The Midas Touch: Gilding
Gold has been used in decoration and ornamentation since the time of ancient Egypt. Solid gold is typically not affordable or very practical for decorative accents, so the technique of gilding was devised to provide a thin covering of gold over other materials. This gold leaf is beaten between animal skins until it is reduced to a thickness of about 1/300,000th of an inch, or 0.3 to 0.5 microns--so thin that it is translucent when held up to a light. Other metals used for leafing include silver, aluminum, palladium, platinum and copper.
To gild a prepared surface, an adhesive called “size” is brushed onto the surface where it sets to an appropriate tackiness. Gold leaf is gently laid onto the surface, then dabbed against the sizing with a dry brush called a “gilder’s tip.”
When 23 karat gold leaf is used, the gold will not tarnish and needs no coating. With other metals, including composition leaf--a copper and zinc combination that resembles gold--a protective layer is added to prevent tarnishing, but the varnish itself does eventually age. Many historic gilding projects originally incorporated composition leaf because the cost of labor around the turn-of-the-century was insignificant compared to the cost of gold.
Now, in the twenty-first century, the cost of material versus labor is often reversed; thus, choosing a long-lasting material that does not routinely need to be reapplied, such as 23 karat gold leaf, can be a more economical route over time. In addition, the application of composition leaf today costs almost as much as the application of gold leaf because of the additional labor involved in adding the protective layer. Selecting real gold leaf for accents may seem like a luxury, but it is an enduring investment in beauty.
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
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