What Is Gilding and How Do I Care for a Gilded Frame?

Gilding has existed as a go-to decorative technique for centuries. You may even own a gilded item or two, even if you’re not familiar with the name of the process. If that’s the case, it’s time to unfurl the mystery!

Gilding simply refers to the practice of applying a thin layer of gold leaf over a given object. The item is first coated in a specialty glue and a priming mixture (often made of clay and/or rabbit skin). The gold is immediately applied on the surface, and as the water content in the coatings evaporates, it begins to dry and sticks in place. In days past, wealthy citizens often invested in a large collection of gilded items, from candle holders and chairs to mirrors and frames for works of art.

These days, many consider gilded frames to be works of art in their own right. Whether you own an antique, heirloom gilded frame or have recently purchased a brand new one, you’ll want to invest a bit of time and effort to maintain this special type of frame. Caring for your frame now will allow it to maintain its value, should you decide to sell it in the future. Otherwise, proper care will keep your frame glittering and attractive for years to come as it hangs proudly in your home or work space.

Why Gilded Frames?

Gold has long been associated with wealth, respect, and beauty. Many people admire the appearance of gold items, so using it to frame prized possessions makes perfect sense. To create that delicate gold frame look, gilding is required. This process is practical for a number of reasons. First and foremost, gilding is more cost-effective than solid gold, which is highly expensive. Gold is currently priced at over $1,200 per ounce. When considering an item as large as a mirror or picture frame, crafting the object out of solid gold could cost thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Even if solid gold construction were financially feasible, gold is a soft metal. There's a reason you don't see gold used for structural purposes. Its softness makes it pliable, but not very dependable for bearing weight. That same malleability makes gold an ideal medium for the delicate gilding process. Overall, gilding offers all the beauty of real gold without the durability issues raised by solid gold construction.

Properly Caring for Gilded Frames

Whether you purchased or inherited your gilded frame, it’s important to take care of this unique and valuable asset. If you acquired it in an already aged condition, you may want to enlist a framing professional to help maintain its quality. The frame should be evaluated for signs of damage or deterioration. Issues with the underlying construction or flaking of the adhesive layers can cause detract from the item’s appearance and increase the likelihood of future damage. Weak wood and other structural issues can often be mitigated by a knowledgeable professional. If the gold leaf itself is damaged, an expert can apply new leaf as needed -- a process called in-gilding.

Some kinds of gilding can be washed away with water, making them susceptible to water damage. Others are so thin that the gold can easily chip or scrape off. Handling these items with care and restricting exposure to the elements is critical to their longevity. Gilded items with a bronze finish can oxidize, ultimately turning into an unattractive brown-green tone often associated with aged bronze. When in doubt, professional evaluation is always your best option. Full restoration may be best to return a gilded frame to its former glory.

Typically, the less you handle a gilded frame, the longer it will last. Hang it somewhere it can be appreciated without remaining overtly susceptible to leaks, nicks, and other issues. Use a soft cloth and a gentle hand to keep dust off your frame and prevent it from dulling. A cotton swab can reach crevices and details. If the lower layers are damaged, dusting can cause the leaf to peel off, so use caution. Using your best judgment is the best way to ensure a lifetime of gilded frame elegance!

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