The term “gilding” usually refers to applying gold leaf to a surface. To make life easier, I use the term to describe any metal leafing, whether it’s gold, copper, silver or aluminum.
These are the entry doors to a loft in Tribeca in lower Manhattan. As you can see, the original surfaces are carved wood. I don’t know where these doors came from; they’re beautifully designed and detailed. I love the original finish, but the owners of the loft are musicians who entertain often; they wanted a front door with major bling. The designer asked me to create a distressed silver leaf finish.
Here’s a close up of one door. Lots of intricate detail to take into account when figuring out the work schedule.
These are the finished doors.
It’s unusual to gild directly on top of wood in this way; normally, two coats of paint are applied to create a sealed, smooth surface. In this case, though, we wanted the leaf to be broken and patchy, so applying the leaf straight to the wood helped achieve this goal, since the size (the glue used to adhere metal leaf to surfaces) absorbs into lightly sealed wood unevenly.
You can see the final finish better in this close up photo. The doors are varnished for protection.
I used aluminum leaf instead of silver leaf because silver leaf tarnishes like crazy, sometimes even after being sealed. Aluminum leaf doesn’t tarnish. (Gold leaf of 22-karat or higher won’t, either.) Tarnished silver slowly turns amber, then black. Hmm, want to lie awake at night with worry? Me neither, aluminum it was.
Metal leaf is incredibly thin, the thinnest sheet of metal you can get. It’s so light it flutters in the air and can fly away in the breeze. It’s so thin it’s almost transparent; gold leaf will melt between your fingers. Of course, it’s also reflective. In the two photos above, the lights over the door are on and bounce off of the creamy stone floor, creating an amber glow.
Here’s what aluminum leaf looks like. I have loose leaf in my hand. In the background is a roll of aluminum leaf, which sticks to its white backing paper with static cling. You’d actually never hold leaf in your hand this way because the oil from your fingers might leave a mark, so the leaf is manipulated with brushes or through the backing paper.
This project took about five days, thanks to the many nooks and crannies. A couple of other gilding projects:
Below is a powder room whose walls have been aluminum leafed. The right side of the photo is a mirror, reflecting the opposite wall. When you leaf large surfaces, the 6-inch wide leaves create a grid pattern, since each leaf overlaps the next one by 1/8 inch. This means you have to be mindful of gilding in straight lines both vertically and horizontally, since any drift will be obvious, and mistakes can’t be fixed without redoing the whole wall.
Here’s my all-time favorite gilding job, gold leafing an ornament on the exterior of a church in Chelsea with 24-karat gold. Ever tried gilding six stories up, outside in the wind? Wow. I won’t even tell you how much gold went flying away! This took three days, standing on scaffolding over the stone arch of the window. Lucky I’m not scared of heights! It was such fun.
Gilding is sublime; it’s quiet and meditative, with spectacular results. There’s no rushing or sense of urgency, since I break the surfaces into sections and can gild only when the size has dried to a certain tackiness. A most satisfying way to spend a day.