By Eileen Smith Dallabrida
he ancient Egyptians loved to decorate. As early as 2300 B.C., they were gilding their sarcophagi the earliest examples of the art form. They soon learned that adhering a thin veneer of gold to chests, chairs or other objects gave them the appearance of solid gold at a fraction of the weight and expense.
Even in today’s lackluster economy, gilding remains a highly refined niche, with relatively few skilled artisans. In the restoration of Moscow’s opulent Bolshoi Theater, for example, gilders have proved so hard to come by that project managers are recruiting artisans from Ukraine. The story is nearly the same in the U.S.
“With gilders, there is not much of a labor pool, except in major cities such as New York,” says Michael Kramer, founder of the Gilder’s Studio in Olney, Md., and president of the Society of Gilders, a trade group headquartered in Minneapolis company that also specialized in high-end residential wood finishing,” he says. “After that, my brothers and I continued to learn more and practice until we started our own firm and it became one of our specialties.”
‘Beautify the universe’
Where is gilding done in these lean times? In more places than you might think.
Sandra Spannan’s projects have included a mansion that kept eight gilders busy for a year, adding such opulent details as 23-karat gold leaf on the moldings in the maid’s room.
“It was quite amazing to see how the place changed from a large, but regular, apartment into a true palace,” says Spannan, who is based in Manhattan.
To beautify La Prairie’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue, Spannan gilded the conference room walls and furnishings with composition silver leaf. At Victoria’s Secret’s flagship store on Lexington Avenue, she added shimmer to the 800 square-foot dome with 12-karat white, a 50/50 blend of gold and silver.
“Stepping back from a long day of leafing only to see a room or a wall or a ceiling totally transformed into something that reflects its surroundings in a subtle and very elegant way is a great feeling,” Spannan says. “Those are the moments when I feel like I am here to help beautify the universe.”
Costs and alternatives
A little bit of gold goes a long way. In theory, one cubic inch of gold can be hammered out to produce a sheet 12 feet wide and 100 yards long. (Goldleaf is gold that has been hammered or cut into very thin sheets.) At 1/40th the thickness of a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, the gold is so thin that a reader could scan the newspaper headlines through it.
Even that thin, however, gold remains a pricey proposition. With gold prices in excess of $1,000 an ounce, the cost of leaf has more than doubled in the past several years, says Peter Sepp, president of Sepp Leaf Products Inc., based in New York. To gold leaf 100 square feet, expect to pay about $1,500 for materials.
As a less expensive alternative, some artisans are turning to silver. But unlike gold, silver can tarnish. “Silver is problematic, because it oxidizes if the installation is not impeccable,” Sepp says. “If you were looking for something with a silver-like appearance that is more forgiving, aluminum would be the way to go.”
Aluminum leaf is also easier on the wallet; materials to cover 100 square feet would cost about $90. Silver prices out to about $335 for the same area.
Shopping the impostors
Still, all that glitters is not gold—or even silver. Compopition leaf—also known as schlagmetall or Dutch leaf creates a bright yellow metallic finish through a blend that is 86 percent copper and 14 percent zinc.
“It has the appearance of gold, but it isn’t,” says Larry Neuberg, president of Los Angeles-based Easy Leaf Products.
Despite gold’s higher cost, Neuberg says it offers significant short- and long-term benefits over composition leaf.
“One tarnishes and the other doesn’t—and gold is easier to apply,” he says. “And you also have to consider that the labor, the craft and expertise in laying the leaf costs far more than the materials.”
In most installations, even a moderately trained eye will be able to tell the real deal from the slick impostor.
“You can instantly recognize what you are looking at by the size of the leaf, whether it is the moldings in a ballroom or a picture frame at the Louvre,” Neuberg says.
Typically, gold is sold in sheets that are 3 3/8 inches square. Composite is made in slightly larger sheets, 5 ½ inches square.
