Gilding can be found upon a wide variety of antiques, as well as some contemporary pieces. This embellishment can be very durable if properly maintained, through accidental damage the gold leaf may be vulnerable to scratches, abrasions, and complete loss. Many of these issues can be minimised with the correct measures in place and with helpful background knowledge of gilding care.

You may find gilding most commonly upon frames, interior details, and furniture. In this article, we will cover the care of these pieces, along with further information on gold leaf application, including how the gilding is achieved, and how to prevent avoidable damage from occurring.

What is gilding and how is it created?

Gilding is the application of gold leaf to a surface, this includes a wide range of materials but most commonly will be found on wood, metals, plaster, porcelain or stone. This process is important both historically and today, as it achieves an impressive gold finish at a fraction of the cost and weight which would be involved if an item was created from solid gold. Silver and bronze examples of gilding also exist.

Gold leaf is created from a nugget of gold that has been hammered into sheets that are around 0.1 micrometre in thickness. The most common type of gold used in gilding is 22 karat. This is then applied to an object or artwork using various methods. Gold leaf is usually applied by hand by a skilled craftsman or conservator, traditionally using water or oils to set it into place. Knowing whether gilding is water or oil-based will help in its preservation.

Gold leaf may have a red tone beneath it to give it a warm base, this may show through as the gilding layer fades or is rubbed away. Some frames purposefully have worn areas to give an aged effect, however, this may be a sign of damage that requires treatment to protect the exposed areas of wood.

In many cases, oil gilding may have been used to historically repair water gilding, as this is a slightly easier method. Oil gilding uses a varnish-like paste to apply the gold leaf to a sealed surface, whilst water gilding introduces several further steps to produce a suitable surface before the gold leaf is introduced, including the additions of a gesso and glue base. Gilding can be assessed and tested by our conservators to establish the methods used.

gilding chair arm

Gilding Care for Furniture, Frames, and Interiors

Cleaning

For everyday care, a frame or piece of furniture can be gently cleaned dusted with a light and dry cloth. It is important not to push or scrub the gilded areas, as this will lead to abrasions or loss of detail.

Golden features on ceilings and other interior embellishments will require maintenance from a professional who is knowledgeable about gold leaf and its vulnerabilities. Amateur cleaning techniques can lead to disaster, so make sure that the work is carried out by an experienced conservator. A light and dry dusting of a ceiling or feature are recommended for regular cleaning, but professional intervention is required for any build-up of discolouration, dust, soot, or grime.

Instead of attempting to remove any layers of dirt at home, contact our team for professional and sensitive cleaning techniques. Where a frame has worn down or become discoloured over the years, our conservators can expertly reapply suitable gold leaf traditionally by hand.

 

Avoid water and household chemicals

When caring for gilded wooden items it is important to avoid wet cleaning methods, such as household products and even water. If a piece is water gilded this will easily rub away the gold leaf and leave a bare surface. If accidental spills, leaks, or flooding occur, allow the piece to dry naturally and contact our team as soon as possible. Water gilding is especially vulnerable to this and maybe completely lost if cleaned or damaged with a water-based solution.

 

Consider display locations

Avoid displaying a gilded piece of furniture or frame in an area that may have a lot of movement, this includes people frequently brushing past, close to, or leaning against these areas. Allowing a gilded piece to be frequently touched will lead to continuous accidental damage, rubbing away the gold leaf over time. Similarly, a location that could result in knocks or bumps can lead to loss through cracking and flaking gilt layers. A quiet location, away from a lot of footfall, is preferable.

Areas of lost gilding can let in debris and moisture to the unprotected, underlying wood. This will encourage the surrounding gold leaf to also fall away, spreading over time. This also leaves the wood vulnerable to increased expansion and contraction as it is open to the elements, and this movement may in turn increase the loss of gilding. If a wooden item has a loss of gilding, please contact our team to arrange the reapplication of the gold leaf and further restoration if required.

Using scalpel to insert replacement missing decoration on frame

Save broken pieces

If large pieces of gilding or wooden details fall away, attempt to keep them for our conservators. Our team will endeavour to replace these pieces onto the missing areas, maintaining the historic integrity of the furniture or frame.

 

Contact our team for further information

If you have any concerns or queries regarding a gilded item, please contact our team via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576