19 Tips on Water Gilding

Water Gilding

Water gilding can transform wood, metal, ceramic, glass, or other surfaces. The process involves applying gold leaf sheets (or silver leaf and occasional imitation leaf sheets) over frames, statues, furniture and other items to make them look as if they are made of gold or silver. If you’ve ever tried water gilding or seen it done, you know that the process is a good deal more involved than simply placing the gold or silver leaf sheets over the material. If you’d like to give water gilding a try, read on to identify a few tips to help you perfect this age-old technique.

What is gilding?

Before we get into sharing the steps and tips to help you with water gilding, let’s take a small step back to discuss what gilding is. Water gilding is a technique that is used to apply gold and silver leaf sheets to various surfaces, including wood, glass, metal, and wood. Water gilding on glass, wood, and various other surfaces allows the artisan to transform the appearance of the item, making it look as if it were crafted from pure gold. 

The way this water technique is used today is nearly identical to the manner in which it was used by artisans of the past, tracing back centuries. It was passed down from artisans over the generations, allowing craftsmen of today to experience a bit of history every time they create a gilded surface.

Water gilding, which may also be called gouache gilding or gilding on bole, is commonly used to repair damaged antique items with missing gold or silver leafing. Many craftsmen also employ this technique to create replicas of antiques and period artefacts.

Water gilding is a time-consuming task that requires patience and an attention to detail. When applied correctly, the product that results will be an absolutely stunning gilded surface.

The main steps for gilding with gold or silver leaf include:

  • Preparing and applying the base material
  • Preparing and applying bole
  • Gilding and applying gold or silver leafing
  • Burnishing
  • Applying a protective coat

In the next few sections, we’ll take a more in-depth look at each of these steps and share some tips to help you through the process.

Preparing and Applying the Base Material

Before you can begin water gilding, you must first prepare the base material, a mix of gesso and coletta (rabbit-skin glue and water). Precise preparation of this base is essential; follow the tips outlined below to help ensure your base mixture has the necessary consistency and properties to offer the ideal foundation for water gilding.

Once the gesso mixture is prepared, the next step is to carefully apply it to your surface. This step will take some time because you will need to apply multiple coats of gesso, allow each coat to dry, and sand it down before applying another coat.

Tools Required

  • Rabbit-skin glue
  • Water
  • Soft brush
  • Bologna Gesso
  • Soft brush
  • Sandpaper (120-180 coarse-grained and 280-400 fine-grained)
  • Gilding scraper

Steps and Tips

  1. Combine 1 part rabbit-skin glue with 8 parts water to prepare the colletta. After mixing, give the solution 12 hours to rest. This will help ensure that the glue softens. 
  2. Place the colletta mixture in a hot water bath, also called a bain-marie, for approximately 8 hours, or until nicely blended and smooth. Do not allow the mixture to boil.
  3. Remove the colletta from the hot water bath and let it rest for approximately 2 more hours. 
  4. Sift the bologna gesso. Then, combine 1 part gesso and 3 parts colletta. Add the gesso slowly. To ensure that no bubbles form, do not stir the mixture. If prepared correctly, the final product should be semi-liquid and dense. Move to the next steps to apply the gesso while it is still hot.
  5. Ensure the surface to be gilded is clean. Apply a coat of the gesso mixture with your soft brush.
  6. Allow the coat to dry, then use the coarse-grained sandpaper to smooth out the surface.
  7. Repeat the steps above to apply multiple coats of gesso (typically at least eight), allowing the gesso to try, and sanding it with the coarse sandpaper.
  8. After applying the last coat of gesso, use the gilding scraper to bring back any necessary sharp edges in the piece. Then, use the fine-grained sandpaper to ensure the surface is completely smooth and ready. 

Preparing and Applying Bole

Applying bole is one of the most important steps when water gilding. The bole color you choose can impact the finished product and add dimension to your piece.

When gilding with gold leaf, red or yellow bole are typically recommended (red bole will give the gold leaf a warmer finish, while yellow bole will make the finished product a bit paler). For silver learning, choose either black or white bole.

