Gilding is fixing gold leaf to a prepared surface and rubbing it into place. Gold leaf will not tarnish – lasts for years and gives a true gold look to any wood, metal or plaster base. The lavish and decadent lives of yore found the need to have almost all furniture gilded, something very evident in the 17th and 18th centuries all over the world. Today, these fine pieces still have the same charm, but for entirely different reasons: to be antiques.
Old gold leaf antiques can be cleaned with water containing a few drops of ammonia. New gold leaf can be purchased on plain sheets or on transfers that have a tissue backing. Transfer sheets are much easier to use than regular sheets. When applying gold leaf to a restored area, make sure the surface is clean and dry. Paint the base with Japan gold size and let it get ‘tacky’. Lay the sheets in place, overlapping them slightly at the edges; rub them carefully, following the direction of the overlap, with a clean cotton cloth until the edges are evenly blended. The skill is to place the sheets on the surface when the size has reached the correct degree of ‘stickiness’. If the size is too wet, the sheet will wrinkle; if it is too dry, the sheet will not stick.
Today the value of antiques will depend on whether pure gold leaf or wax gilding was used, as was common practice to reduce the cost of making a fine piece of furniture. The other popular alternative, gold paint, while easy to apply, produces a rather garish finish and lacks depth. Wax gilts, available at most art stores these days, come in many shades of gold. They are ideal for touching up damaged gold leaf and for applying a broken gold surface to white or colored paint. They are easy to apply, ensuring that even the most inexperienced restorer can restore their prized antique piece. Wax fault can be easily removed with turpentine substitute, so a good idea is to protect it with a coat of clear alcohol-based varnish. Another alternative is the liquid sheet, again easy to apply. It can be painted with a brush or drawn with a pen. It is shinier than gold leaf and does not have the same ‘antique’ finish as wax guilt, therefore larger areas may not have the desired effect, especially when restoring your antique piece.
Ormolu is bronze, cast in decorative shapes gilded with gold leaf and attached to parts of furniture. One form of decoration that developed from ormolu is the alloying of brass, with the same appearance as gold. The oromolu surface often tarnishes because the brass sweats through the gilding. Clean by gently brushing the surface with soap and warm water containing a few drops of ammonia. To remove any stubborn dirt from the surface, add more ammonia. Always wear rubber gloves for this job.
To restore faded or damaged antique painted furniture, scrape the paint down to the surface and fill any deep scratches or holes with plastic wood or texturizing polymer paste. Dab the area with fine glassine paper and repaint, using matching artists’ oil colors. For a matte finish, use only primer; coat it when dry with a good quality matt varnish. Small areas of old paint texture can be blended using a white base coat as a base. Apply colors to match the artists’ oil paint, which should always be one shade lighter than the original. When the paint dries, it should match the original shades. A varnish can be applied; however, it is better to varnish the entire area than the retouched area. This will give an overall uniform texture to your old piece. The new gloss may be a bit too shiny when it dries; if so, rubbing it lightly with steel wool will give it that aged antique look.