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What is Gold Leaf?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 23, 2024
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Gold leaf is an ultra-thin layer of pure gold used by crafters to create a gilded appearance on projects such as picture frames, sculptures and book bindings. Applying it can be can be very labor-intensive and challenging for beginners. It is extremely fragile by nature, and will adhere to almost any moistened surface. Professional gilders suggest it could take months of practice to become proficient at gilding.

Since pure gold is an element, not a compound or alloy, it can be compressed to nearly the atomic level without destroying its structure. This means it could literally be pounded in a layer so thin sunlight could pass through it. This property is essential to the creation of gold leaf. During ancient times, craftsmen would create gold leaf by placing a quantity of gold between two leather straps and pounding it by hand for weeks or months until it became exceptionally thin. It could then be applied to paintings, sculptures and other religious or royal items.

The modern method of creating gold leaf involves the use of metal rollers capable of compressing gold to a thickness of only 1/250,000th of an inch. The finished product can be cut into small sheets and sandwiched between layers of glassine paper, one of the few substances to which it will not adhere. Gold leaf is often sold in craft stores as one large sheet or in layers separated by glassine paper. Gilders may also invest in a special fan brush or comb used to transfer the it from the paper to the project.

When working with this product, it is important to remain exceptionally patient and to have the proper tools and materials at hand. Preparing a project for water gilding often involves building up the surface by applying several layers of gesso, a material used by artists to create texture on canvas. After building up the surface with gesso, another material called a bole is applied to the object to be gilded. This bole is a mixture of clay and water, which provides an adhesive layer for the gold. Because water must be on the surface of the bole precisely when the gold leaf is applied, the gilder must work quickly and deliberately.

Gold leaf can be cut into smaller pieces with a special knife, but it does tear very easily. An entire sheet can be applied through a delicate process involving a specialized comb and a substance like petroleum jelly. The gilder places a very small layer of the jelly on the back of one hand, and uses the other hand to sweep the comb lightly through it. The comb or fan brush is then carefully placed over the gold leaf itself, with the petroleum jelly; providing just enough adhesion to lift it from the glassine paper. It is then transferred to the moistened surface of the project and allowed to adhere.

Any excess can be brushed off with a very soft brush and saved for future use. The gilding is often burnished with a special stone attached to a brush handle. The bole itself may also be tinted to provide a contrasting or complementary undertone. A layer of red or yellow might enhance the shimmer, while a black layer might give the burnished piece an antique or distressed appearance.

Because gilding can be an expensive and labor intensive process, many crafters now use gold paint to duplicate the gilding process. By using a flat black undercoat and judicious burnishing, a skilled crafter can create a very convincing gilded effect without using real gold leaf.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By irontoenail — On Apr 16, 2014

@Mor - Pure, 24K gold leaf isn't likely to do you much harm if you ingest it and people do it all the time as a kind of symbol of how wealthy they are. I've seen things like luxury vodka with gold flakes and even a luxury ham sandwich with gold dust sprinkled in it.

I guess it's not really all that different from using food dyes, but it seems a little bit over the top to me. I do like it when people use gold leaf in art though, because at least that is going to last and serves a kind of purpose.

By Mor — On Apr 15, 2014

@browncoat - I guess that's ironic, because I'm sure it was very unhealthy for those poor children to be making the gold leaf.

I hope that doesn't happen much anymore, because, for starters, I doubt that coating something in gold would make it healthier. In fact, I suspect it would do more harm than good.

And I've seen edible gold leaf on sale here as well. I always assumed that they made it in a factory somewhere, but I guess that doesn't mean that they don't use children in the making of it.

By browncoat — On Apr 15, 2014

I can remember when I was a kid I saw a documentary on how other children in India would make their living from pounding gold into gold leaf, so that rich people could use it to coat medicine. They would coat a pill in pure gold leaf in order to make it more effective or something like that.

I don't remember the exact amounts, but the children had to hit the gold with a hammer many, many times before it was thin enough to use. It was one of my first introductions to the idea of children working in bad conditions.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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