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Used for centuries for its brilliance and extravagance, gold leaf is unmatched in its appearance. In this short and easy to follow guide, I’ll explain how to hand paint gold leaf lettering for signs. You’ll learn how to transfer 23 carat gold leaf to make your hand lettering shine like never before.
Why choose gold leaf lettering?
Real gold leaf has the ability to shine bright in the sunshine and continues to gleam for many years in exterior conditions. Signwriting with golden letters or adding gold leaf embellishments to your sign work adds distinction, flair and value.
Whether on small sign panels and glasswork or upon larger paintings, the outcome is outstanding.
In addition to your already chalked out sign panel, you will need:
- Gold size
- Signwriting brushes
- Mahl stick (optional but useful)
- White spirits
- Small pots for paint plus stirrer
- Clean lint free cloths
- 23 carat gold leaf
- Cotton wool balls or very soft dusting brush
Once you have drawn or transferred your design onto the sign’s surface, you’re ready to begin hand lettering the areas which will be gold.
Gently tap white chalk powder or talc over the entire area where the gold will be applied to. This ensures that the gold leaf will not stick too much to the areas that you are not applying gold to. Without the white chalky powder, the leaf is liable to adhere to the surface and is tricky to remove without damaging the sign.
I’ve taped this panel to my easel but you can use props to adjust the panel at a suitable working height.
If you prefer to hand letter or transfer the gold leaf with the panel laid flat, stand it up regularly. This ensures your painting is the way you want to see it. It’s easy to go squint or off centre with the panel on its back, so always try to work upright.
Adhering gold leaf
For this guide, I’m using Wright’s of Lymm one hour gold size. The size is a type of paint which the gold leaf will adhere to – like a paintable glue. The time duration indicates how long the size will take to dry fully. I have to judge the right tackiness of the size before it dries completely and is no longer tacky.
I know that I won’t be able to paint all of the lettering and logo and apply all of the gold leaf within the one hour drying time. So, I’m dividing the gold leaf areas, beginning with the logo at the top of the sign and planning ahead.
Test paint a sample of the gold size before painting your sign. This will help in understanding how long you will have before the tackiness time window begins.
The 23 carat gold leaf which I will be using is purchased in small books, supplied by A. S. Handover in London. The gold leaf is on transferrable paper pages and is called transfer leaf.
Once you are able to determine the right tackiness of the size (this will take some practice), you can begin to transfer the gold leaf.
Transferring the gold leaf
Working quickly; place the pages of gold on top of the tacky size and rub firmly with your finger(s). Then remove the page and repeat on the next neighbouring area. Always try to avoid placing the gold-free paper page on the size as the size may rip the exposed paper.
My studio was warm on the day I was lettering this sign, so the size began to dry quicker than anticipated. I had only a few minutes of the ideal tackiness to transfer the gold leaf.
If the size is too soft and still wet, the gold leaf becomes wrinkled and doesn’t stick well or leave a nice finish. If the size is too dry and not tacky enough, the gold leaf will not stick to the entire area. Working on smaller areas with quicker drying size is advisable. You can also use gold size which has a longer drying time and provides a wider time window for transferring the leaf.
The logo is now gilded with the gold leaf and although the edges are furry, I’m happy with the result. I can now judge how long to segment the painting of the rest of the sign’s gold leaf areas.
I now tape the sign back onto my wall to continue painting the gold size for the lettering.
Hand painting gold leaf
As you can see, the gold size is not opaque so don’t try to make the painted areas solid. Aim for an even, streak-free coating and thin your size with small drips of thinners when necessary. The consistency should be similar to single cream.
Again, taking my time to carefully paint the size in manageable segments, I can judge when the size is at the right tackiness. Working quickly with the transfer of the gold, I rub on one letter at a time.
The remaining gold on each leaf is then reused for other areas. Try to use as much gold from larger remnants left on the leaf, when transferring onto other areas.
The edges are furry at this stage. But because I know that the size is painted where I want the gold, I’m confident that this can be removed.
You can see the previous uppercase ‘I’ stenciled out of this leaf. I now use the large area of un-stenciled gold to completely cover the uppercase ‘L’. Place it on, rub firmly with the finger, then snap back the leaf.
After a short while and in a warmer than anticipated studio, the gold leaf is transferred. With most of the chalked-out design still visible.
Once I’m certain that the gold is safely hardened, I can very gently rub the excess gold off with a small ball of cotton wool. You can also use a very soft make-up or shaving brush. I’ve even used a vacuum cleaner hose to lift off the loosest of excess pieces.
This step of the process is messy and will create gold flakes in the air. Place the panel over a bin if possible or work outside on a dry day.
Gold leaf lettered sign
After lettering the additional details and some embellishments with shadows, the sign is complete.
As you can see, the gold is dazzling in the sunshine with immediate eye appeal.
- Choose the right gold size for your estimated drying time window
- Rub white chalk powder or talc on the surface before painting your gold size
- Paint quickly, carefully and in manageable segments
- Avoid rubbing bare paper leaf to the tacky size
- Use cotton wool or a very soft haired brush to remove excess gold
- Always test and practise before lettering your sign
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Thanks for reading.