Tools Required

  • Rabbit-skin glue
  • Water
  • Bole in a paste
  • Soft brush

Steps and Tips

  1. Combine 1 part rabbit-skin glue with 10 parts water. After letting the mixture rest for 2 hours, place it in a hot water bath (but do not let it boil).
  2. Combine the colletta (the mixture of rabbit-skin glue and water) with the bole paste, following a ratio of 3 parts colletta to 1 part bole. Filter with a stocking if lumps are present.
  3. Apply the hot solution over the gesso surface using a soft brush, starting with one coat of yellow bole and then two coats of red bole. Each coat should be thin. Ensure that the surface fully dries between each coat.

Silver or Gold Gilding and Leaf Application

Once the bole has been applied, and the final coat has dried, the next step is to apply the silver or gold leaf sheets over the surface. When water gilding gold leaf or silver leaf, avoid touching them with your fingers. Doing so could damage the sheet or even make it unusable.

Tools Required

  • Loose gold or silver leaf sheets
  • Gilding cushion
  • Gilding knife
  • Fish glue
  • Soft-hair brush
  • Squirrel hair gilder’s tip
  • Squirrel hair bombasino or cotton ball

Steps and Tips

  1. Place one loose gold or silver leaf sheet on the gilding cushion. Flatten out the leaf by using the gilding knife and blowing on it (do not touch it with your hands). If needed, gently cut the gold or silver leaf sheet by moving the gilding knife back and forward over the gold. Apply sufficient pressure to slice the sheet without cutting the cushion.
  2. Combine 1 part fish glue with 10 parts water. Add the mixture to a hot water bath, but do not allow it to boil.
  3. Use a soft brush to wet one section of the bole coating where you plant to start working. 
  4. Use the squirrel hair flat brush to transfer the gold or silver leaf to the bole surface. Apply the leaf over the section of the surface where you plan to start (beginning with the flatter sections is typically recommended).
  5. Dab the gold or silver leaf with a cotton ball of squirrel hair bombasino to ensure that it fully adheres to the bole. Repeat the above steps until the surface is covered with the gold or silver leaf.
applying gold leaf
Image by Chris from Pixabay

Burnishing

Burnishing is the process of polishing the surface after gilding gold leaf. Do not begin these steps until the gold or silver gilding is fully grief. (up to 24 hours in the winter and up to 8 or more hours in the summer).

To assess whether the piece is ready, exhale over the gold or silver leaf. If the fog from your breath does not disappear, it is not dry enough yet. If it disappears immediately, it is too dry. When the fog remains for just a few minutes before disappearing, that is when the piece is ready for burnishing.

Tools Required

  • Agate burnisher (to match the size and shape of the surface)
  • Warm wool cloth

Steps and Tips

  1. Heat up a wool cloth, then use it to warm the agate burnisher (rub the burnisher on the warm cloth).
  2. Use the agate burnisher to polish the surface of the gold leaf by gliding it over the surface in different directions until it achieves the shine and brilliance desired. When moving the burnisher, use consistent pressure and make sure that you don’t place too much force on the piece.

Applying the Protective Coat

The final step of gold leaf gilding is to apply the protective varnish to protect the gilding. Choosing a natural varnish will help ensure that the gold’s brilliance remains unchanged and stays true to its current look.

Tools Required

  • De-waxed shellac
  • Squirrel bombasino or soft brush

Steps and Tips

  1. Use the soft brush or squirrel bombasino to apply the de-waxed shellac over the entire gilded surface. One or two thin coats should be sufficient. For pieces with carvings or deeper inlays, a bomabasino brush may be the most helpful for getting into the tighter areas.

Water Gilding: Closing Thoughts

Water gilding has been used for centuries, and it is still one of the best techniques you can use when you want to apply a gold leaf finish to various surfaces. Hopefully, the tips and suggestions offered above have helped you learn more about water gilding and how you can use it to restore period pieces or craft your own gold- or silver-leafed creations.

FAQs

What is the difference between oil and water gilding?

Oil gilding is easier to do than water gilding. It is also less expensive. However, water gilding offers the gold standard (pun intended) when it comes to achieving a brilliant finish. This is because you cannot burnish the finish after oil gilding, which leaves it less shiny. Oil gilding is a better choice for objects that will be outdoors or in high humidity areas.

How do you make gilding water?

The exact recipes for gilding water can vary, but most require distilled water or deionised water, neat vodka or gin, and gelatine capsules.

Can you use water to apply gold leaf?

Yes, you can apply gold leaf using water. The process is called water gilding. To learn more, consult the steps and tips shared above.