Gilding is the fixing of gold leaf to a prepared surface and rubbing it into place. Gold leaf will not tarnish: it lasts for years, giving a true gold look to any wood, metal or plaster base. The lavish and decadent lives of yester year found the need to have almost every piece of furniture that they owned gilded, really evident in the 17th and 18th centuries across the globe. Today these fine pieces still have the same allure, but for totally different reasons – being antiques.
Old gold leaf antiques can be cleaned with water containing a few drops of ammonia. New gold leaf can be bought in plain sheets, or in transfers that have a tissue backing. The transfer sheets are much easier to use than the plain sheets. When applying gold leaf to a restored area, make sure that the surface is clean and dry. Paint the base with Japan gold size and leave it to get ‘tacky’. Lay the sheets in place, slightly overlapping at the edges; rub them down carefully, following the direction of the overlap, with a clean cotton cloth until the edges blend evenly together. The knack is to lay the sheets on the surface when the size has reached the correct degree of ‘tackiness’. If the size is too wet, the leaf crinkles; if it is too dry, the leaf will not stick.
Today the value of antiques will depend on whether pure gold leaf was used or wax gild, as was common practise to reduce the cost of making a fine piece of furniture. The other popular alternative, gold paint, although simple to apply, produces a rather garish finish and lacks depth. Wax gilts, available at most art shops these days, come in many tones of gold. They are ideal for touching-up damaged of gold leaf and for applying a broken gilt surface over white or coloured paint. They are simple to apply, ensuring that even most unskilful restorer can restore their prize antique piece. Wax guilt can easily be removed with turpentine substitute, so a good idea is to protect it with a covering of clear alcohol-based varnish. Another alternative is liquid leaf, again easy to apply. It can be brushed on, or drawn on with a pen. It is brighter than gold leaf and does not have the same ‘antique’ finish as wax guilt, hence larger areas may not have the desired effect especially when restoring your antique piece.
Ormolu is bronze, cast into decorative shapes that are gilded with gold leaf and attached to parts of furniture. A form of decoration that was developed from ormolu is brass alloy, with the same appearance as gold. The surface of ormolu often becomes tarnished because the brass sweats through the gilding. Clean it by brushing the surface gently with soap and warm water containing a few drops of ammonia. To remove any obstinate dirt from the surface, add more ammonia. Always wear rubber gloves for this work.
To restore faded or damaged antique pieces of painted furniture, scrape the paint down to the surface and fill any deep scratches or holes with plastic wood, or Polymer texturing paste. Rub the area with fine glass-paper and repaint, using matching artists’ oil colours. To achieve a matt finish, only use undercoat paint; cover it when dry with a good-quality matt varnish. Small areas of old paint texture can be matched by using white undercoat as a base. Apply matching colours with artists’ oil paint, which should always be a tone lighter than the original. When the paint dries, it should match the original tones. A varnish may be applied; however, it is best to varnish the entire area rather than the retouched area. This will give an overall even texture to your antique piece. New gloss may be a bit too shiny when dry; if so, rubbing it down gently with steel wool will give it that aged antique look.