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2nd May – An introduction to gilding

18 May, 2018

The forty members and visitors to this months club night could be forgiven if they thought that they had returned to school for the evening, instead of the usual theatre style layout of seating they were greeted by a layout of eight blocks of tables with six seats at each. The theme of the evening was an introduction to gilding. And their teacher for the evening was our very own Mrs Barkaway, Lynda to most of us.

As with anything that Lynda does, there had been a great deal of preparation and planning done before the event, she had prepared kits for all to participate in the evening, and each table had a selection of small jars containing various adhesives for attaching either gold leaf or “Fake” gold foil to be attached to turned items that we had been encouraged to bring along and there were also sheets of paper with a variety of letters to “gild” for those of us who had attended unprepared. This activity was very well received by its participants although many found the process somewhat difficult and frustrating, not a skill many can master in a couple of hours, that said many were still gilding away into the night, only to be interrupted by the gallery critique by Dave Gibbard and finally the raffle.

Lynda had also prepared a very interesting short presentation of the history of gold, some of the stand out points are listed below.

40,000 years ago gold was in use and specks have been found in Palaeolithic caves.

5,000 BC gold and silver alloy were used by the Egyptians in their jewellery.

3,000 BC Mesopotamia used gold in their jewellery

2500 BC The Egyptians invent a technique of filigree in the manufacture of gold objects.

The art of gold beating began around this time as has been found by excavators in recent years. Gold was the most important substance used in decoration by the ancient crafts.

46 BC Julius Caesar minted the largest quantity of gold coins ever seen in Rome. This was done to pay his vast army.

From now on Gold leaf was used extensively for decoration, especially in places of worship. Wooden carvings were made to look very lavish by covering them generously with gold leaf and highly burnished. As buildings gradually became more grand and complex so the decorations inside became more beautiful and striking.

Picture frames were commonly gilded to draw attention to the painting. They were frequently elaborately carved and became quite dominant. Mirrors were also highly gilded and very ornate and became very large and elaborate.

How to make gold leaf

The toll on human life to beat gold into thin sheets would have been enormous. Men were then the slaves of rulers and princes and would be driven on foot to the mines where they faced almost certain death. Water and food were scarce and the men worked in the bowels of the earth to get the quartz rock which was brought to the surface by boys. It was then pounded with iron pestles in stone mortars and carried by the masters into the cities to sell.

The gold is firstly melted and mixed with silver alloy and copper. Depending on how much is added depends on how pure the gold is.

To make gold leaf the lumps of gold are put between sheepskin parchment and beaten with hammers weighing up to 20 lbs by at least 12 men. The metal is melted and poured into a mould. After cooling the 5inch long bar and an inch wide and 1/8 inch thick is rolled into strips 120 feet long and as thin as a sheet of paper. The beater is given a strip weighing 60 pennyweight and he starts making the leaf. For 3 days the beater has this precious bit of metal in his care. He is required to make 3,000 sheets of gold leaf from it. If the weather was not kind it would take more than 3 days work.  The gold is cut into little squares about 1” square. 200 of them are laid between sheets of cutch paper. This paper is made in France by a secret process and no substitute has been found for it.

Finishing and cutting the little squares he puts the pack into the parchment cover and starts beating again. Using a 20 pound hammer he beats with one hand while the other keeps turning the cutch After about half an hour, when the gold begins to show on the edges of the paper it will have thinned out to 4 times the original size.

These leaves are again cut into 4 with a skewing knife. The little squares are picked up with boxwood pincers and each is placed between ox intestinal skins. These are all cured in England. This pack is now known as a shodder and is again placed in the parchment cover and beating begins again. After 2 hours of beating the 800 squares are flattened out until the appear on the edges of the skins now being about a 4” square, These are now cut into 3,200 squares with a wagon made of lacquered cane in Japan. They go through the beating process one final time. This is now called the mold and takes about 12 hours., even longer depending on the weather. The gold leaves are now so thin that you can see through them. It would take 300,000 of them to make a pack of gold leaf 1 inch thick. Beating gold is known to have existed from 1700 BC.

Little bits of gold would fly off during these processes and the earth would be swept and sifted and the tiny scraps of gold would be saved and reused.

One ounce of gold can be beaten into 1600 leaves which would cover about 105 square feet.

Transfer gold is made by sticking the gold leaf to paper under pressure. It was only patented about 40 years ago and is used outside a lot to save the loose leaf from blowing away.

What makes gold great?

ALL the gold mined since the dawn of civilization will fit into an area 20 feet cube. It would weigh 171,300 tonnes.

1 ounce piece of gold can be hammered into a sheet of gold leaf 9 meters square.


Andi Saunders

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