At the end of Shooting Gallery, second in the Annie Kincaid Art Lover's Mystery Series, I feature a small guide to gilding in the back of the book. Recently I was gilding some curtain rods, finials (the decorative rod ends), brackets, and 64 rings for a San Francisco-based designer I work with often. I thought I'd take some snapshots so readers could have a visual of the gold gilding process.
First thing to know: It's messy! Gold gilt gets everywhere!
No, I am not working with genuine 24-carat gold in this instance. Instead, in most cases we use something called "composition gold" -- which means, essentially, that it's fake. Though it has a different feel --real gold is actually easier to work with-- the composition gold metal looks great. I'm usually "distressing" items to make them look older than they are, anyway, and there are very few who can tell the difference between real and fake under such circumstances. Of course, Annie Kincaid would probably spot it from 10 feet away...!
By the way, in this case I did not paint the rods because they already had a mahogany finish that I was happy to let come through the gold, here and there. The traditional underpaint is clay red, which is usually mimicked with red oxide paint.
In process: the glue has been applied to the rings, which are laid out until they reach the correct level of "tack." Determining when they are just right is the hardest part of gilding for many craftspeople. If you rush it, the gilt will "sink" into the glue, creating a muddy, dull finish. The gilt should sit "on top" of the glue, lending it brilliance.
To be sure the sizing is ready for the gold, try this gilder's trick: using your knuckle, press into the glue slightly. When you pull away, you should hear a distincitve "snick" sound. If you do, you're ready to gild.
Above: the rods in process. Gilding is a messy job -- flakes fly everywhere. Don't be afraid to make a mess and you'll do fine.
After applying the gold to all sized surfaces, you start to rub away the excess gilt. This is the fun part -- be ready for gold confetti everywhere! Very gently, using a soft brush, cloth, cheesecloth, or even steel wool for a more distressed finish, leave a smooth finish behind.
Leave the items for 24 hours to be sure the size is dry, then distress with steel wool, sandpaper, or even nails (depending on how "old" and "banged up" you want your item to appear), and then use an oil-based glaze to tint the metal. Burnt Umber gives a mellow, antique look, while a little flake white can catch in crevices to make an item look "dusty," as the finials below.
Above: finials after applying gold gilt but before burnishing.
Below: the burnished, rubbed and glazed finials.