At DAVIDSON, we take great pride in supporting British craftsmanship and incorporating traditional hand skills, such as lacquering, into our pieces. But some of these crafts are so rare now that they appear on the Heritage Craft Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts.
Gilding – the process of gold-leafing wooden surfaces to give the appearance of solid gold or silver – is one of those crafts. We apply this finish to a few key pieces in our collection, such as the elegant Hanover side cabinet (pictured above) and the Scarsdale Console (pictured below), but also offer it as a customised option on many others. We think you’ll agree the results are both elegant and super-stylish. Here, we take a look at this intricate process in detail with our guide to gilding.
The history of gilding
The earliest recorded use of gilding dates back some 4,500 years, when the Egyptians used gold leaf to adorn objects such as tombs, coffins and sarcophagi, many of which survive today. The ancient Greeks also used a form of gilding for their Chryselephantine statues, which were built around a wooden frame, with carved pieces of ivory to represent flesh and gold leaf to depict clothing, armour and other details. The most famous example was the now-destroyed Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. From the Greeks, the Romans acquired the art that made their temples and palaces resplendent, while the Chinese used gilding to decorate wood, pottery and textiles with beautiful designs.
Initially, a thick gold foil was used, but as the craft developed, the gold became thinner and known as ‘gold leaf’. By the 17th century, gilding was popular across Europe, particularly in France, where the ancient craft was revived by Louis XIV to enhance his image as the self-professed ‘Sun King’. Gilt furniture and mirrors filled his palace at Versailles and the fashion exploded.
By the mid-18th century, French precious metal worker Pierre Gouthière had perfected the art and, in 1767, was appointed gilder to King Louis XV, with his work heavily in demand throughout Europe.
18th century style: a French mantel clock, featuring the gilding work of Pierre Gouthière. Source: Wikicommons
Gilding remained popular throughout much of the 19th century, with many Victorian designs based on earlier styles that emphasised surface decoration. However, the fashion began to fade towards the end of the century, when structure and form took precedence over extravagant embellishments.
This fall in popularity continued over the 20th century and has led to a concurrent drop in the number of practising artisans. “Gilding is a highly-skilled art that requires a lot of instruction – most gilders these days are sole traders, so training someone up would take them away from their production,” says Daniel Carpenter, one of the founding trustees of the Heritage Craft Association (HCA), who headed up research into the 2019 edition of the Red List.
It’s also a labour-intensive process that can’t be mechanised – so you really are paying for the skill. And it this skill – what the HCA describes as ‘intangible heritage’ - that is so important. “We believe these crafts matter because the knowledge and skill are of value to the country as a whole,” says Daniel. “It’s not just the things they produce, but the ability to produce them.”
And if that knowledge is not passed on then the skill simply dies, as has happened to the British craft of gold beating – the process of hammering pure gold into gold leaf. “It’s one of four crafts that have become extinct in the UK over the past 10 years,” Daniel adds.
Nevertheless, there is a market for these crafts, and we know that our clients share our passion for this beautiful tradition. The DAVIDSON gilding team uses a process called water gilding, which gives a matt finish, rather than the traditional burnished look, for a more contemporary feel.
What is water gilding?
Gold leaf today is about 100 times thinner than that made in ancient Egypt, but other than that, the technique of gilding has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. The process of water gilding involves multiple layering.
In the first stage, the wood is covered in gesso (a plaster-like material made of chalk and glue) that is painted on hot with a brush (between five and 15 coats in total).
A semi-transparent mixture of yellow ochre pigment and glue is then usually applied to the gesso, partially sealing it. This is followed by a layer of bole: a very fine clay with a rich colour, mixed with water and a small amount of glue. The bole provides a backing colour for the gold, which is so thin that it takes on colour qualities of the layer beneath.
A softer touch: moon gold leaf gilding in our Rosebery Dining Table gives the piece a soft sheen finish.
Once the bole has been buffed to a smooth finish, it is ready for the gold leafing. This is applied in three-and-a-quarter inch squares to the prepared surface, onto which gilding water (a mixture of 95% water and 5% animal-based glue) has been carefully brushed. The edges of the leaf are gently pressed down and subsequent leaves are then laid, each one slightly overlapping the previous one, until the whole surface has been gilded. As the water dries out, it causes a vacuum behind the gold leaf, which holds it onto the surface of the wood.
The next stage is distressing/aging, which can be achieved in several ways, from the use of abrasives through to the application of stains, varnishes, or water colours.
Water gilding is typically much more labour-intensive than oil gilding, which uses oil-based glue to adhere the gold leaf to the wood, but it is also capable of achieving a more refined surface and sheen, making it ideal for the luxury furniture market.
What are the challenges of gilding?
Gilding is an extremely intricate and time-consuming process, requiring great skill from ourworkshop’s master craftsmen. These are some of the challenges involved:
Gold leaf is very, very thin ̶ 1/10,000th of an inch thick, in fact, which makes it extremely delicate to handle and very easily damaged. Applying it to the surface of the wood so that each piece creates a seamless covering can only be done by hand and there is no margin for error. If one section is damaged, the whole surface must be re-covered, because removing the leaf also removes the colour behind, which cannot be patched. That's an expensive process when you consider that it is made from real gold!
Silver leaf tarnishes quickly – so we use white gold instead as it contains a mixture of gold and silver and retains its shine.
However, gold is so soft it can be almost unusable – so we must be careful to get the right carat weight. 24-carat gold tears easily so we always use 23.5-carat. Just half a carat makes a difference in how manageable the gold is - 23.5-carat gold is strong enough to go around bends and corners, but it hasn’t got that brassy look of 22 carat.
Ray of sunshine: our handcrafted, hand-gilded Talisman mirror features 20 wave profiles and 20 spear points.
What are the benefits of gilding?
Despite its fragile form, gold leaf is so chemically and metallurgically stable that it will not tarnish or deteriorate, provided the substrate (in this case, wood) it lies on remains stable. That’s why we still see ancient Egyptian artefacts in such pristine condition today. That said, on an unstable surface, simply rubbing a moist cloth across an unsealed gilded surface can remove the gold. That’s why all our gilded furniture at DAVIDSON is lacquered for added protection.
It’s the perfect way to make your furniture stand out without appearing garish. Whether you’re after an ultra-modern look or prefer the retro feel of the Art Deco era, adding some gilding to complement one of our rich timbers and lacquers will instantly transform any piece into a style statement. We pride ourselves on creating the right balance between the contrasting finishes so that you have a piece that is as elegant as it is timeless.
A unique statement: our Palm Console Table, inspired by the work of French sculptor, Serge Roche, can be customised with gold, white gold or moon gold leaf for a truly head-turning effect.
If you are interested in any of our customisation finishes, please contact us and one of our consultants will be happy to advise you.