Gold beating has been said to be a lost art. However, in many ways, the practice is carried out today in a similar way to how it was carried out in the past. Gold leaf itself comes in thin sheets that are measured in microns. These sheets are so thin, even the slightest breath could blow them away. The process of gold beating has transformed throughout the years, but the process of making gold leaf this thing is relatively straightforward.
In this article, we’ll dive into how gold leaf was beaten in the past, and also, how it is made so thin today. Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
- What Is Gold Beating?
- Why Is Gold Hammered?
- How Thin Can Gold Be Pounded?
- Ancient and Modern Gold Beating Practices Aren’t So Different!
What Is Gold Beating?
Gold beating is the process of hammering gold until it is the desired thinness. Gold beating usually occurs by hand, although in modern times, the traditional gold beating process is assisted with rolling mills and various hammering machines. Gold beating usually takes place with a person holding a mallet of sorts. These mallets can be made of granite or marble, cast iron, or other metals to pound gold as thinly as possible.
Ancient Gold Beating
Most sources agree that the art of gold beating can be traced back to between 2000-3000 B.C. In order to convert gold bars into extremely thin sheets, ancient gold beaters would hammer sheets by hand to produce quality metal about the thickness of one micron.
How Is Gold Beaten?
By the 18th century, the goldbeating process would become slightly more efficient. By this time, gold leaf producers gained the ability to pass the gold through rolling mills. This process would produce gold sheets as long ribbons, but still would not produce gold leaf thin enough to be used for gilding. From there, goldbeaters would use a tilt hammer to produce thin sheets that would later be cut into square shapes to be used for a variety of gilding purposes.
In recent years, gold leaf is made in much the same way. Surprisingly, though machinery is still involved in most gold leaf-making processes, the final product is often still pounded by hand. This helps the already thin gold pieces to become even thinner, often resulting in sheets 200 times thinner than human hair.
The beating of gold sheets takes skill and practice. It’s all timed with rhythmic breathing and powerful strikes. As the gold is beaten it spreads over the thin parchment paper it’s placed upon, and eventually, the gold leaf becomes thin and delicately silky for use on furniture, picture frames, and even artwork.
Gold Beating Process
The following is a more detailed process for gold beating as it is often done today:
- The work starts with highly skilled craftsmen that have been trained in the making and handling of gold leaf material.
- These trained craftsmen take the gold, and melt it to be placed later into a mold. At times, pure gold can be combined with other metal to form an alloy. These metals usually include silver and copper, and make the hue of the gold different depending on the metal used.
- The melted gold is then cast into a mold to create gold bars.
- Once gold bars are produced, they are then passed through rollers that eventually flatten the gold into thin long ribbons.
- This thin ribbon is then cut and weighed according to manufacturer specifications.
- From here, the gold leaf is taken to be beaten. The beating process will differ between manufacturers, but the general process typically involves layering the previously cut ribbons, one on top of the other, and pounded, usually by machine first, to produce thin evenly pounded gold sheets.
- Once the mechanical beating has taken place, skilled technicians continue the hammering process, this time by hand, to ensure that the gold sheets achieve the desired thinness and that they spread in size.
- From here, the gold is usually inspected and packaged according to quality control guidelines.
Why Is Gold Hammered?
Hammered gold can be used for a variety of practical purposes. Gold leaf can be used for:
- Gilding frames
- Applying a splash of gold to artwork
- Updating furniture
- Repairing antiquated pieces
- Gilding statues
- Jazzing up outdoor fixtures
- Layering over food items (only feasible when using food-grade gold)
Note that while gold paint or gilding wax is often an easier method to provide a bit of glint to furniture and artwork pieces, it rarely has the same effect that gold has in its natural state. Thus, while hammered gold leaf must be strategically applied and handled, it often has the most visual impact to the pieces it is applied to.
How Thin Can Gold Be Pounded?
Gold leaf is much thinner than traditional paper. Using machinery and human blows, gold can be pounded thinner than a strand of human hair. To be specific, gold leaf is often hammered approximately seven-millionths of an inch, though the thickness of gold leaf will vary by brand and type. Because of the thinness of the gold, its delicate stature is often difficult to control. This is because it easily rips or develops holes when handled incorrectly.
Ancient and Modern Gold Beating Practices Aren’t So Different!
All in all, though gold beating was traditionally done by hand in ancient Egypt, mechanisms used to create gold leaf today still involve blows administered by human hands. The result is a thin sheet of gild to be used for a variety of gilding purposes. These include applications for statues, frames, antiquated objects, furniture, and so much more.
A gold beater is a person who makes a living by hammering gold.
Gold beating is done with a mixture of both hand and machine. However, there are some people in the world that continue to produce gold done strictly by hand. Marino Menegazzo, one of Italy’s gold beaters, is one such person who relies mainly on hand-beating to produce high quality gold leaf sheets. Hammering gold leaf by hand can take up to 90 minutes or more, depending on the desired thickness of the gold.
Gold beating is usually accomplished with an anvil (made of granite or marble), cast iron hammer, or tilt hammer. Ancient Egyptian gold materials would be beaten using stone.
Gold is beaten to produce thin sheets of pure gold used for a variety of purposes. Food grade gold leaf can be beaten to produce gold that is fit for human consumption and can even be used to gild over certain types of food. It is sometimes converted into edible gold flakes which can then be used on cupcakes and other edible items.