“I always used a paper cutter to custom-cut composition leaf, which only used to come in larger sizes and was therefore very obviously fake,” Spannan says.
These days, it is easier to fool the eye. Instead of trimming her own, Spannan now buys composition leaf from Sepp that is already cut into the size of precious-metal sheets.
To provide bling for less ching, Easy Leaf has rolled out a line of bronzing powders and mica powders. The bronzing powders are made from metal particles, including aluminum, copper and zinc, in a variety of colors and sheen levels ranging from pearlescent to sparkling. Mica powders blend mica with natural pigments for an earthy shimmer.
Both products include mixing mediums. “These products provide a subdued sparkle for a fraction of the price of leaf and don’t require a high level of skill to apply,” Neuberg says.
Making it last
Gilding is categorized as either water gilding or oil gilding, depending on the composition of the size, or adhesive material, to which the leaf is applied.
Properly applied, gold leaf should last 40-50 years in an exterior application, Kramer says. (The golden rule: Never apply a protective coating on exterior gilding. When the cover coat breaks down due to the elements, it will take the gold with it.)
Indoors, without the stresses of sun, snow and rain, gilding can last for centuries if people keep their hands—and cleaning supplies—
off the surface.
“I’ve seen water gilding on funerary ornaments from Egypt that is 5,000 years old and still looks good,” Kramer says.
To create a luxurious look on a constrained budget for a large interior dome, Michael Gross of Michael’s Creations in Dumfries, Va., combined composite leaf with metallic plaster and metallic paint. “Allowed some artistic freedom, I textured the ceiling in
varied metallic plasters; gilded the design in silver, gold, copper and variegated Dutch leaf; and added flexible crown and trim painted in Modern Masters gold metallic paint to the base of the dome,” he says.
Because gilding is highly specialized, many prospective clients search for professionals online. And because the medium is intensely visual, the Internet provides an opportunity to show examples of works to a wide audience.
To promote her business, Joanna Annable of Joanna’s Design Studio in Vancouver, Wash., focused on her Web site, which includes examples of her work, details on the design process, and information on pricing. “It was the best investment I ever made in terms of getting
myself out there,” she says. In estimating jobs, Annable establishes a daily rate in keeping with the locale, then adds materials and other overhead.
In the rural Midwest, that might be $300 a day. On Florida’s Gold Coast, the rate might be $800 a day. “I work pretty much only with high-end clients, frequently through interior designers,” she says.
Still, the vein of prosperous homeowners and businesses has thinned in recent years. Large institutional projects are now fewer and further between.
“Governments and museums, especially, are holding back,” Sepp says. Protecting the profit In order to offset the high cost of materials, Kramer is sharpening his pencil and trimming profit margins to win bids. “We are aggressive in our prices,” he says. “We are charging what we charged seven or eight years ago.” The expense of the materials also demands accurate assessment of the job’s size, Gross says.
“Failing to accurately account can leave you short on materials—or overstocked and wasteful,” he says. “Also, never start a project without a clear mutual understanding of the work and a proper monetary deposit for materials and to cover initial expenses.”
Because there is a vast variety of surfaces that can gilded, Spannan has come up with a highly detailed price list that factors in materials, the condition of the surface, and such variables as parking fees for workers and whether a ceiling is flat or domed.
“I also developed a huge list of footage priced for over 150 different kind of plasters or wood moldings of all different kind of shapes and sizes,” she says.
Going for the gold
So, how to get started?
Kramer recommends volunteering for a project where you can work side by side with experienced gilders. For the past several years, for example, the Society of Gilders has organized trips to New Orleans to restore St. Alphonsus Church, damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“This isn’t the sort of skill you learn from a video,” he says. “You need hands-on instruction and then some practice, even if it’s on your own house.” Even after more than 20 years, Kramer says, he is still learning new tricks in an old trade. “I get an intense feeling of pride and accomplishment, being part of the latest generation of gilders,” he says.