3D Gilding

Hand Gilding Techniques for 3D Art Work

1. What is “Gilding”?

Gilding is the art of spreading a thin layer of gold, silver, simulated gold, or other metal over the surface of a body for the purpose of ornamentation. Products employed when gilding may be real gold leaf ranging in karats from 9 up to 24; imitation leaf – composition gold, Dutch metal leaf, aluminum leaf, copper leaf; variegated leaf, mica powders; etc.

The history of gilding is very long. Archeologists have discovered evidence of gilding techniques used in the 4th dynasty of ancient Egypt (2690 B.C. and 2630-2524 B.C.). Gilding techniques have also been found in early Etruscan sites and ancient China from which it spread to other countries. The gilding techniques were using for decoration of wooden cascades, mummies, books, ceramics, sculptures, pictures, buildings, household implements, furnishing goods and many other works.

Today, the two primary methods of gilding are water gilding restoration and oil gilding, however I use my own techniques of gilding  3D art work that I believe is easier and useful especially for beginners. 

 Water Gilding

Of the two types of gilding in common use today, water gilding or water gilding restoration provides the most brilliant surface. Water gilding restoration is used to achieve a mirror finish on glass. Water gilding restoration is most frequently used on frames and objects; though not for exterior gilding.

 Oil (Matte) Gilding for Architectural Gilding and Decorating

Oil gilding (also known as matte gilding) uses gold “size” (varnish) to adhere the gold to the surface. This technique does not provide the brilliant finish of water gilding restoration. However, oil gilding for architectural gilding and decoration allows gilding on a wider variety of surfaces than water gilding. Oil gilding is used for exterior gilding projects such as signs, architectural gilding and decorating.

 2. What is “Gold Leaf “?

Gold leaf is extremely fine sheets of gold, which have been beaten much thinner than paper, with about the strength of a cobweb. The typical thickness is 0.1 microns. Pure gold leaf is 24 karat. In its pure state, gold leaf is very soft and delicate. Therefore, it is typically mixed with other alloys to create different levels of hardness and to adjust the color tone of the leaf. This is why most jewelry is 18 kt or 22 kt gold (mixed with copper, silver, etc.) – 24 kt gold is too soft for daily wear and tear. Gold leaf follows the same principle and is mostly mixed with copper and silver. The gold leaf I regularly use is an alloy made of 95.70% gold, 3.53% silver, and 0.67% copper. You can get gold leaf in a wide variety of colors, ranging from a slight reddish tone, to bright yellow, to white. Some gold (and silver) leaf can also be ingested, however be careful as some alloys (e.g., alloys with copper) shouldn’t be eaten and many people have allergies to silver or gold.

I usually buy the gold leaf I use from Japan (either over the Internet, by mail, or in person if I happen to be visiting). Here are some typical thicknesses of other types of leaf:

  • platinum leaf (0.35 micron)
  • silver leaf (0.35 micron)
  • green colored leaf, an alloy made of 87% copper and 13% zinc (0.4 micron)

I also use a gold leaf that is 10 times thicker than regular gold leaf, which is called “Zumi” in Japan. It looks like foil and is touchable and easy to cut with scissors.

What kind of tools do you need?

  1. Bamboo tweezers
  2. Cosmetic cheek brush
  3. Scissors
  4. Two-part epoxy glue (the setting time, e.g., 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 12 hours, or 24 hours, depends on the size of the art work)
  5. A solvent (e.g., lacquer thinner or alcohol)
  6. Baby powder
  7. Swab (made of gauze, disposable chopsticks, thread, cotton)

 How to choose and prepare bamboo tweezers

  1. Find bamboo tweezers, which have an arm length of around 10 inches.
  2. Holding the middle of the bamboo tweezers, close the arms together.
  3. When fully closed, there should be minimum space between the arms from the tip to where you are holding the bamboo tweezers closed.
  1. If the tips are square, they should be rounded to a tapered form without a point, e.g., like a daffodil leaf.
  1. If, while holding tweezers shut, the muscles in your hand get tired, you should thin the inward arms of the tweezers using #100 sandpaper, making sure to keep the inside of the arms remain flat, using #400 sandpaper to smooth.

