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Traditional Water Gilding – A How To

Prior to the 19th century, water gilding was the only method used for all gilding projects.  Today, this method is mostly used for frames, furniture accents, restoration projects, and other small and intricate projects.   Water gilding takes years to perfect.  As you will read, there are many steps that require patience and skill.   This type of gilding will allow a high burnish and will actually be more durable than gilding on oil/water-base size.  Here’s a common misconception. “water gilding” is often confused with “gilding using water-base size”. Today, the latter is much more common. This process has an extensive amount of preparation before the size is applied.    

Traditional water gilding is not taught every day.  During faux marble and trompe l’oeil class in Versailles, France, the students of Pierre Finkelstein Institute got to learn a very specific gilding technique.  Pierre Finkelstein of Pierre Finkelstein Institute of Decorative Painting invited Sebastian Vallin from Atelier Gohard Gilding corp. to give the students a demo on water gilding.  Gohard is a 3rd generation company that specializes in restoration gilding along with high-end residential.  Learn the process below.  See also: Gilded Ornament Panel, Gilding Leaf Sample, Gelatin for Gilding


Use our step-by-step instruction below


Here is a list of the tools & supplies you will need to achieve this technique.  Supplies available at are linked below and listed at the bottom of the page.



STEP 1 – PROPER PREPARATION: To apply gesso, first clean the substrate, in this case, bare wood.  Then, seal with one coat of rabbit skin glue. Apply several coats of gessoThere are great resources to find recipes to make rabbit skin glue.  The traditional gesso recipe is: rabbit skin glue, whiting, water, and garlic cloves.  The gesso is left in a double boiler and is always applied warm.

Sealing and then recarving the gesso is all that’s needed before the bole basecoat is applied.  Learn to re-carve the gesso in the next step.



STEP 2 – RE-CARVING GESSO: The gesso is thick, it’s often necessary to define the surface design.  Re-carve all the sculpted details that got lost with layers of applied gesso.   A variety of metal tools are used to chisel away the gesso to great detail.  In a big company, if a worker is good at carving, that may be their only job as it requires a lot of skill.  After the carving, a very surgical and thorough sanding and dusting is necessary.



STEP 3 – APPLY RED & YELLOW BOLE:  Bole is a soft clay.  Traditionally, Armenian clay is used (for its ideal brown/red color).  First apply 3-4 coats of yellow bole with a Rondin, Deerhoof Striping Brush.  Followed by a thorough sanding and dusting.

Next, apply 1 coat of red bole only on high areas only, not the recessed ones. Followed by a thorough sanding and dusting. The sections painted in red bole are ready for gilding.



STEP 4 – APPLY SIZE: Once the resulting surface is smooth and ready, mix a tinted water size made of water and melted gelatinApply it on small sections at a time using the water Gilding Sizing Brush.



STEP 5 – APPLY LOOSE LEAF:  Place loose leaves on a gilding cushion.  This regal tool serves as a cutting board for gold.  Position a sheet of leaf on the cushion and cut it in sections with a knifeTransfer the piece to the freshly sized section with Gilding Tip.

Notice the gilder’s cushion where you place and cut each leaf to size.  Repeat the process of applying the size and leaf to a section until complete.  Often, the piece is placed on an incline in order to prevent the size from puddling as that can affect the adhesion.  Special care must be taken when applying the gold.   The leaf cannot overlap and just skew away like with oil/water-based size.  You have to be precise, the overlap will stick and will not burnish the same as areas with only one layer. Using a soft brush called a Gilding Mop, the leaf is placed and then stamped.



STEP 6 – GILDING TOUCH-UPS: Use a pointed Gilding Brush, for touch-ups, dab a bit of gold to the missed area.  After touching up, there is an option to age the gilding.  A few optional Steps are below.



AGING OPTION 1 – HIGH-SHINE BURNISH:  Burnish the gold to a high shine with an agate burnisher. 

AGING OPTION 2 – DISTRESSING:  With a super fine 00000 steel wool, Rub the surface, which will distress the gold and show the bole color coming through.

AGING OPTION 3 – MATTE DOWN THE GOLD:  The surface can be brought down a sheen with a gelatin mixture using a Gilder’s Mop to apply.  

AGING OPTION 4 – PATINA: Finally, for a patina look, the surface can then be glazed using watercolors.