Water Gilding Frame

The exercise found here serves as an introduction for water gilding. For this project, I am going to gild a small simple wooden frame. You can do the same, but the principles taught here will apply to a wide range of frames, so don't feel you have to do the same. You can gild anything that's relatively simple with these steps. All pictures on this site can be clicked on to provide a larger illustration. Please read through the entire lesson before commencement to familiarise yourself with the procedures involved.

For this exercise, you will need the following equipment:

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. Before 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.

Once 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.

Each 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.

At 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’.

Be 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.

Once 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 like 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!

It 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 immediately 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.

The frame is now ready for the gold. For this you will need to have mixed up some ‘Gilders Water’. The frame will need to be firmly placed in front of you and be laying at an angle. You will be applying the water from the top to the bottom and the angle will ensure the correct flow of direction. To apply the water, you will need to use a Gilders Mop. This is a very fine squirrel hair mop that will not scratch the surface of the bole. It is important that you wet each section immediately prior to the application of the gold as it only takes seconds for the water to start separating on the bole. So, ensure the gold is already on the tip, ready to be placed upon the water IMMEDIATELY after application.

Once the gold is on the tip and hovering over the piece to be gilded, dip the mop in the water and soak the area to be gilded. Take the mop away and immediately lower the gold on the tip onto the wet surface. In this example, I have wetted the top edge and front of the frame. You will find that the gold will literally jump onto the surface! This part is extremely tricky and will take some practice to get right. For tips on how to cut up gold and place on tip, please go here.

You can now gild the entire piece in sequence. Start on the top and work your way down, working from left to right (or vice versa). Each piece of gold should overlap the surface gold by 5mm on any edges. Apply only one piece of gold at a time, ensuring that the gold is ready to be placed onto the surface the moment that the water has been applied. The edges of the frame can be gilded by letting the gold fold over, or more easily on their own with thinner slivers of gold.

Don’t be afraid to be a little generous with the gold, as trying to be frugal can result in a patch and rough finish. Also, don’t worry at all if you have any misses or cracks in the gold as you place it on the frame as this is natural at first and there are further processes to eliminate this problem. This is just the first coat! Relax and don’t worry.

Now your frame should be totally gilded. Inevitably, you will have a few misses and cracks, which is TOTALLY normal! Now you can allow the frame to dry for a few hours. The next step is called skewing. Using a dry, squirrel hair, gilders mop, move lightly over the surface of the gold to remove the excess gold.

These pieces (known as the skewings) can be kept in a small container for other decorative uses if desired. Use very gentle circular motions over the surface. You will find lots of small holes will appear in the surface of the frame, but don’t worry, we will eliminate them in the next section!

At this point you should have a frame with one layer of gold over it, with a few small holes and cracks in the surface gold. The next step is to ‘fault’ these misses and holes. This is done by using a much smaller brush and much smaller pieces of gold to cover these areas. An artist’s brush is ideal. I start off with the largest holes and misses and then gradually decrease the sizes. The goldleaf is cut into 25 equal squares, by cutting four even strokes horizontally and four even strokes vertically, creating plenty of pieces for patching things up.

The corners will no doubt need special attention as will the edges. Do not be disheartened if you have a lot of holes, as practice inevitably will make perfect. Once this process has been completed, leave to dry again and skew the surface just as before. Repeat if necessary.

Once you are satisfied, you have the option to re-gild the entire surface again! This is optional! But in some cases may be necessary as it will ensure a nice even colour on the finished surface. If the piece is to be 'distressed', or 'antiqued', this step is not so necessary. It will also depend on the quality of the goldleaf that you have used. Better quality goldleaf may only need to be gilded once.

Try not to let any gilding water on any surface that's not going to receive any gold placed on it, as this will stain the surface. Again, leave to dry and skewer. Depending on how well it is going, if needed, you can repeat faulting and gilding again. I know when I first started, I did - about twenty times! It isn’t easy at first! But persevere, you WILL get it eventually. Leave to dry and skew. If there is light staining on the surface of the gold,y ou can gently remove this by breathing on the stain and using your skewing mop to polish the stain off. Another option is to wash the whole piece with clean gilding water, thereby staining the entire piece and unifying the colour! In the past, this was also a way of helping to protect the gold.

I hope this helps. Have you any questions? Email me!