How to Apply Gold Leaf to Everything
By Stacey Kelleher
Gold leafing, or gilding, is a fun and easy way to add metallic touches to just about any surface you can imagine. The technique of gilding has its roots in early Christian and medieval art, where precious bits of gold were used to embellish important books and manuscripts.
Today, gold leaf is available in different shades and karats. While true gold leaf is made of real gold, there are a variety of faux gold options and products available to meet all of your crafting and DIY needs.
Keep reading to learn how to add shimmer and shine to fabrics, furniture, and art with gold leaf sheets and flakes.
Photo via A Life Adjacent
What Is Gold Leaf?
Gold leaf is gold that has been hammered into thin sheets, rolls, or flakes of foil. Liquid leafing paints in varying colors and tints are available as well.
You can use gold leaf to add bright metallic accents to everything from paper and canvases, to dishes, glassware, and furniture. There is even edible gold leaf for cookies, chocolates, cocktails, and other treats!
Most craft and hobby stores sell “faux” gold leaf products for a fraction of the price of real gold leaf, and they’re usually made up of a combination of copper and zinc. They add a touch of gold color to your DIY project without breaking the bank.
Common Surfaces to Gold Leaf
With the right products and surface preparation, real and imitation gold leaf sheets can be applied to just about anything including:
- Painted or varnished items
- Raw wood
- Terra cotta
Keep in mind that while you can gild fabric items, it’s best for those that don’t see a lot of wear and tear, like curtains, throw pillows, and decorative towels.
Photo via Sonata Home Design
How to Apply Gold Leaf Sheets
The process to add gold leaf is generally the same for most surfaces, but you may need to prep each item differently for the gilding to stick well and look its best. We’ve included tips for working with different materials below.
Tools and Materials Needed:
- Adhesive stencil or painter’s tape
- Item to be gilded
- Metal leaf adhesive
- Foam craft brushes
- Gilding brush
- Imitation gold leaf
- Metal leaf sealant
- 2 small jars or containers
Note: Some items may require additional materials for the prepping process. Check Step 2 below for more information.
Step 1: Gather Materials
As with any craft or DIY project, it is helpful to take the time to assemble all of the items you’ll need in advance. Choose a workspace that is not near a fan, open window, or AC unit, which can blow your gold sheets away.
Step 2: Prep the Surface
Proper priming is the key to good results with any gold leaf project. Preparing the surface helps the adhesive stick well. A smooth, clean surface free of imperfections works best.
Here are some tips for prepping common materials:
- Raw wood: Sand the surface down, add a coat of sealant, and sand again. (This process may take several days because of the time needed for the sealant to dry, so plan accordingly.)
- Terra cotta and plaster: Clean with a gentle detergent, allow to dry, and apply two coats of sealant.
- Fabric: Fabric should be cleaned and ironed. Any wrinkles or creases can interfere with your design.
- For all other surfaces including plastic, vinyl, glass, and painted or varnished objects, use a microfiber cloth and multi-surface spray to remove any dust, dirt, and grease.
Step 3: Make a Design
Now it’s time to add a design to your surface. You can do this a few ways. An adhesive stencil is probably the easiest way to get a clean, clear design.
You can also use masking tape or painter’s tape to mask off the areas you don’t want to be covered in gold leaf. If you don’t have a specific design in mind, go ahead and freehand your gilded accents!
Step 4: Apply Metal Leaf Adhesive
Because the metal leaf is not sticky, you’ll need to create a tacky surface for the gold to adhere to. Pour a small amount of water-based metal leaf adhesive into a small container.
Use a small foam craft brush to paint the adhesive wherever you plan to apply the gold leaf. This type of adhesive is a bit runny, so you shouldn’t need a lot. Using too much runs the risk of the adhesive leaking under the stencil.
Step 5: Let the Adhesive Dry
Set your project aside and allow the adhesive to dry. It should take 20-30 minutes to fully dry and become tacky. (Always check the instructions on your product, as drying times may vary.)
Step 6: Apply Gold Leaf
Keep in mind that gold leaf sheets are quite delicate and fragile. Wash your hands to make sure they’re free of any adhesive, and make sure you’re very gentle when picking up and applying gold leaf to prevent it from tearing or bunching up.
Use the tissue paper provided with your gold leaf to place the sheet on your tacky surface. Lift up the tissue paper and use your fingers or a paper towel to rub across the backing paper, applying gentle pressure to transfer the gold onto the tacky surface. Small wrinkles in the gold are okay at this point.
Depending on the size and scope of your project, you may need to use multiple sheets of gold leaf. Repeat the process to make the gold leaf as vibrant as you like.
Using a soft gilding brush, brush the gold away from the areas that don’t contain adhesive and smooth out any lumps or bumps. A gilding brush also works well for dabbing gold leaf into cracks and crevices on three-dimensional objects, like on furniture molding.
For smaller objects, or items with a lot of details, gold leaf flakes work best. The process is the same, but you’re working with smaller pieces of gold.
Step 7: Remove the Tape or Stencil
Ever so gently, lift the stencil or painter’s tape off your object. Your design is revealed!
Step 8: Let it Dry
After the gold leaf has been applied, let your project sit for several hours. This gives the adhesive time to dry out completely.
Step 9: Seal the Surface
Pour a small amount of metal leaf sealer into a container. Use a clean foam craft brush to paint sealant over your project. Sealant prevents the gold from flaking off and will give your item a nice, clear shine. Spray metal leaf sealer works best for larger projects and fabrics. Let your project dry for several hours.
How to Clean Gold Leaf Surfaces
Once you have sealed your gilded surface, the gold leaf is now protected from dust and dirt. However, there still will come a time where you'll likely want to clean the item. The safest way to clean most items with gold leaf is to use a gentle multi-surface cleaning spray and a soft, clean, microfiber cloth.
For gilded fabrics that have been sealed, hand wash only in cool water. Hand wash any gilded china, porcelain, and ceramic in mild soapy water.
Gold leafing is a fun way to transform household items from “blah” to “bling.” While it may seem a bit intimidating to work with fragile gold leaf sheets, they’re actually quite forgiving and easy to use.
How do you use gold leaf? Share your favorite DIY project below!