Gold leafed Hardtail Stratocaster. Gilding with imitation leaf. Part 1

The Hardtail body is ready for gilding. It’s important to check that the surface is as dust-free as possible – and it really helps to make sure there’s absolutely nothing hiding in those body routs. I’m using an imitation gold leaf sold by Cornellisen’s. I bought a book of 100 sheets, ages ago on a trip up to London. (Cornellisen’s is one of those places an ex-fine artist, like myself, can lose more than a few hours – weighing up all the endless possibilities). Compared to real gold, imitation gold is ridiculously cheap. It’s actually made from brass and other, similar alloys. It’s produced in larger sheets, and doesn’t require the careful handling that real gold demands. If you pick up sheets of real gold with your fingers – they’ll just disintegrate into dust. However – you can easily pick up imitation leaf – and so it’s application is much, much easier.

Prepped, Hardtail Stratocaster body – ready for gilding

Because application is easier, and because the larger sheets mean you can cover a larger area, in the time you have available – it’s usually possible to complete complex jobs like guitar bodies much quicker, and in fewer stages, than with real gold. The practicalities of applying the gold size and leaf does mean that the body needs to be supported or easily manipulated – and so it’s always practical and adviseable to break down the work into manageable stages. I should be able to cover this body in three stages, and plan the work out over a period of three days. It’s sometimes necessary to allow for the odd day inbetween, for drying purposes – but with imitation leaf, you can’t really hang about too long. The leaf will oxidise and discolour over time, and this process can, sometimes, be accelerated – dependent sometimes on external factors such as pollution and humidity.

Edges first – Apply the gold size evenly

As usual, I’m using a high quality, oil-based, “three hour” gold size or Mixtion, by Le Franc. Given the fact that the weather is quite warm at the moment – I reckon the size will dry to “open time”, in about an hour. It’s tempting to lay a little extra size down when using imitation leaf. Maybe it’s because the leaf seems heavier somehow – however, you need to avoid sags and runs in the application, and so careful, light and even applications are best.

For the first step, and first day of gilding, I plan to size and gild just the edges of the guitar body. All the way around the perimeter – feathering the size out, over the edges. It helps to lay the body down – but to keep it elevated above the work surface. I use a small beanbag. This makes sure the sticky sides of the body are kept well off the work surface – but also helps to ensure that I don’t eventually press down too hard when it comes to “pressing-in” the leaf. When it comes to having to manipulate the body, to help the application – I usually pick the body up using the pickup routs. Doing the edges first means that they’re less prone to accidental damage as the piece is occasionally picked up, and then laid back down on the beanbag support.

To apply the size, I use a good, clean varnishing brush. Soft ox hair or synthetic bristle both work well. It helps to pick a size suitable for the area you’re covering. The size is the consistency of thin syrup, and it flows on easily enough – but it starts to self-level, grip, and can begin to go off quite quickly. It’s important therefore, to keep the application flowing, and not to overwork it. If you miss a spot – don’t go back if there’s a risk of dragging over a previous application. It’s sometimes easier to let it all dry, and go back over any missed areas, on another occasion. Apply the size from a well charged brush, and then brush it out quickly but smoothly. Technique is everything. Apply the next charge a little distance away from the last, and then brush it out back into the edge of the previous application – feathering the two together, as you go. Providing the coverage is regular – the oil will self-level, and any fine brushmarks will settle out.

It’s always important to make sure you get just enough coverage – but not too much. Over application results in drips, sags and runs – especially on the vertical edges of a piece like this. However – careful, confident coverage is the key. Check for runs and brush them out, if they appear, as you’re applying the size. If you spot them afterwards – you’re probably best leaving them to dry. You can always rub them back again later. However, if the size looks consistent – if it just appears to brighten and wet the surface, and appears to hold in place – then as long as its’ reflection appears smooth and consistent – you’re probably on the right track.

