Using Goldleaf

One of the first (and one of the trickiest) skills you will need to master is, quite simply, how to get the gold out of the book onto your pad, cut it with a knife and pick it up using a squirrel hair tip. This page will be looking at these areas with some photos to help you along.


Placing a leaf of gold onto the gilders pad can be quite tricky at first. The thin and light nature of the gold means that the smallest draught of air (even breath) can blow the gold of the pad and away from you. So to succesfully work with the gold, you will need to learn how to work and move at a much slower speed than normal. Start by holding the top of the book of gold in front of you. Gently open the book and go through the pages to expose a sheet of gold. I like to do this by using my hands on either side of the book of leaf. I gently sandwich the gold between my first and second fingers at the back, and use my thumbs to scroll through the book until I come to a piece of leaf.

Once I have arrived at a piece of leaf, I am going to roll the book onto the pad until it lays flat. This is done by unfurling the goldleaf, with your fingers at the back of the book. I am very careful here not to drag the gold over the surface, as it will tear! When it is laid flat, you should be able to move you hands completely away. Now, with hands on either side of the book, grip the top left and right corners (only gently) and lift slowly up and away off the pad. The piece of gold should remain in place. If you move too fast, the gold will be sucked into the vacuum created by the movement and blow across the pad. I cannot emphasise enough, that all movements in these processes are slow, deliberate and controlled, so don't take this personal if I keep going on about it. It is important. If the gold is wrinkled too much, or corners are over turned, you can place your mouth directly over the gold and with your mouth partially open, gently blow the gold in the centre of the square.

At this point, I like to fold over the corners of the pages where I have taken the goldleaf out. This helps me to locate where the next piece is when I pick up the book again. It is going to take a little time to learn how to do this manuever successfully. Any quick movements, draughts and heavy breathing (due to stress, I get it!) will cause the gold to fly off the pad. Unfortunately there are many videos on the internet that show people picking up gold really quickly and easily, giving the impression that speed is fine. These guys have been gilding for many years and have attuned their body movements to cope with the personality of the gold. It is only when you are relaxed and concentrating on your breathing and movements that you can work with the gold sensibly. Gilding is a relaxing and very mindful process. This is one of the reasons I love most about gilding in that it forces you to slow down.


Now that the gold is on the pad, you can cut it into suitable sizes for the job. If you are gilding a large area (and are brave enough) you can use an entire sheet of gold at once to cover an area using a large width squirrel tip. For smaller areas, or for tight decorative curves, the gold may need to be cut into smaller pieces. Before you start, the gilders knife must be completely grease free or else the gold will stick to it. It is important not to touch the blade with your fingers, as your fingertips have enough grease on them to create problems. If you find that the gold is sticking to the knife, you can clean it in several ways. One is by by running the knife through the leaves of an empty gold leaf packet - the gypsum in the pages prevents the leaf sticking to the paper and will do the same for the knife. Another way to clean the knife of grease is to wipe the knife down with a clean cloth and some isopropyl alcohol.

To cut the gold, tilt the knife and place the tip of the knife just over the front edge of the leaf. Leave a space of one or two centimeters. Gently bring the knife down in a guillotine style action so that it sits upon the surface of the leaf. Once it is laying flat, push the knife away from you about six centimeters. You do not want the handle of the knife to reach the gold, but will want to stop just before. Then steadily pull the knife back towards you again and back into the starting position. You will not need too much pressure with the knife. Just enough to cut the gold, which is superbly thin remember! Once you have completed this action, lift the knife back up in a guillotine like action and away from the gold and the pad. The gold should be separated in a nice and clean cut.

Sheets of gold-leaf can be cut down into any size that you require for a particular job. Full sheets, half sheets, quarters etc. are all used in a variety of ways and different circumstances. These different ways can also create a range of decorative effects in advanced gilding techniques. For the beginner, it may be easier to start of with smaller pieces at first until you get the hang of the process. With this in mind, in this example I have cut the gold again using the same technique, but this time at right angles to the original cut. I use quarter sheet a lot in my work and this is a great size for someone new to the processes. When a particularly delicate piece is being gilded, the leaf can be cut into really small squares. By applying seven evenly spaced cuts first horizontally and then vertically on the pad, you can create 64 1cm squares of gold - great for those small misses and minor repairs!


At this point, the object you are going to gild is ready, the gold is on the pad and cut into squares. The next step is to pick a piece up with the gilders tip. For this section, I am using a half width tip to pick up the smaller pieces. It is a good idea to have a selection of sizes of tips. They are available to buy in a range of sizes from full sized tips to cover the width of a whole sheet of gold, down to tips of around one centimeter width for the smaller pieces. For a value option, you could purchase a couple of large tips and cut them into the desired sizes you need. Before you use the tip, rub a little Vaseline into the back of your hand (left if your right handed). Then very lightly brush the tip through the Vaseline. This will help ensure the gold will stick to the tip. Don’t use too much... little is best. It really is the tiniest amount. Do not apply any more vaseline on the tip until it is clear that it is no longer picking up the gold anymore.

To pick up the gold, bring the tip slowly down onto a piece of gold. Leave around 5mm edge around two of the edges, to ensure the tip doesn’t get stuck on the size during transfer. This movement is very slow and methodical. You will want to bring the tip straight down onto the gold, hold it for a micro-second and then slowly lift the gold straight up and away again. Slowly... slowly! Be very careful not to drag the tip towards you once the tip is on the gold. This will cause the gold to rip very easily. At this point, turn the tip over and have a look. The gold should be secured to the underside of the tip. If it has fallen off on a corner and is flapping around, use a very small puff of air to blow it carefully back onto the tip. It may take a few turns to get right.

For the novice, it would be sensible to have a few pieces of gold that you are going to play with on the pad before you actually get to any gilding. Practice getting the pieces out the book, playing with them on the pad, throwing them around and trying to straighten them out again etc. If you start gilding without any play time beforehand, you will feel pressure that the gilding size is drying and you are running out of time. This will exacerbate the process and could create bigger problems. Better to deliberately waste a few sheets of leaf and get the experience under your belt first, so at least your prepared for the process when you need to do it for real and under pressure.