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Adding a touch of elegance: how to use gold leaf for glass signs


Have you ever wondered how signwriters create that elegant gold leaf lettering you often see on classic reverse-painted glass signs, pubs, restaurants and tattoo shops? From collecting your materials to applying gold leaf to glass, this article outlines the basics of how to use gold leaf to achieve a stunning effect.

Preparing your materials and workspace

Glass gilding requires plenty of patience and precision, and gold leaf is a very delicate material. You must have a workspace conducive to success which means an internal space free from air currents, plenty of space to lay out your materials and clean, dry surfaces to avoid contaminating your work.

For materials, you will need gold leaf, gelatine capsules or diamonds, gilders’ tip, gilding knife, gilders’ cushion, gilders’ size brush, gilders’ size pot, pure cotton wool or a velvet burnishing pad and deionised water.

Gold leaf is made from thin sheets of real gold and is available in various carats. While imitation gold leaf is available, this doesn’t have the unique lustre of genuine gold, is harder to apply and doesn’t stick as well. Gold leaf usually comes in booklets of 25 sheets with each leaf separated by paper tissue.

Adhesive “size” is available in either oil or water-based formulations depending on your chosen gilding process. You make your own gelatine size by melting these diamonds or capsules in deionised water.

A gilders’ tip is a special brush. These tips are made from pure squirrel hair and are perfect for picking up precious metal leaf such as gold, silver, platinum, etc for applying gold leaf to glass, while a size brush or mop is used to flood gelatine size on the glass. If you need to cut your gold leaf, it is important to use a clean gilding knife and to lay your sheets on a gilders’ cushion or with practice you can work straight from the book.

How to use gold leaf in basic glass sign gilding: step by step

Step 1: Thoroughly clean the glass surface with either traditional Bon Ami , whiting , Pierre d’Argent and dry with a lint-free cloth or paper towel.

Step 2: Apply the pattern you will be gilding to the front of the glass as a guide. This pattern will also be used at the end to transfer your design onto the Goldleaf as seen in this image.

Step 3: Withe your design on the front of the glass .Starting at the top, brush freshly prepared gelatine size on to the reverse of the glass covering the full width of the letter. Keep the area wet at all times as you gild.

Step 4: Apply your gold leaf. Working with gold leaf is somewhat like a dance, where you need to understand each other’s movements to place each leaf perfectly on the glass. Even small currents of air can cause chaos, while a single touch with a stray finger will cause the leaf to crumple and become unusable.

Prepare your gilder’s tip by applying a small amount of vaseline to the back of your hand and rubbing the tip across it once. The tip will then easily pick up your gold leaf. As the gold leaf nears the glass, you should notice it ‘jump’ into place. You don’t need to apply pressure. Keep the overlapping of each sheet of gold to the minimum. I like to keep my knife sharp to help minimise the joins of gold showing up on the front side after the leaf has dried and has been burnished. Two gilds are usually standard but one gild will work but you will need to patch in any missing pieces, then burnish again.

Step 5: Working from top to bottom, flood the size over the glass and place sheets of gold leaf to the areas of design you are picking out that are wet. For smaller areas, you can cut gold leaf sheets by placing them on a gilder’s cushion by using a clean gilding knife. Isopropanol helps keep the knife really clean.

Step 6: Apply strong back up paint/ink to the areas of the design you want to protect. Once the gold has adhered (it will become shiny) remove any larger pieces of gold with a soft gilders mop and then burnish to a shine with pure cotton wool or a fine velvet pad. Gold will scratch gold, so replace your cotton or turn your cotton frequently. You’re now ready for the backing up part of the work. Trace on your design as seen in image Step 2.

Step 7: Prepare your ink and pallet and work from the top down. Take your time and enjoy this process.

Step 8: Remove the excess gold with a little water and whiting and then use a sponge or paper towel to help the gold come away from the glass. The gold will soften with moister.

Step 9: Use a stocking to strain your enamel for perfect flow of the product.

Step 10: Depending on the design, add in drop shadows or any other shading you would like to create and once dry paint over the entire back of the letter with a background colour of your choice.

Many other techniques can be added to this process.

Learn how to use gold leaf with Dave Smith by your side

The above guide only gives you a broad brush outline on how to use gold leaf in some simple decorative glass work. Only hours of practice alongside a master gilder can truly induct you into this fascinating craft.

Fortunately, due to the magic of the internet, you can benefit from just that experience, via one of my popular online workshops. Head over to see what you get for your money, and listen to some testimonials from satisfied online students and also read our amazing Google reviews . I love to teach people this craft and these classes hold the answers to so many questions that you might have. 52 hours long with 12 amazing projects for you to create.

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  1. A true art form that is falling over the years. As I follow and research the UK architecture which is brilliant to this work is everywhere. However not so much here in the US.

  2. David Smith

    Thank you Bob. It certainly has been but now slowly making a reoccurrence .

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