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Metallic Leafing Techniques

Metallic Leafing Techniques - A Basic Tutorial of How to Work With Metallic Leaf

Preparing the Surface
Canvas, wood, Masonite, paper, matboard, glass, plastic, metal and any other surface which can be made non- absorbent are suitable for metallic leafing. To make the surface non- absorbent, cover it with an undercoat of gesso or paint (acrylic, alkyd, casein, egg tempera, Flashe, latex or enamel house paint or oil). Apply carefully, as brush strokes will show. A matte undercoat makes it easier to check the coverage or pattern of the glossy size. If no undercoat is desired, size can be applied directly to wood or paper, but it may take 2 to 3 coats, depending on the absorbency of the surface. Let the coats dry completely before applying the next. If burnishing is intended, the gilding surface must be absolutely smooth.

Applying the Size
When the surface is ready, apply an even coat of size on all areas where leafing is desired. Metallic leaves will not adhere to uncoated areas. Quick size takes approximately one hour to become tacky, depending on temperature, humidity and coat thickness. To check for readiness, gently touch the size one-half hour after application and every ten minutes thereafter. The size is ready when it feels tacky, but does not come off on your finger. Quick size remains tacky for about an hour, then it becomes too dry to adhere the leaf. Large projects requiring more working time should be done in segments or with the use of a slow size, which takes 12 to 14 hours to turn tacky and remains workable for about four hours. If a burnished gold surface is desired, a burnish size is substituted for those mentioned above. See the section on burnishing.

Applying the Leaf
Metallic leaves come in 2~sheet books, separated by tissue. Squares are 3-3/8" or 5" in size. For added control when applying metallic leaf, keep your work space draft free. Metallic leaves adhere only where size has been applied. Excess leaf, which is not adhered, can be removed with a soft brush or cotton ball after an overnight drying. Flat and convex surfaces are more easily gilded than concave ones and make the best projects for beginners.

Patent Gold
Holding one edge of the backing sheet, place the gold leaf on the size, rubbing gently with a finger. Peel back the sheet to expose the gold. This is the easiest leaf to apply because the gold, although incredibly thin, will stay on the tissue until it is rubbed to the size. Any portions of the square you do not want to adhere can be left on the tissue for later use. When adhering this leaf to small or concave areas, it may be easier to tear the square in half or quarters.

Genuine Gold
A gilding brush is required to manipulate this leaf and adhere it to the size. It is astonishingly thin. Without the backing sheet of patent gold, it is the most difficult leaf to apply. Rub the tips of the gilding brush against your hair to create a static charge. Then pick up the leaf, not more than a 1/4" from its edge to minimize waste. With the leaf clinging to the brush, pull it across the area to be gilded. The size will grab the leaf and pull it from the brush. Gently push the leaf down with a soft brush or cotton ball. To place an adjacent piece of gold, repeat the process, overlapping edges slightly. Using a gilding brush requires dexterity and practice. Avoid getting size on the brush. If you do, clean the brush with turps or mineral spirits. To cut this leaf into smaller pieces, set the leaf on a pad of leather (unfinished side up) and cut slowly, with only the blade of the knife applying pressure.

This leaf can be applied with a gilding brush, using the method described above, or with a piece of matboard. To do the latter method, prepare a 6" x 3" matboard with beveled edges. Open the book of leaves and gently pinch a corner of one leaf, lifting it high enough to slide the matboard between it and the next separating tissue. Turn back the front tissue, exposing the leaf. Pinching it down with the edge of your thumb or nail, carefully place it over the area to be gilded. let the size grip an edge of the leaf and then pull away the matboard. Push the leaf down with a soft brush or cotton ball.

Aluminum, Composition, Copper & Variegated
These leaves are best applied using the matboard method described above. A gilding brush does not work with these leaves because they are bigger than the standard 4" brush. Although very thin, they do not stick as well to the static charge of the brush as do gold and silver.

