Water Gilding

The exercise on the following pages serves as an introduction for water gilding. For this project, I am going to gild a small simple wooden frame. All pictures on this site can be clicked on to provide a larger illustration. If you would like to follow the lesson with me, the frame is available through our online store. Please read through the entire lesson before commencement to familiarise yourself with the procedures involved. As well as the frame, you will need the following items:

  • Gilders pad
  • Gilders tip (preferably squirrel hair)
  • Gilders mop
  • Gilders knife
  • Artists fitch
  • Soft Bristle Brush
  • Rabbit Skin Glue solution
  • Made up Gesso
  • Bole
  • Vaseline
  • A book of gold leaf

For details in making Rabbit Skin Glue solution, Gesso and Bole, please look at our Gilding Recipes section. Details on Gilders Tools and Equipment can be found here.


Frame 2 thumbBefore the frame is to be worked on, it is vital to ensure that the wooden base is in a good condition.  So, using grade 240 sandpaper, I sand the entire frame, front and sides, and then wipe all dust of the surfaces. Don’t worry about the back, it will not be gilded. After achieving a smooth and clean surface - and due to the porous nature of the timber - it will first need to be sized, or coated, with 2 thin coatings of rabbit skin glue (10-1) set 20 minutes apart with a small  bristle Brush. This will ensure a firm and tenacious base for the later application of gesso.


Frame 3 thumbOnce the glue has dried, it is time to apply the gesso.  This frame will need approximately 8-10 coats of gesso applied to it.  It is important to apply the gesso in a quick and uniform way. The gesso should be warmed up in a double boiler prior to use and be of a creamy consistency.  Leaving the working container in the boiler with hot water, will ensure it retains its fluid state.  Take care when applying the gesso not to introduce air bubble on the surface of the piece.


Frame 4  thumbEach successive coat of gesso will need to be applied before the previous layer has dried. This will ensure correct and firm adhesion between the subsequent coats.  The first layer takes the longest to be sufficiently dry for the next coat... apx. 12-15 minutes.  Each layer thereafter takes less and less time, as the water is absorbed by previous coats more readily.


Frame 5 thumbAt this point, your frame should be thoroughly coated with 8-10 coats of gesso and left to dry. The surface should be quite rough with deep brush marks in the gesso because of all the applications (see left). It is now time to take the gesso back to a finer finish. This is done with the aid of a lint-free cotton cloth and a small flat piece of timber apx. 8cm x 4cm. To achieve this, wet luke-warm water. this is then lightly moved over the surface of the gesso to remove the raised areas and fill in the lower ones. On flat areas and the edges, the cloth is wrapped around the timber, to provide you with a hard, flat cloth ‘rubber’. 

Frame 6 thumbBe very careful not to remove too much gesso as the timber will show through. You only need to use this to remove as little as possible to provide a flat even surface. Wash the cloth out frequently and ensure it’s not too wet! Inevitably this is an area that you will improve with over time and you may make bare areas! In which case, more gesso can be reapplied on these errors. At this point you must try your utmost to remove any flaws, as they will show up hugely once the gold is applied, so take good care and time on this process. Once you are satisfied you can now again, leave the frame to dry.


Frame 7 thumbOnce the frame is dry, you will need to further refine the surface. This is done with the aid of ‘wet and dry’ sandpaper. Start off with something Frame 8 thumblike a grade 240 then go through 400, 600 and finally 1200. The 240 grade will remove a large amount of the gesso, so take care not to overdo it. each successive grade of paper should be used to remove the sufficient level of gesso to smooth the surface. By grade 600, you should aim to have a completely flawless surface. The 1200 just creates a beautiful porcelain like finish. Again, the more time and care taken on this procedure, the better the result. So... a cup of tea and a decent radio station should benefit you here. Okay and a biscuit!


Frame 9 thumbIt is now time to apply the bole. The bole is a lot thinner than gesso and should be applied with a fine brush. Squirrel is ideal for this I have found. Bole will dry very quickly on the gesso and so subsequent coats will not be far between. Although you want the bole to dry on the previous layer, you can still put on the next coat 6-8 minutes later. You must be careful to apply the coats quickly and evenly. You must not immediatelyFrame 10  thumb go back over what you have already applied with the brush, as it will loosen the previous layer and you will be in trouble, so be careful! Get a coat on and leave it. Apply apx. 6-8 coats. You must still take care to ensure a flat even surface! After you have completed this, use 600 and 1200 wet and dry paper again to lightly remove any brush marks or flaws. The bole is a LOT thinner so please take real care. Finally, apply 2 more careful coats on the surface. Once dry, the surface should be polished with a shoe brush and then some baize, or cotton wool, until the surface is shiny and flat.