Steps in Laying Metal Leaf

The methods of laying gold or metal leaf are as varied as the people laying the metal leaf. No one procedure is right for all situations and no one method is foolproof.

The following list is a basic breakdown of the procedure:

  1. Preparing the surface for leafing
  2. Applying the adhesive (sizing)
  3. Laying the metal leaf
  4. Fixing errors (faults) in the laid metal leaf
  5. Cleaning off the excess metal leaf
  6. Finishing the surface (based on where the item is going or the object being leafed)

As you can see the procedure is not too complicated and with a little practice almost anyone can do a passable job of metal leafing.


The type of preparation depends on the surface to be gilded. Wood and plaster must be primed with a sealer to stop the adhesive from soaking in. Metal must be primed if it can rust and discolor the gold or metal leaf finish. Plastics may need no preparation but a color coat may be applied to affect the final surface color.

All types of surfaces can have a color coat (bole) applied so that the metal leaf will take on a slightly different finish in its final color (the traditional colors are: earth red or red, yellow oxide, blue and black). Bole was traditionally made from clay, but today's gilders most often use paint.


Adhesive (or sizing) is applied so that the metal leaf may stick to the surface. They types of sizing are also many, but can be broken down into two types:

  • Oil base
  • Synthetic

a. Oil base

Oil base sizings can be classed wither "slow" or "fast" setting.

Slow setting can take 10 to 12 hours before it is ready for metal leaf application. It is usually used for large surfaces that will require 1 to 3 hours to gild.

Fast setting will tack up in 1 to 1½ hours and only gives you about 30 minutes to apply the metal leaf.

Both are self leveling and will produce a smooth final finish (not burnished).

b. Synthetic

Synthetic sizing has opened a whole new world to the gilder. They set up very fast (30 to 45 minutes) and can allow 1 to 5 hours to gild. Some even let you work on the metal leaf days later.


Sizing can be applied just like paint. Coat the surface evenly and do not overload. This applies to both synthetic and oil type sizes. However be very careful with the oil size as the thicker the coat the longer it will take to set and this can cause problems.

For oil sizing check the tack after the proper setting time by placing your knuckle against the surface gently and then pull away sharply. If you feel a slight pull (actually a tick sound) but no adhesive comes away then you are ready to gild.

The synthetics will no longer appear cloudy when they are ready to gild. One way to test is to slide your finger over the surface - your finger will not slide easily nor will it pick up adhesive.


Application of the leaf will depend on which leaf you are using.

Imitation leaf:

Take the book and cut off the binding edge to facilitate easier handling (use good scissors). Lift off the necessary number of sheets (leaving the separator papers in place between the leaves) and place by your project. You may cut the sheets into smaller pieces if you feel it is necessary. Lift one sheet of leaf (with the paper on the back still in place) and press the metal leaf to the surface rubbing it through the paper from behind. Remove the paper and proceed in the same fashion until all of the surface is covered.

Real leaf:

Real leaf is a little tougher to apply. Using Patent gold is simple, as it is adhered to a carry tissue and may be applied using the same technique as the imitation leaf. Glass gold and silver are loose leaves and require the gilders tip (special flat brush - see glossary) to lift it. Rub the brush gently over your hair and bring down to the edge of the fresh leaf. The static charge (some say oil from you hair) will attract the leaf. With one smooth motion pull the leaf to the project surface and deposit it. Gently rub (with lint-free cotton cloth or ball) the metal leaf onto the surface. Be careful as the leaf is fragile and can be easily ruined. Although the procedure sounds easy it can be very difficult and a full description is beyond this tutorial (see bibliography for more in-depth sources). It is recommended that you stick to imitation leaf and patent golds for your early projects.


Chances are the project will not look very good after you have finished placing the gold leaf on your project. You may even wonder why you ever wanted to leaf your grandmother's frame. But, not to worry, it will look great once you dust off the loose leaf and fix the spots you missed. This procedure is called Faulting. Basically, you take all the larger loose pieces of leaf hanging off your project and reposition them where the leaf was missed. Most of the time the metal leaf will simply adhere to the spot. If it doesn't you must apply more adhesive (sparingly) to the spot and wait until it gets tacky.


After all is made right you may dust off the loose leaf with a soft brush or soft cotton ball. You may also use a soft cotton cloth or cotton ball to smooth down the remaining leaf - but do it gently as even the imitation leaf which while thick can be damaged. At this point "What you see is basically what you get." The metal leaf is NOT going to have that smooth glass like finish that you see on frames and commercially prepared projects. This effect involves burnishing the metal leaf laid on a special clay surface (bole). A tool called a burnisher (hounds tooth or agate) is passed over the surface - the clay is crushed and the whole surface is smoothed. Please see the bibliography for books that provide more detailed instructions on burnishing.


Most people think that they need to put a finish of the leaf (varnish or shellac) but this is actually not a mandatory step. In fact, a coating of varnish will change the appearance of the metal leaf and it may not look like gold or silver after you are through. If the project is not going to be handled too much you can leave it just like it is. Not much is going to affect it. If you use imitation or silver leaf, you may want to protect it from future tarnishing with a coat of synthetic varnish (shellac may also be used, but it is alcohol based and should not be used where drinks will be placed). Even though the piece will look different, most viewers will not be able to detect the difference.

Now that you have finished, you may proudly display your gilded object, knowing that you have employed one of the art world's most traditional and beautiful techniques!

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