Silver, composition and copper leaves tarnish quickly if not sealed with an oil-based varnish, shellac or size. Avoid touching until sealed as fingerprints show. To enrich the color of composition leaf, apply a thin coat of transparent yellow oxide oil paint before sealing.

Gold and aluminum leaves will not tarnish. They do not require a finishing varnish, unless used in pieces which demand regular handling, such as furniture. When used regularly, an oil-based varnish will seal and protect gold and aluminum leaves. When metallic leaves are used in external environments, they need to be protected against atmospheric elements in the same way as painted objects or murals.

High Sheen Gold Leaf
The sheen of gold leaf can be enhanced and brightened by simply rubbing it with a soft cotton ball, but true burnishing is accomplished with an agate burnisher. If you are planning to burnish an area with an agate burnisher, a special size is required to adhere the gold. An agate burnisher can damage the gold leaf if a standard oil-based size (e.g. quick size) is used.

Burnish Size Recipe

  • 1 cup cold distilled water
  • 1/2 oz. granular rabbit skin glue
  • 1 jar red burnisher size (available at sign shops)

Combine the water and glue in a metal container. Cover and let stand overnight. Set the container in hot (not steaming) water and stir until dissolved. Keep warm, but not hot. (Rabbit skin glue loses its adhesiveness if overheated.) Stir the jar of red burnish size until creamy. Place 1 tablespoon of the size and 3 tablespoons of the warm glue mixture in a non-metal container and stir. Strain the mixture through several layers of nylon stocking. Mix only enough size as needed per project, as the glue may lose strength if left overnight.

Applying the Size
Brush on the size in one direction, avoiding excess strokes. live to six coats are usually needed, with a light sanding after the third coat using 8/0 finishing paper. After the remaining coats are applied, give the surface a final, light sanding with 10/0 finishing paper or 5O(~600 silicon carbide paper. The smoothness of the size will determine the smoothness of the burnish.

When burnish size is rewetted with a mixture of 7 tsp. distilled water and 3 tsp denatured (not rubbing) alcohol, it becomes an adhesive. Brush on enough to cover an area the size of the leaf and apply the leaf while wet. This mixture dries quickly. Do not rewet the same place twice. To redo an area, allow the adhesive to dry before reapplying. Rinse the brush after each application to avoid contaminating the alcohol solution with burnish size residue.

Burnish with slow, moderately applied pressure, using strokes about an inch wide. The correct amount of pressure comes with practice and experience. Too little pressure will not yield a high sheen. Too much pressure will rub off the leaf.

Materials List

  • Patent Gold Leaf. Although minutely thin, this leaf has a backing sheet, making it the best choice for the beginner because it is controllable and there is little waste. It does not tarnish.
  • Genuine Gold XX Deep Gold. This leaf is the same as Patent Gold without a backing sheet, making it more fragile and difficult to use. For doing book edges or projects where burnishing is desired, this is the better choice. It does not tarnish.
  • Aluminum Leaf. Shiny, like foil, this leaf does not tarnish. Composition Leaf Similar to gold in appearance, this leaf contains copper and brass and will tarnish if not sealed. Tarnish colors range from dark amber to pale yellow-green.
  • Genuine Silver Leaf. A warm, German silver in appearance, this leaf will tarnish if not sealed. Tarnish colors range from pale yellow-brown to black.
  • Copper Leaf. With a shine like a new penny, copper leaf tarnishes quickly if not sealed. Tarnish colors range from blue-green to almost black.
  • Variegated Leaf. This has the same properties as copper and composition leaf, but each sheet has a variegated (streaked) surface which is very pronounced.
  • Quick Sizing Material. This non-pigmented, oil-based size is most commonly used to adhere all types of metallic leaf to the gilding surface. It takes approximately one hour to become tacky and remains workable for an hour.
  • Gilding Brush. When you stroke it against your own hair, this extremely thin brush develops a static charge, allowing you to pick up and manipulate even the most delicate metallic leaves.
  • Agate Burnisher. Burnishing enhances the sheen of gold leaf. A pointed or curved burnisher works best on irregular surfaces. For smooth, even areas, use a flat burnisher.