Prior to the 19th century, water gilding was the only method used for all gilding projects. Today, this method is mostly used for frames, furniture accents, restoration projects, and other small and intricate projects. Water gilding takes years to perfect. As you will read, there are many steps that require patience and skill. This type of gilding will allow a high burnish and will actually be more durable than gilding on oil/water-based size.
Here’s a common misconception. “Water gilding” is often confused with “gilding using water-based size”. Today, the latter is much more common.
I just returned from teaching a class in Versailles, France.
On one afternoon, I invited Sebastian Vallin from Gohard Gilding corp. to give the students a demo on water gilding. Gohard is a 3rd generation company that specializes in restoration gilding along with high-end residential. Gohard has worked at the palace of Versailles and is a member of the French historical preservation society. Sebastian outlined the traditional method of water gilding:
1) clean the surface to the bare wood
2) seal it with rabbit skin glue
3) apply several coats of gesso. The gesso is made with rabbit skin glue, whiting, water, and garlic cloves. Gesso is left in a double boiler and is always applied warm.
4) re-carving- this is a pain-staking process where you re-carve all the sculpted details that got lost with layers of gesso. A variety of metal tools are used to chisel and reveal the desired profile. In a big company, if a worker is good at carving, that may be their only job as it requires a lot of skill.
6) apply 3-4 coats of yellow bole. Bole is a soft clay. Traditionally, Armenian clay is used (for it’s ideal brown/red color).
8) apply 1 coat of red bole only on high areas, not the recessed ones.
9) final sanding
10-12) After the resulting surface is smooth and ready, it’s time to apply the gold. A water size is made of water and melted gelatin.
It is applied on a small section using the water sizing brush
Loose leaves are placed on a gilding cushion (see images below) –it is cut in secitions with a knife. Transfer to the piece to the freshly sized section with gilder’s tip.
The process of applying the size and leaf to a section is repeated until complete. Often, the piece is placed on an incline in order to prevent the size from puddling as that can affect the adhesion.
Another stresser: the leaf cannot overlap and just skew away like with oil/water-based size. The overlap will stick and will not burnish the same as areas with only one layer … so you have to be precise.
Use a small, dry mop to stamp leaf on surface
For touch-ups, use a pointed gilder’s brush
13) You can burnish the gold to a high shine with an agate burnisher. Rubbing the surface with a super fine 00000 steel wool will distress the gold and show the bole color coming through.
14) Additionally, the surface can be matted down with a gelatin mixture using a mop to apply
15) Finally, the surface can then be glazed using watercolors for a patina look.
This is the demo piece Sebastian was working on. See the red parts are ready for the gilding
The gelatin size is placed on a small section with a soft brush
This is a gilder’s cushion where you place and cut each leaf to size
The leaf is placed and then stamped with a dry, soft brush called a mop