Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Gilding, the art of spreading gold, either by mechanical or by chemical means, over the surface of a body for the purpose of ornament. The art of gilding was known to the ancients. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians were accustomed to gild wood and metals; and gilding by means of gold plates is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Pliny informs us that the first gilding seen at Rome was after the destruction of Carthage, under the censorship of Lucius Mummius, when the Romans began to gild the ceilings of their temples and palaces, the Capitol being the first place on which this process was used. But he adds that luxury advanced on them so rapidly that in a little time you might see all, even private and poor persons, gild the walls, vaults, and other parts of their dwellings. Owing to the comparative thickness of the gold-leaf used in ancient gilding, the traces of it which yet remain are remarkably brilliant and solid. Gilding has in all times occupied an important place in the ornamental arts of Oriental countries; and the native processes pursued in India at the present day may be taken as typical of the arts as practised from the earliest periods. For the gilding of copper, employed in the decoration of temple domes and other large works, the following is an outline of the processes employed. The metal surface is thoroughly scraped, cleaned and polished, and next heated in a fire sufficiently to remove any traces of grease or other impurity which may remain from the operation of polishing. It is then dipped in an acid solution prepared from dried unripe apricots, and rubbed with pumice or brick powder. Next, the surface is rubbed over with mercury which forms a superficial amalgam with the copper, after which it is left some hours in clean water, again washed with the acid solution, and dried. It is now ready for receiving the gold, which is laid on in leaf, and, on adhering, assumes a grey appearance from combining with the mercury, but on the application of heat the latter metal volatilizes, leaving the gold a dull greyish hue. The colour is brought up by means of rubbing with agate burnishers. The weight of mercury used in this process is double that of the gold laid on. For the gilding of iron or steel, the surface is first scratched over with chequered lines, then washed in a hot solution of green apricots, dried and heated just short of red-heat. The gold-leaf is then laid on, and rubbed in with agate burnishers, when it adheres by catching into the prepared scratched surface.

Modern gilding is applied to numerous and diverse surfaces and by various distinct processes, so that the art is prosecuted in many ways, and is part of widely different ornamental and useful arts. It forms an important and essential part of framemaking (see CARVING AND GILDING); it is largely employed in connection with cabinet-work, decorative painting and house ornamentation; and it also bulks largely in bookbinding and ornamental leather work. Further, gilding is much employed for coating baser metals, as in button-making, in the gilt toy trade, in electro-gilt reproductions and in electro-plating; and it is also a characteristic feature in the decoration of pottery, porcelain and glass. The various processes fall under one or other of two headings; mechanical gilding and chemical gilding.

Mechanical Gilding embraces all the operations by which goldleaf is prepared (see GOLDBEATING), and the several processes by which it is mechanically attached to the surfaces it is intended to cover. It thus embraces the burnish or water-gilding and the oil-gilding of the carver and gilder, and the gilding operations of the house decorator, the sign-painter, the bookbinder, the paperstainer and several others. Polished iron, steel and other metals are gilt mechanically by applying gold-leaf to the metallic surface at a temperature just under red-heat, pressing the leaf on with a burnisher and reheating, when additional leaf may be laid on. The process is completed by cold burnishing.

Chemical Gilding embraces those processes in which the gold used is at some stage in a state of chemical combination. Of these the following are the principal Cold Gilding.In this process the gold is obtained in a state of extremely fine division, and applied by mechanical means. Cold gilding on silver is performed by a solution of gold in aqua-regia, applied by dipping a linen rag ioto the solution, burning it, and rubbing the black and heavy ashes on the silver with the finger or a piece of leather or cork. Wet gilding is effected by means of a dilute solution of chloride of gold with twice its quantity of ether. The liquids are agitated and allowed to rest, when the ether separates and floats on the surface of the acid. The whole mixture is then poured into a funnel with a small aperture, and allowed to rest for some time, when the acid is run off and the ether separated. The ether will be found to have taken up all the gold from the acid, and may be used for gilding iron or steel, for which purpose the metal is polished with the finest emery and spirits of wine. The ether is then applied with a small brush, and as it evaporates it deposits the gold, which can now be heated and polished. For small delicate figures a pen or a fine brush may be used for laying on the ether solution. Fire-gilding or Wash-gilding is a process by which an amalgam of gold is applied to metallic surfaces, the mercury being subsequently volatilized, leaving a film of gold or an amalgam containing from 13 to 16 O/ of mercury. Iii the preparation of the amalgam the gold must first be reduced to thin plates or grains, which are heated red hot, and thrown into mercury previously heated, till it begins to smoke. Upon stirring the mercury with an iron rod, the gold totally disappears. The proportion of mercury to gold is generally as six or eight to one. When the amalgam is cold it is squeezed through chamois leather for the purpose of separating the superfluous mercury; the gold, with about twice its weight of mercury, remains behind, forming a yellowish silvery mass of the consistence of butter. When the metal to be gilt is wrought or chased, it ought to be covered with mercury before the amalgam is applied, that this may be more easily spread; but when the surface of the metal is plain, the amalgam may be applied to it direct. When no such preparation is applied, the surface to be gilded is simply bitten and cleaned with nitric acid. A deposit of mercury is obtained on a metallic surface by means of quicksilver water, a solution of nitrate of mercury,the nitric acid attacking the metal to which it is applied, and thus leaving a film of free metallic mercury. The amalgam being equally spread over the prepared surface of the metal, the mercury is then sublimed by a heat just sufficient for that purpose; for, if it is too great, part of the gold may be driven off, or it may run together and leave some of the surface of the metal bare. \\Vhen the mercury has evaporated, which is known by the surface having entirely become of a dull yellow color, the metal must undergo other operations, by which the fine gold color is given to it. First, the gilded surface is rubbed with a scratch brush of brass wire, until its surface be smooth; then it is covered over with a composition called gilding wax, and again exposed to the fire until the wax is burnt off. This wax is composed of beeswax mixed with some of the following substances, viz, red ochre, verdigris, copper scales, alum, vitriol, borax. By this operation the color of the gilding is heightened; and the effect seems to be produced by a perfect dissipation of some mercury remaining after the former operation. The dissipation is well effected by this equable application of heat. The gilt surface is then covered over with nitre, alum or other salts, ground together, and mixed up into a paste with water or weak ammonia. The piece of metal thus covered is exposed to a certain degree of heat, and then quenched in water. By this method its color is further improved and brought nearer to that of gold, probably by removing any particles of copper that may have been on the gilt surface. This process, when skilfully carried out, produces gilding of great solidity and beauty; but owing to the exposure of the workmen to mercurial fumes, it is very unhealthy, and further there is much loss of mercury. Numerous contrivances have been introduced to obviate these serious evils. Gilt brass buttons used for uniforms are gilt by this process, and there is an act of parliament (1796) yet unrepealed which prescribes 5 grains of gold as the smallest quantity that may be used for the gilding of 12 dozen of buttons i in. in diameter.

Gilding of Pottery and Porcelain.The quantity of gold consumed for these purposes is very large. The gold tised is dissolved in aquaregia, and the acid is driven off by heat, or the gold may be precipitated by means of sulphate of iron. In this pulverulent state the gold is mixed with ~1th of its weight of oxide of bismuth, together with a small quantity of borax arid gum water. The mixture is applied to the articles with a camels hair pencil, and after passing through the fire the gold is of a dingy color, but the lustre is brought out by burnishing with agate and bioodstone, and afterwards cleaning with vinegar or white-lead.

Mechanical and chemical gilding of metals has been largely superseded by electroplating.