If you’re planning a gold leaf gilding project, you may be trying to decide between imitation gold leaf vs real gold leaf. With just looking at the metal leaf sheets, you might not be able to notice much difference between the two options. However, looks can be deceiving. There are some key imitation gold leaf and real gold leaf differences that can impact which is the better choice for your next project. Continue reading to learn more about these differences. Then, you can make an informed decision about which type of leafing you should use.

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What Is Real Gold Leaf?

Real gold leaf is exactly what it sounds like: gold leaf made using genuine gold. A genuine gold leaf is made by beating pure gold until it becomes very thin. Gold leaf is even thinner than aluminum foil, about 0.18 microns thick.

Real gold leaf is known for its brilliance and value. Because it is made from real gold, it has an unmistakable shimmer and can truly transform everyday objects.

Even when purchasing real gold leaf, you may notice that there are different available options. Real gold leaf is categorized by its gold content. You can find gold leaf sheets with a purity between 6 karats and 24 karats. 24-karat gold leaf is pure gold. Lower karats have some silver or bronze mixed in, which can change their color a bit. For example, gold with a bit of silver mixed in will have more of a cooler tone. Gold leaf with bronze mixed in will have a warmer look.

The ideal gold content can vary based on the project you are completing and how you want it to look. However, if you are completing gold leaf gilding for an exterior project, it is best to choose a gold leaf that is at least 23.75 karats. Pure gold will resist corrosion and continue to look brilliant even when exposed to the elements, much better than leafing with a lower gold content.

For interior gilding work, 22-karat gold leaf is a popular choice. These sheets are highly durable and offer a brilliant shine.

One other consideration to keep in mind when choosing real gold leaf for a project is its weight. You’ll notice that packs of gold leaf state the weight in grams per 1,000 leaves. Sheets with heavier weight will be a bit more durable and a better choice for exterior projects.

Imitation gold leaf vs real gold leaf: what's the difference?

What Is Imitation Gold Leaf?

As its name suggests, imitation gold leaf is not made using real gold. Rather, it just imitates the appearance of gold. You may also see imitation gold leaf called Dutch gold, Dutch metal, or composition gold leaf.

While the exact makeup of imitation gold leaf can vary, it is typically made using copper, zinc, and brass. Because these metals are significantly less valuable than real gold, imitation gold leaf costs a lot less than real gold leaf. This is one of the main selling points of the material. Another benefit of imitation gold leaf is that it can be easier to handle and work with than genuine gold leaf. 

Imitation Gold Leaf for your projects

However, there are some downsides to choosing imitation gold leaf over the real thing. Unlike genuine gold leaf, imitation gold leaf will tarnish when left outside. It also won’t last nearly as long as real gold leaf. After just a few years of exposure to the elements, you will likely need to replace imitation gold leaf. 

Real Gold Leaf vs Imitation: Which Is Better?

So, imitation gold leaf vs real gold leaf, which is the superior product? We strongly recommend working with genuine gold leaves. Not only is real gold more brilliant and attractive than imitation gold, but it will also give you the biggest bang for your buck. Real gold will not oxidize or tarnish. It can also last for decades, even when applied to exterior surfaces.

You can also ingest pure real gold, for example in edible gold flake form.

There are, however, a few instances when you may find that imitation gold leaf will work best. If you have a large interior project, such as gilding all the walls in the room, you may opt for the money-saving benefits of imitation gold leaf. You can also use Imitation gold leaf when gilding ceilings or other areas that are out of reach and will not be disturbed.

Imitation gold leaf vs real gold leaf: Which Is Better?

Real and Imitation Gold Leaf Application

The gilding process for real and imitation gold leaf is similar. Below is a general overview of how to apply gold leaf to a surface:

  • Prepare the surface: Before applying real or imitation gold leaf, prepare the surface. Wood should be sanded, canvases should be painted, and other surfaces should be cleaned and/or primed as needed.
  • Apply adhesive size: Next, apply the adhesive size to the prepared surface. Both oil-based and water-based sizes are available, depending on the type of project you are working on.
  • Apply loose-leaf gold or imitation gold: Wait for the adhesive size to become tacky, then apply the gold/imitation gold leaf. Transfer leaf is easy to use and features either a tissue paper or wax paper backing to help you position the gold in the correct place. Once positioned, gently rub the back of the wax paper or tissue paper to smooth out the leaf and burnish it.
  • Remove excess leaf: After you have covered the desired area with the leafing, brush away the excess leaf with a soft brush.
  • Seal the surface: Finally, apply a thin coat of varnish to seal the gold leaf (especially important if you use imitation gold leaf to prevent it from tarnishing).
Imitation Gold Leaf vs Real Gold Leaf: Making the Decision

Imitation Gold Leaf vs Real Gold Leaf: Making the Decision

Applying imitation gold leaf vs real gold leaf can have a transformative effect. However, both of these metals are not created equally. Real gold leaf does not tarnish and will last much longer than imitation gold leaf. While its initial cost will be higher, the long-lasting, durable, and incomparable brilliance of genuine gold leaf definitely makes it a worthwhile investment.

Create unique design with gold leaf


How can you tell if gold leaf is real?

While imitation gold leaf and real gold leaf may look similar at first glance, there are notable differences. First, genuine gold leaf that is at least 24 karats will not tarnish. Imitation gold leaf, on the other hand, does tarnish if it is not sealed. You can also test gold leaf to determine whether it is real or an imitation by using a testing kit. These testing kits allow you to compare the reaction of the gold (or imitation gold) leafing when it comes into contact with an acid. You can use the included guide to compare the reaction to determine whether the gold is genuine or an imitation.

Does imitation gold leaf need to be sealed?

While you don’t have to seal gold leaf (that is at least 24 karats), it is necessary to seal imitation gold leaf. If not sealed, imitation gold leaf will tarnish. A sealant helps to slow down the oxidation process and keep imitation gold looking its best.

Which gold leaf is best?

24-karat gold is the highest grade of gold. It is 99.9% pure gold and offers the most brilliant appearance.

Can you get fake gold leaf?

Yes, you can purchase fake gold leaf. It is called imitation gold leaf and costs significantly less than genuine gold leaf.

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