Knowing the difference between water gilding vs oil gilding is essential when learning how to use gold leaf. Both water gilding and oil gilding require specific techniques and equipment and are used for varying purposes. To learn more about the differences between these two ways that gold leaf is applied, be sure to continue reading!

Table of Contents

Water Gilding Vs Oil Gilding

What Is the Difference Between Water Gilding and Oil Gilding?

As mentioned before, water and oil gilding have different purposes and processes. Let’s take a look closer at the differences between these two.

Water Gilding

Traditional water gilding is usually a laborious process. Nevertheless, gold leaf gilded this way often yields a particularly shimmery sheen that often makes water gilding worthwhile.

Water gilding is great for highlighting the dimensions of an item, making it great for statues and similar items. Moreover, water gilding is particularly useful for small repairs or fine details. Gold leaf applied using the water gilding method can also be burnished. Burnishing is a type of polishing method that can give gold a unique look.

Like with most things, water gilding does have disadvantages. Although water gilding is a nice way to get a shiny finish or burnished gold look, it isn’t great for use outdoors. Thus, if you plan to gild something that will need to withstand wind, rain, sun, and other weather elements, it is essential that you choose oil gilding methods instead.

To water gild, you’ll typically need rabbit skin glue that is combined with water. Before applying the water, you’ll also need many layers of gesso to ensure that the gold leaf adheres properly. This is especially true for wood grain on raw wood or other types of rugged surfaces.

When applying your gold leaf with a water guild, you’ll add your water to the surface of the items to be gilded before gently pressing the gold leaf in place.

Water gilding is often best for the following projects:

  • Indoor statues
  • Furniture
  • Picture frames or other types of framed work

Oil Gilding

Unlike water gilding, oil gilding isn’t very laborious. In fact, oil gilding is the most common type of gilding used because of its easier application. Though it may not give off as shiny of a finish as water gilding might, the oil gilding process can still be a viable option, especially for larger items. Because of the ease of application, oil gilded items can be applied to an entire surface of a very large project much more effortlessly than water gilded gold leaf might.

Though water gilded projects and accents aren’t suitable for the outdoors, the opposite is true for oil gilded items. Oil gilded frames or exterior work withstand all types of weather and are water-resistant. Thus, it is best that if you are working on a surface that will be outdoors, you use this method of applying gold leaf instead a water guild.

When applying gold leaf using an oil gild, you’ll need to ensure that the surface you are covering isn’t porous. If it is, such as in the case of applying oil gilded gold leaf over bole (or clay), you’ll need to apply a sealant. Once the sealant has been applied, you can add your oil size before carefully beginning to apply your choice of gold leaf.

What is oil size, you may ask? Oil size is a type of glue adhesive that allows your gold leaf to stick. It contains linseed oil and is an absolute must when attempting to oil gild gold leaf to any item.

What Are the Different Types of Gilding?

As you know by now, the two types of gilding are oil gilding and water gilding. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, as well as methods for proper usage.

Oil Gilding vs Water Gilding

The following is a side-by-side comparison of both methods to help you better assess which process may be better for you and your project.

Water GildingOil Gilding
LaboriousNot as laborious
Great for indoor useGreat for indoor and outdoor use
Can be burnishedCannot be burnished
Require rabbit skin glue and water / water-based sizeRequires oil size
Has extra shiny appearance

Gilding Techniques

Now that you know what kind of gilding techniques you can use, you may be wondering if you can add other precious metals to your projects as well. The answer? Yes, you can! There are other precious metals besides gold leaf that come in thin sheets. They include platinum, silver, copper, bronze, and more.

This is helpful to note not only for making frames, but also for doing various types of art. Simply choose the best type of gilding process for the surface you’re using, and use the same methods to layer your metal leaf to create a wonderfully regal, glitzy, and elegant look.

Water Based vs Oil Based Gilding Size

We’ve gone over quite a few advantages concerning oil based size for applying gold leaf, but we want you to know that there are also various types of water-based gilding size available. The main thing to remember is that water-based size will never be suitable for outdoor use. Thus, it is imperative that you remember to use water-based adhesive only for interior fixtures, accents, and projects. Otherwise, your hard work will become ruined when exposed to water and various weather elements.

Water Gilding vs Oil Gilding

When it comes to water vs oil gilding, there’s quite a bit to keep in mind to achieve the results you desire. Recall that oil gilding is the most commonly used gilding technique and is the most user-friendly. It is also the only type of gilding that is suitable for the outdoors. 

Water gilding is also a tried and true method that yields its own unique results. The process offers glimmering outcomes but can withstand indoor environments only.

Both water and oil gilding techiniques will require various adhesive mixtures for them to correctly adhere the gold leaf to the surface of your project.


What are the 3 methods of gilding?

The most popular methods of gilding are oil gilding and water gilding methods, although fire gilding also exists. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, so be sure to do your research before deciding which of the gilding techniques is best for you. 

What does burnishing do for gold leaf?

Burnishing helps polish the gold leaf, can remove excess gold leaf residue, and can also turn the gold leaf into a deeper and warmer tone.

What does gilding mean?

Gilding is the process of applying gold leaf or other thin sheets of precious metal to a particular item, project, or art piece.

What is gesso?

Gesso is an adhesive used to apply gold leaf or other types of metal leaf. It is typically mixed with rabbit skin glue and calcium carbonate before being spread over the surface to be gilded. Its purpose is to offer an ideal base for gold leaf to be applied.

Get 10% OFF on your first order

Sign up to our newsletter and get 10% discount on your first order. Check your inbox for the discount code and use it at checkout!

*Terms and conditions apply

You have Successfully Subscribed!