Gold has been used to decorate religious objects for centuries, whether requested by royalty or tyrants in Europe or delicately applied by silent believers in an Asian shrine. Among the projects that have been restored in my workshop are pieces dating back to the 18th century as well as modern furniture that has been gilded in the traditional water gilding method.
In the past gold used to be thinned by hand tools to create fine sheets of gold leaf. This was possible due to the special properties of gold that allowed it to be pounded for weeks on end without breaking or tearing. Today gold leaf is created by modern machinery that presses the gold into extremely thin, uniform sheets.
Water gilding requires special preparation of the wood. Several layers of fine plaster (gesso) are applied and special earth clay (bollo) tops the surface. Gold leaf is laid onto the bollo using a special brush. It is then burnished onto the surface using various shaped agate stones. This creates an exquisite finish looking like a solid piece of etched gold.
Because gold doesn't oxidize, 400-year-old gilded pieces of furniture have a brilliant sheen even before restoration.
Gold was always an expensive element. Therefore efforts were made to work with look-alikes that would present the same look-and-feel and have the same warm color of true gold leaf. Less expensive silver leaf is a common replacement for gold and is traditionally applied by a special method to look like gold using a Mecca finish.