Traditional Water Gilding

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:

The process:

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).

7) sanding

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.

How to water gild

This is the demo piece Sebastian was working on.   See the red parts are ready for the gilding

pierre finkelstein water gild

The gelatin size is placed on a small section with a soft brush

water gilding class

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


Get Gilding!!


  1. Interesting post. One aspect I don’t agree with, however, is the overlapping of leaves. The slight 1/8″ overlap is indicative of water gilding and I always do so with no trouble with burnishing those areas. Also, if I sand the bole it is only with extremely fine, 1000 grit paper and drawn across only once and very lightly. To get a good burnish I generally apply about 14 coats of gesso. Some colleagues go as high as 20. Thanks you for the Post! Gilding is always an exciting conversation 🙂

  2. İliya Asenov says

    The method is well described though it is one of the many variations. There are Russian and İtalian schools which defer in materials and method of application. İ work with water gilding technique mainly for restoration purposes and İ can say that preserving the original gesso (sometimes even the original bole) is essential to match the restored parts to the rest of the original especially when you work on icons or paintings with gilded background. İn any case you are right saying that it takes time to master the skill but it is worth the effort 🙂

  3. Garlic cloves in your gesso! ooh la la! 🙂

  4. Hello Sir.
    I wish to buy this ROLCO BERNISH SEALER do you know from where please?
    John Pace

    A pigmented gold ochre primer for use on wood, plaster, metal, and composition surfaces that are to be gilded with imitation or genuine gold leaf. It will seal the surface and provide excellent adhesion. Permits an easy burnish with a minimum of rubbing. Use before applying sizing during the gold leaf process.
    Pigmented red is a primer for use on wood and plaster, metal and composition surfaces that are to be gilded with imitation or genuine copper leaf. It will seal the surface, provide excellent adhesion and permit an easy, high burnish with a minimum of rubbing.

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