What Is Gold Leaf?

Gold leaf is an ultra-thin layer of pure gold used by crafters to create a gilded appearance on projects such as picture frames, sculptures and book bindings. Applying it can be can be very labor-intensive and challenging for beginners. It is extremely fragile by nature, and will adhere to almost any moistened surface. Professional gilders suggest it could take months of practice to become proficient at gilding.

Since pure gold is an element, not a compound or alloy, it can be compressed to nearly the atomic level without destroying its structure. This means it could literally be pounded in a layer so thin sunlight could pass through it. This property is essential to the creation of gold leaf. During ancient times, craftsmen would create gold leaf by placing a quantity of gold between two leather straps and pounding it by hand for weeks or months until it became exceptionally thin. It could then be applied to paintings, sculptures and other religious or royal items.

How Is Gold Leaf Made?

Rolling

The karat and color of the gold leaf vary depending on the amount of silver or copper added to the gold. Most goldbeaters make 23 karat leaf. The gold and its alloy are put in a crucible and melted in a furnace. The liquid gold is poured into a mold to cast it into a bar. The bar of gold is put through a rolling mill repeatedly. Each time through the mill, the rollers are adjusted closer and closer to each other, to make the gold thinner and thinner. The bar is rolled to a thickness of 25 µm (1/1000 of an inch).

Beating

After rolling, the ribbon of gold is cut into one-inch squares. The first step in the beating process is called the cutch. The cutch is made up of approximately 150 skins. In the early days of the trade, ox intestine membrane (Goldbeater’s skin) was used to interleave the gold as it was beaten. Today other materials, such as Mylar, are used. Using wooden pincers, the preparer picks up each square of gold and places it in the center of each skin. When the cutch is filled with the small gold squares, it is wrapped in several bands of parchment which serve to hold the packet together during the beating. Parchment is still the best material known to withstand the hours of repeated hammer blows needed to beat the gold.

The gold is beaten on a large, heavy block of marble or granite. These stone blocks were sometimes placed on top of a tree trunk set deep into the ground. This created greater resiliency for the hammer. Beating of the cutch by hand takes about one hour using a fifteen-pound hammer. The goldbeater instinctively follows a pattern and sets up a rhythm, striking the packet with up to seventy strokes a minute. The packet is rotated and turned over to ensure that the gold inside expands evenly in all directions. The original small squares of gold are beaten until they have expanded to the outer edges of the four-inch square cutch. The gold is taken out of the cutch and each piece is cut into four pieces with a knife. Using the pincers, these squares of gold are put into a second packet called the shoder, which has approximately 1,500 skins. The shoder is beaten for about three hours until the gold has expanded to a five-inch square.

Packaging

The gold is taken out of the shoder and placed on a leather-covered surface. The gold is thin enough now that the cutter can simply blow on it to flatten it out. Using a wooden implement called a wagon, the gold is quickly cut into four pieces and immediately placed in a packet called a mold for the final beating. The wagon has sharp cutting blades, traditionally made from malacca cane (rattan). The mold contains 1,500 pieces of gold. Before the mold is filled with gold, the skins are coated with a gypsum powder. This process is called briming, and it prevents the delicate gold leaf from sticking to the skins. The mold is beaten with an eight-pound hammer for three to four hours until it has been beaten into a circle about six inches in diameter. The finished leaf forms an unbroken sheet of gold with a thickness of 1/250,000 of an inch. After the leaves are taken out of the mold, they are conventionally cut into a three and three-eighth inch square and packaged in tissue-paper books containing twenty-five leaves.