December is the time to sparkle, and your thrift store finds can shine too.
Gilding is a surprisingly easy way to get a luxurious look from the most inexpensive items. Traditionally, we’ve seen silver or gold leaf decorating ornate picture frames, applied to the domes of public buildings or on the legs of expensive furniture. But the thin sheets of real metal are extremely versatile and can be applied to almost anything. Create beautiful votive holders from mismatched wine glasses. Get the look of mercury glass easily with metal leaf on glass bowls or plates. Transform a picture frame or a plaster tchotchke with a sparkly layer of metal.
While getting a smooth perfect finish on a large surface is a job best left to the masters of the craft, if you appreciate an aged, imperfect look with character, this is the project for you.
You can buy books of leaf in real gold, silver and copper as well as less expensive look-alike metals. Find them online or in craft stores, usually in the glue aisle. The leaves of metal are exceedingly thin … picture plastic wrap without the stretchy strength. Each leaf of metal in the book is separated by a page of tissue paper. In addition to the leaf in your choice of color, you will need a small jar of “size” or glue made for the purpose. This adhesive stays tacky for a long time, giving you a chance to get the metal leaf in place.
Need ideas? Just about anything made of glass will work beautifully. Apply leaf to the outside of a vase if you will use it to hold water. Wood salad bowls make elegant jewelry catch-alls with a little leaf. You don’t have to cover the whole thing … just a modern splotch will look cool. A “meh” little box will take on importance with a layer of copper. Try gilding a plastic toy horse for a funky western sculpture or a terra cotta pot for a fancy orchid container. Ambitious? An ignored thrift store side table will look grand with some metal leaf. Look for inspiration from home décor catalogs or websites like Pinterest and Etsy.
You will need:
• The item(s) you want to make fancy
• Enough metal leaf to cover the surface of your project
• Glue sizing made for gilding
• Sponge brush for applying the size
• Soft bristle brush
• A piece of waxed paper slightly larger than the metal leaves
• Clear finish coat if needed for durability
1. Clean your item. Oils and dust will affect the adhesion of the leaf. The smoother your item is, the shinier the end result will be. Personally, I like a little texture. Unless it is glass, in which case I work hard to get rid of the fingerprints. It’s no fun to work on a project and then discover you have sandwiched a fingerprint under the metal leaf. Don’t ask me how I know … argh.
2. Traditional uses of metal leaf involve an undercoat of clay, gesso or casein paint, usually black for silver, and red for gold. I’ve skipped this stage as I want a more modern look, and want to see through the glass.
3. With the sponge brush, apply a layer of size. Don’t leave puddles. Brushstrokes may leave marks later, so be at peace with them. A few brushstrokes will give an artistic handmade feel to your project.
4. Let the size dry as per the instructions on the package. The big gilding websites say “don’t adhere your metal too soon” but I am too excited to wait long. You can test if it is dry enough by seeing if a hair will stick. Don’t smush a big fingerprint into the size to test it … (see my experience, step 1). In Tucson, it will likely dry faster than the instructions tell you.
5. Now the fun part! Open up your book of leaf to reveal a sheet of metal.
6. Lay a sheet of waxed paper over the metal and lightly run your hand over the waxed paper, so the metal will stick to the wax paper. The waxed paper is now your “carrier” and will allow you to remove the metal from the book.
HOT TIP: if you are gilding a small surface, or the inside of a glass, you may want a smaller, more maneuverable piece of metal. You can cut the sheets with scissors by cutting through the surrounding tissue paper while it’s still in the book.
7. Holding the metal via the waxed paper, carefully position your metal over the adhesive … and … stick!
8. There are a few techniques to try, depending on your hand/eye coordination. You can try first sticking one corner down, then rolling the rest of the sheet down in a smooth motion. You can also just try to adhere the sheet quickly, in one fell swoop. On a curved or carved surface, cracks will be inevitable. I prefer an aged look and actually aimed for cracks.
9. Keep adding pieces of metal until the coverage you want is achieved.
10. Add little pieces of metal over cracks if you don’t like them.
11. Using the bristle brush, rub the applied metal into the surface. This smoothes it out and brushes away the little pieces that didn’t stick. I like the cracks, so I scrubbed a little, to remove more. On another large smooth project, I used an adhesive lint roller very lightly to aggressively age the look.
12. Remove the leftover, glittery pieces and use a rag or your fingers to rub the metal down one last time.
13. If the piece will be handled much, or if your metal is going to tarnish (real silver and some of the composite metal options) you need to add a clear finish coat. Wait 24 hours or so, to let the glue fully dry. Craft stores carry a clear coat as part of the metal leaf line of products or you can improvise with what you have on hand.
14. Light a candle and relax with a glass of wine in one of the wineglasses you haven’t yet gilded!
Jenni Steinberg Pagano is manager of the 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store. Contact her to volunteer or donate at 327-5252. Volunteer hours are paid back to the local Jewish agency of your choice from the proceeds of the store.