Atelier saint André The technique of water gilding
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.Water gilding, also called gilding on bole, consists of applying loose sheets of gold on a layer of red clay (bole). The bole supplies a flexible surface that allows for polishing the gold with an agate burnisher thereby obtaining a brilliant and very smooth effect. The bole gives the gold red reflections due to transparency. This technique of gilding requires a significant investment in materials and long practice to obtain good results.

The preparation of the levkas

Very close attention must be paid to the quality of the levkas that will receive water gilding. The surface must be perfectly flat, smooth and carefully sanded as the slightest imperfection risks causing scratches in the gold during burnishing.


The following materials are required:

- sheets of loose gold (sold in booklets of 10 to 25 leaves, 8 x 8cm)
- Armenia clay or premixed red bole (Lefranc-Bourgeois)
- rabbit skin glue in granules
- a gilder's cushion with its protection
- a gilding knife to cut out the pieces of gold
- a gilder's tip to carry the pieces of gold from the cushion to the icon
- a tooth-shaped agate burnisher
- a gilding mop to stamp and to clean the gilded surface
- a round sable watercolor brush to moisten the bole surface
- 90% alcohol (or Vodka!)
- bleached shellac to protect the gilding

The preparation of the bole

  • Preparation with clay in powder form:

    The Armenian clay is a mixture of very fine ground and iron oxide of yellow, red or brown color. It can be found in specialized art supply stores. The clay used in iconography is always of red color.

    - Soak 10 grams of rabbit skin glue in 250 ml of water. It will turn into a gelatinous substance overnight.
    - Crush the Armenian clay until it becomes a very fine dust.
    - The following day, warm the mixture of water and glue in a double boiler. Add a teaspoon of clay, and stir until completely dissolved.
    - Filter the bole through an old sheer stocking.
    - Allow the mixture to settle overnight. The bole is ready to use.

  • Preparation with premixed red bole:

    Premixed bole is in a wet paste form composed of Armenian clay and water. It must be blended with rabbit skin glue for use as follows:

    - Soak 10 grams of rabbit skin glue in 200 ml of water overnight.
    - Heat the mixture in a double boiler.
    - Gradually add the bole into the glue mixture in a ratio of 1 volume of paste to 1 volume of glue mixture.
    - Stir it well and let settle overnight.

Applying bole

Première couche de bolus - Moisten the entire surface to be gilded with clear water to soften the levkas. This will allow the bole to penetrate the levkas and guarantee better adhesion.
- Heat the bole in a double boiler and apply a thin and regular layer to the surface. Let it dry at least six hours.
- If the layer cracks or peels off, the glue is too strong: carefully remove the bole with extra-fine sandpaper, add more water to the mixture and apply again.
- Apply four layers of bole in the same manner. Allow six hours of drying time between each layer.
Lisser à la lame de rasoir - Scrape very delicately the surface of the bole with a razor blade.
- Then rub the surface using a rough rag, the rough side of a sheet of Kraft paper or horsehair cloth.
- The smoothing of the bole must be perfect as the slightest grain will hit the agate and cause a stripe or hole in the gilding.

Preparing the water size

Fill a large glass with 200 ml. of water. Add 50 ml. of 90 proof alcohol (or Vodka!) and some grains of rabbit skin glue. Heat slightly in a double boiler and let it cool. Gilding water size can be used cold because of its very low glue content.

Applying gold leaf

Gilding with loose gold leaf is a delicate operation that requires a very sensitive touch. The gold sheets, light and fragile, can crumple at the slighest disturbance. All doors and windows should be closed to prevent drafts. You should even hold your breath, especially when approaching the gilder's cushion...

Other precautions should be taken: nothing that comes into contact with the gold leaves should be touched with the fingers. The gilder's knife must be degreased with alcohol before use. Don't touch the cushion directly with the hand as it is covered with a degreased calfskin on which gold does not stick. Finally, do not try to hold or to pick up the gold sheet with the fingers as it would be destroyed at once. Only pick it up with the gilder's tip.

Etendre la feuille d'or - Hold the booklet of gold leaves above the cushion and slip onto the cushion a gold leaf using the gilder's knife.
- Lay out the leaf on the cushion using the knife while blowing on the gold softly from above in the direction you want the gold to lay.
Découpe de l'or - Découper la feuille d'or en petit carrés proportionnés à la grandeur de la dorure à effectuer.

Cut the gold leaf into small squares according to the size of the gilding area with a gilding knife, a very sharp stainless knife. Place the blade on the gold leaf and, pressing slightly, make a small back and forth movement. Then raise the knife carefully. Be careful not to incise the leather of the cushion!

eau à dorer - Moisten de surface to be gilded abundantly with the water size, using a squirrel brush.
Or à la palette 1 Or à la palette 2

- Carry a piece of gold using the gilder's tip and lay it out on the water size.

To make the piece of gold stick to the tip, slightly rub it on your cheek or on the back of your hand to create a small charge of static electricity which will attract the gold.


Once the gold is laid on the puddle, it will extend itself out onto the bole. If air bubbles appear under the gold, drive them out by tapping gently with a soft brush.

- Repeat these steps until the entire surface to be gilded is covered. Overlap the pieces of gold to avoid holes in the area being gilded.
- If a hole does appear, spread a little of the water size on the bare place and apply another piece of gold.

Burnishing with the agate

agate - brunissoir - After two hours of drying time, polish the gilded area with an agate burnisher tool.
- Press the agate slightly on to the gold and make circular movements.

The area that is being polished will become mirror-brilliant in contrast to the rest of the gold, which will retain a matte finish.

- Finish burnishing, clean the surface by delicately removing excess gold with a gilding mop.

- If holes appear in the gilding after the cleaning process, they may be repaired by spreading a little of the water size over the bare places, applying pieces of gold that are larger than the holes, waiting an hour and burnishing once again.

- Protect the gilding with a coat of bleached shellac diluted in 50% alcohol.


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Last update : Tue, Dec 9, 2008, P. Grall © ASA 2000 - 2009 All rights reserved.