Fire gilding is a tried-and-true method of gilding items that dates back to the 4th century. The process has been used to apply gold to countless items, with the resulting gold layer proving durable long after application. So, what is fire gilding and is it still used today? Join us as we learn more about fire gilding and its processes.

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What Are the 3 Methods of Gilding?

Fire gilding is one of many methods used to achieve a gilded surface. While there are more than just a few methods of gilding, there are three that are most common today:

  • Electroplating
  • Oil gilding
  • Water gilding

As you can see, fire gilding isn’t on the list of the three most common methods of gilding, however, this doesn’t mean the method isn’t effective. In fact, fire gilding is one of the best ways to gild items in terms of longevity. However, due to its specific application process and the various health risks involved, its use has greatly decreased.

fire gilding

What Is Fire Gilding?

Fire gilding, also known as mercury gilding, is the process through which a particular item is laid with pieces of mercury and gold. After several processes are performed, the gilded item is then heated which works to remove excess mercury. The result is a durable, long lasting, bright gold, shining gilded piece that has multiple uses.

What Is the History of Fire-Gilding?

Fire gilding can be dated back to the 1500s and beyond. It was often used to decorate weaponry, along with arms and armor. Famous figures such as emperor Charles V are known to have utilized fire gilding in this way, and are known to have owned many fire gilded pieces. It was during this time that gold was very popular, even to the degree of being restricted in 1618 in an attempt to reserve gold and protect it from becoming depleted.

What Is Another Name for Fire-Gilding?

Fire gilding is often referred to as mercury gilding because of the role that mercury plays in the process. As pure gold is mixed with mercury in the initial application process, the mercury is later boiled off, unveiling brilliantly a gilded surface, though burnishing and polishing is often required.

Mercury Fire Gilding

When compared to other methods of gilding, fire gilding is no longer as popular as other gilding forms. From ancient times even until now, water gilding and oil gilding are processes that are more common and practical for gilded work. Still, it is important to note that while techniques involving oil size or water adhesive are easier processes than fire gilding, achieving a gilt surface as long-lasting as one that is fire gilt is difficult to achieve.

For this reason, applying gold using the fire gilding technique can provide a uniform coating that can withstand the test of time, despite its somewhat laborious, and even unsafe, application.

Is Fire Gilding Dangerous?

As mentioned, attempting to achieve a fire gilded surface can be dangerous at times. This is because bringing mercury to mercury’s boiling point can cause health problems in a person by affecting the lungs. Still, fire gilding can be a worthy process for those wishing to achieve stunning and enduring results.

How Does Fire-Gilding Work?

The following is a general overview of how traditional fire gilding can lay a metal surface in gold:

To begin, you’ll need to crush specks of gold and mercury using a mortar and pestle before slowly heating the mixture into amalgam paste. This will be done over relatively low temperatures. An “amalgam” is a term that refers to a mixture containing mercury and other metal alloy.

  • Cool the mercury gold alloy mixture in water.
  • Remove any excess mercury by squeezing. This will yield a product similar in consistency to butter.
  • Apply additional mercury to the surface of the object to be painted for adhesion purposes. Make sure that the prepared surface (usually copper alloys or silver gilt pieces) are meticulously clean prior to application.
  • Apply the alloy to the object being gilded using a brass brush (or another appropriate brush type).
  • The mercury as then boiled away using fire at a low temperature.
  • Afterward, burnishing and polishing take place to result in a polished and smooth look. 

Fire Gilding Mercury: Heating Process

  • Heat the gilded object in the oven to cause mercury to convert to vapor.
  • The final gold gilded object is to be burnished and polished
  • That’s it! The gold is now bonded to its surface.

How to Imitate Fire Gilding

Though fire gilding isn’t as commonly used today because of its effects on health, there are ways to practice the art of fire gilding even today. Using a few special heat tools and a special filtering system, you may be able to achieve the results of beautifully gilded metals and antique work.

Fire Gilded Pieces on Display

If you’re lucky enough to live near a museum that displays fire-gilded pieces, you’re in for a real treat. Fire gilt antique work can be found in a metropolitan museum, a place which also sometimes features fire gilt armor and weapons on display. These beautiful works of art were quite the norm in times past, however, these days fire gilding has been replaced by more practical means of application, such as oil and water gilding.

Fire Gilding: Garner Long Lasting & Beautiful Results!

Fire gilding can be used to achieve long-lasting and extravagant works of art. In time past, this gilding method was long used to adorn weapons, shields, arms, and armor. Today, people may use fire gilding to restore an exact replica or original pieces. Fire gilding may also be used to repair antiques and for a variety of other sundry purposes.


Is cold gilding similar to fire gilding?

Cold gilding is an antiquated method of applying gold to the surface by using the residual ashes of burned linen rag dipped in a solution of gold. The results of cold gilding aren’t nearly as durable as the ones achieved by the act of fire gilding. In fact, the process of cold gilding is quite extensive yielding such a temporal metallic sheen.

Is fire gilding dangerous?

Fire gilding can be dangerous, but not for the reasons you may think. While handling heat of any kind can be inherently risky, it is the heated mercury that poses the most issue. During the plating process of gold covered items using fire gilding, mercury must be heated. As mercury vaporizes, it can cause mercury poisoning in a bystanding individuals a result of dangerous fumes.

Is fire gilding still used today?

Fire gilding can still be performed today using various tools, however, it isn’t used as often as it once was. Instead, practices such as oil gilding and water gilding are much more common.

Is oil gilding more durable than fire gilding?

Oil gilding is one of the most durable methods of laying gold leaf, however, we can’t say that it has the longevity of fire gilded items. Still, oil gilding is a wonderful option for outdoor use and for other items that may be touched and handled frequently.

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