Gilt metal on a tea set
Gilt metal on a tea set

Gilt metal is metal that has been spread over the surface of an object for decorative or ornamental purposes. Traditionally, gold leaf is used in the gilding process; however, other, cheaper metals may also be used in leaf form. Gilt metal can be placed over a number of different surfaces, the earliest examples being gold leaf applied to ancient Egyptian sarcophagi.

Metal Leaf

Metal leaf is metal that has been hammered and rolled into a very thin foil. Only somewhat malleable metals, like gold, silver, aluminum, copper and tin, can be made into leaf. It is this leaf form of metal that is used in gilding.

The Gilding Process

There are two main ways to create gilt metal designs: water and oil gilding.

Water Gilding

Water gilding is used primarily for interior decorations, like picture frames and Christmas ornaments. The main advantage of water gilding, over oil gilding, is that it allows the gilt metal to be burnished after application, creating a brilliant, polished look. The process is very time-consuming, involving stages of “size” (gilding glue), “gesso” (gilding primer) and “bole” (gilding clay) application, sanding and polishing, followed by the actual metal leaf application, using gilding liquor. After this painstaking process is complete, the metal can be burnished, using polished stone (usually agate).

Oil Gilding

Oil gilding does not allow for burnishing, leaving the gilt metal with a matte look. However, this process is much less time-consuming and leaves the gilt metal less susceptible to wear, meaning it can be used externally, in areas that might be exposed to the elements. Oil gilding requires an application of sealer, followed by an application of acrylic or oil varnish size. Once the size becomes tacky, the metal leaf can be applied.

Applications

Gilt metal is used for decoration and ornamentation of a number of different mediums. It may be applied to wood, paper, glass, metal, ivory, leather and various fabrics. Specific applications often include picture frames, storefronts and windows, fine art, church and government decorations and architecture, sculptures, statues and busts. Gilding can also be used for restoration and conservation of historical or ancient artifacts.

Electroplating

Electroplating is a process that produces similar effects to gilding. This process uses an electric current to produce the desired metal plating or a number of other visual effects. Due to its comparative ease, electroplating has widely superseded the gilding process. However, gilt metal is still widely used for more small-scale and delicate projects.