Just shove it on – (carefully)

On the first day of gilding – it’s quite warm and dry. It takes just over an hour for the size to reach “open”. This is the point when the size is sticky enough to hold the gold in place, without bleeding through, or wetting the leaf. You can usually note a slight dulling of the reflected light as the size reaches tack – but the best way to check is by gently dragging a knuckle across the sized surface. (Do it somewhere where you won’t notice – just in case you’re too soon, and it drags). When the size is ready for the gold – the size squeaks in a particular way. For really good gilders – it’s all in that squeak. For the rest of us – if the size appears to be dry but is actually still just tacky – then it should be good to go.

Normally – with real gold – great care is taken to lay the leaf so that there are no visible joins. In some cases – a grid work of fine, evenly spaced parallel lines are desireable – but usually only to demonstrate the skill of the gilder and the authenticity of the gold leaf. I’ve already decided that I actually want to maximise and accentuate irregularities and creases in the application of this fake leaf – and so applying the leaf is as simple as picking up a few leaves and then draping them gently, but haphazardly, onto the surface. If the tack is right – the gold will easily stick to the surfaces, although applying the leaf to the vertical edges means that you sometimes have to help push the leaf on, in some places. I use a soft, squirrel-hair mop brush to do that, so that there’s no danger of imprinting onto the soft size. The imitation leaf is cheap enough. There’s no need to skimp. Shove it on.

Gently pressing in the leaf

Once leaf has been roughly applied over the entire area of the day’s work – I tend to immediately go over the application again – but this time using a soft brush to gently push down another loose leaf, over the top. This pushes the first leaf down into position, but it also helps to find any small, missed areas – and then immediately fills them. The process also begins to knock off surplus pieces of leaf which remain unattached. These first pieces can be fairly large, and are often useful for faulting purposes later on. As long as they are clean and free from dust or loose brush hairs – you can always collect them together in a clean pot, for later use. Otherwise – it always helps to have a vacuum cleaner nearby. Loose leaf gets everywhere, so clean up as you go.

Carefully press the leaf into place

While the size is still open, the leaf then needs to be gently pressed down into the size – so that it sticks properly all over. I use one of the waxed or chalked sheets that usually enclose the wrap of leaf. I use my fingertips to work over the entire surface – gently but firmly. You want to push the leaf down into position with a constant, light pressure – but without leaving any marks. If you get this right – the leaf will stick properly, and it’ll shine well. Press too hard, and you risk size leaking through the leaf onto the surface, where it will dull the finished job. It really helps to balance the work on the beanbag support – since having the body there, keeps the piece slightly at risk of over-balancing. This helps stop me from pressing down too hard anywhere.

It’s a technique that takes a little time to learn – but the only way you can properly learn it, is to experiment a few times. Don’t press down too much in one spot, don’t use too much pressure, and don’t scrub with the waxed paper – or move it from side to side. Use your fingers to feel as you go, and if you do see any small missed areas through the paper, (or hear them click as you lift the paper off) – it’s not too late to use one of your little bits of recycled leaf to cover the fault. The size should still be just sticky enough to grab the patch. Once the coverage appears consistent – leave the piece to dry. If there happens to be a problem area where the leaf won’t stick – resist the temptation to press harder. You’ll overwork it and potentially ruin the whole piece. Leave the whole thing to dry. You can always fix it later.

Cleaning up with a gentle burnishing

Once the size is “dry”, (that is, just about when the open time is coming to an end. In this case, after about three hours), it’s good to gently go over the piece with a clean, squirrel hair mop brush. This helps begin to brush away any tiny bits of loose leaf, and cleans up the edges. It also helps to burnish down the leaf. The feathered edges of the application begin to show as less defined, and the overall shine of the leaf begins to come through. Resist the temptation again to rub too hard, or scrub across the leaf with a soft cloth. If the size is still soft – you can still easily damage the finish. Leave it, instead, in a dry place overnight. The size should fully cure in about 24 hours, and you can then wipe over the leaf with a soft cloth, and move on to the next area(s) of application.

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