free of any foreign matter that might scratch the gold. Do this burnishing very carefully. Don't rub, pass the velvet or cotton pad gently across the surface in the same direction. This process brings the gold up to a lustrous finish.

I feel reasonably sure that if you were to write Hastings and Company * for instructions they would be only too glad to send them to you. I didn't think of that when I "lessoned myself." There I think I was really stupid. And on some other scores as well. If any carving which you have made is to be used out of doors, the back of the carving has to be protected from the weather as well as the face of the carving. Three coats of white lead and oil paint should provide this protection for some while.

GESSO. Gesso provides a smooth, firm white surface as a base for bright gilding and polychrome work on a carving. It is especially recommended for carvings made of pine. Errors or small fractures can be modeled up and gesso is good insurance that sap spots will not bleed through the applied finish. Gesso is a mixture of animal glue, whiting, and water. It can be prepared by heating water in a double boiler, dissolving the glue in the water with occasional stirring, and heating thoroughly. A double boiler must be used, since no glue solution should ever be boiled, overheated, or scorched. Add whiting to the hot glue solution until a thin cream consistency is obtained. I use 3 parts glue to 12 parts water by volume, and 5 parts whiting.

Apply gesso thinly with a brush, in several layers, being careful to use a hot solution. Let each layer dry thoroughly. Enough layers of gesso must be put on the wood so that the final, dried coating can be sandpapered to a smooth finish, free from brushmarks, without the sandpaper going through and exposing the wood. Air bubbles in the first coat should be removed by stroking with your fingertips. Subsequent coats will conceal any fingermarks.







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