How to gild leather with fine sheets of metal leaf - from sizing the leather and applying the gold leaf to the finishing touches that make the leatherwork project extra special.
By Jake Berlin
Gilding is the application of thin sheets of gold or other metal alloy such as copper or silver, to a surface. The sheets are hand or machine beaten until they are extremely malleable and thinner than the thickness of tissue paper. Gilding was often used as decoration on book covers or picture frames in the past, and gives a look of richness to objects. When applied to finely detailed, carved leather the effect can be quite striking.
Youíll also need an adhesive or glue to stick the leaves to the leather. This glue is called size. A commercial-based size works perfectly. In addition, cheesecloth or other lint-free cloth, a stiff artistís brush to apply the leaf and some Q-tips to remove excess gold leaf are needed, as are a pair of square-ended rather than pointed tweezers for moving and positioning the bits of gold leaf.
Dye The Leather First
An antique finish like Leather Glow can be applied at the end. It gives some luster and contrast, and takes away from the shine of the gold somewhat. Avoid solvent-based finishers and choose one specifically designed for gilding. A leather top-finish like Super Sheen can be applied to the carved leather. If this is your first attempt at gilding, you might want to practice on a piece of scrap leather first, just to get the feel of it.
Apply the under-finish only to those areas that will receive the gilding. Go slowly and carefully here. If you make a mistake, wait until the under-finish is tacky, and then gently scrape it off with the point of an x-acto knife. Wait until the under-finish is completely dry before applying the size.
Glues vary in the length of time they require to achieve a tacky state and remain workable, and this time is generally indicated on the tube or bottle. When gilding a small carving, you probably need glue that is tacky within an hour and remains workable for another twenty minutes or so. Use a small brush to apply the glue only to those areas that received the under-finish. Then check for tackiness, bearing in mind that the glue might reach that state earlier than indicated on the bottle, depending upon environmental variables such as heat and humidity.
Go for the Gild
Now itís time to apply the leaf. Wash your hands to remove any oils that can affect adherence, and carefully lift the sheet with the tweezers and your hands. Do this in a draft-free room, as the leaf is thinner than tissue-paper. If you need to trim the sheet, use a dull butter knife or your finger nail, placing the leaf on a pad of buckskin. Then take the sheet and apply it over the area that has been sized, patting it down with a wad of cheesecloth, gently at first, then gradually increasing the pressure, pressing the leaf into the carving.
Use an artistís brush to tamp the leaf into the detail of the carving. A stiff brush, ľ to Ĺ inch wide works well. Pay attention to the edges, making sure they are well tamped down for a nice finish. You can brush the excess bits of leaf away, saving them in a jar for touch-ups later. Brush along the edges until all the pieces that didnít adhere are swept away.
The Final Touches
You can now rub the gold leaf with a soft cloth to bring out the burnish and smooth any wrinkles. Once the glue is completely dry, you can rub the gilding a little more vigorously to achieve an antique appearance. This will rub away some of the gold leaf, revealing the sizing and antique under-finish. Donít overdo it though, and rub only on the high spots of the carving by rubbing in a line across those high parts and ridges. An antique finish can then be applied, followed by a lacquer or clear finish to protect the leaf from wear and tarnish.
Tools to Use
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