Creating a cotton swab

  1. Cut a square of gauze about 3" (depending on the swab size) on a side.
  2. In order to hide any loose threads and increase the meshing of the gauze to keep the cotton fibers from touching the leaf, create a smaller square by folding two edges inside lengthwise so that the edges meet in the middle and repeating on the other two edges.
  3. Wrap cotton on the end of a disposable chopstick to create a Q-tip shape.
  4. Put the gauze square on a flat surface with the folded edges up.
  1. Place the cotton wrapped end of the disposable chopstick into the center of the gauze square.
  2. Fold the corners of the gauze square up until they touch the chopstick and cover the cotton Q-tip shape completely.  Hold the corners to the chopstick tightly.
  1. Wrap a thread tightly around the chopstick tying the folded corners of the gauze square into position. Tuck any excess gauze into the folds.
  2. Tightly double knot the thread and cut the thread ends close to the swab.

 3. What should you do before start gilding?

Because gold leaf, being so thin, is easy to fly away with the slightest air movement, the first and most important thing you need to do is to CLOSE all doors and windows and STOP any air conditioner, fan, or heater. You should make your room temperature comfortable then stop the airflow before starting.

4. Apply the epoxy glue

WARNING: Before applying glue to unglazed pottery or wood or any other porous material, you need to seal the piece with a sealant like acrylic lacquer or paint. If you would like to gild woodwork, you can use paint instead of epoxy glue. 

  1. Mix the two-part epoxy together in a small, shallow cup.  Do not use plastic if you are going to use lacquer thinner (since many                       plastics melt in lacquer thinner).
  2. Add the solvent to the cup.
  3. Stir the epoxy and the solvent together until the epoxy liquefies and reaches a consistency that is thinner than light syrup.
  4. Apply the liquefied epoxy glue with the swab (or disposable paint brush). Note you can also draw on your artwork with the glue.
  5. You should wait for the glue (or paint) to dry until the surface becomes as sticky as a “Post-It Note” surface. Touch the glue carefully to check it.

 5. Wash and powder your hands

Wash your hands well and put some baby powder on both your hands and the tools that you’ll use with the gold leaf. Gold leaf sticks very easily to oily or greasy surfaces and once the gold leaf sticks to your hands, you won’t be able to get it off unless you wipe it off. When you start gilding, you always need to put some powder on your hands and tools.


6. Let’s guild!

How to handle gold leaf

  1.  Swab down bamboo tweezers with baby powder.
  2.  Place the squares of stacked paper and gold leaf such that a corner point towards you.
  3.  Slide one side of the bamboo tweezers between a sheet of gold leaf and paper.  Gently lift the gold leaf and paper to separate it from the next sheet.
  4. Gently hold the paper and gold leaf on a flat surface and press down gently but firmly.
  5. Slide one side of bamboo tweezers underneath several sheets of the sandwiched gold leaf and paper, making sure there is paper on both the top and bottom.  The result should be:

     tweezer arm
     gold leaf
     gold leaf
     gold leaf
     tweezer arm
     gold leaf
     gold leaf
     gold leaf
     flat surface

  1.  Clamp the bamboo tweezers down gently but firmly on the sheets sandwiched between the tweezer arms.
  2. While holding down the sheets by one corner, take the clamped tweezers with gentle pressure and twist upwards, pulling away from you.  This should cause the gold leaf and paper to curl upwards, with the gold leaf and paper separating.

WARNING: YOU SHOULD NOT BE SKIMPY while you are gilding. If the gold leaf cracks, don't worry about it because you can simply layer another sheet on top of the crack.

How to cut gold leaf with scissors

  1. Sandwich the exposed gold leaf with sheets of paper, covering the gold leaf completely. 

  1.  Cut the paper and gold leaf sandwich in half using baby powder swabbed scissors.
  2.  Take one of the resulting pieces and place on top of the other with just cut edges on the same side.
  1. Place the paper/gold leaf sandwich in between the middle of the bamboo tweezers and pinch. While holding the tweezers tightly closed, slide the tweezers to the cut edge of the paper/gold leaf sandwich


 How to brush off

WARNING: After the surface is covered with gold leaf, leave it until the glue dries.  If the glue isn't fully dry, the gold leaf might move or fall off when you handle the piece.

After drying well, use a cosmetic brush to gently and carefully brush off the excess gold leaf into a container. If you collect the gold leaf dust, you can use it for another technique.

Alloyed (not pure) gold leaf and other metal leaf will tarnish (oxidize) so if you need/want to keep the gold leaf's color on the object from changing over time, spray a clear acrylic or apply wax to the gilded surface.

7. Practical application

  1. Sunago: Using a tea strainer and brush to apply gold leaf powder to a surface. 

       Mr. Msatomo Nito  Sunago specialist and his art work

  1. Kiri-kane: Joining gold leaf together with high temperature and then cutting the gold leaf with a bamboo knife.  You can cut the gold leaf very thin like a thread or any form can be cut with scissors.

   Ms. Sayoko Eri Kiri-kane specialist’s art work

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