Gilded metal gate for the Herrenhäuser Gärten in Hannover, Germany.

"Gilding" is a general term that covers a number of different techniques to apply gold - either in fine leaf or powder form - to another object. The techniques include mechanical gilding and a variety of chemical gilding methods.

When an object has a layer of gold applied like this, it is referred to as "gilt". Other metals could be used as well, but one of the easiest to work with and most highly valued is, of course, gold.

Again, the physical properties of gold allow it to be used without requiring special equipment or high temperatures, and so it has been used for thousands of years by many different civilizations.

Detail of the side and handle of a white porcelain urn with decorative gilt trim.

Detail of a gilt porcelain urn.

Decorating an object with gold can make it appear like an object is solid gold or gold can be used as a delicate accent; both options give the appearance of greater wealth and importance. Because gold is naturally soft, applying it over another material allows an object to be both strong and beautiful.

Gold can be applied to paintings, furniture, sculptures, books, ceramics, trophies, buildings and even people!

Detail of the photographic portrait showing the woman’s gold-painted earrings, necklace and brooch.

This image is called an ambrotype – a type of photography popular in the 1850s. Hand-painting gold over photographed jewellery was a common practice highlighting the wealth and prosperity of the subjects.

NSM History Collection: 76.56.3

Gold can also be ground into a fine powder and used as a pigment in paint. This is how gold jewellery accents were added to historic photographs.

A gilded frame encases a watercolour painting of a stamp mill.

The watercolour painting Excelsior (late Chicago) Mill, Goldenville, 1871 by Frederick Nichols framed with a gilt frame.

AGNS: 2011.269

Gilded frames have been popular for a very long time and while the technique has not changed significantly, the gilding process is an art in itself requiring both time and patience needed to gild even a simple frame.

Gilding in Action

Check out this video demonstrating how to gild a frame.

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Download low-res mp4 - 13.5 MB


A wooden frame has been finely sanded and a layer of gesso (white) and clay bole (red) has been applied to the surface. Gilder's water (very dilute rabbit skin glue) is applied and the gold leaf is picked up from the gilder's pad with a gilder's tip, made of squirrel hair.

The gold leaf is pressed lightly into place with a brush. And then the process repeats.

In water gilding, the gold leaf is then burnished with an agate burnisher. Burnishing blends the seams and smooths out the leaf.

The gold leaf that isn't adhered to the frame is brushed away.Gilders keep the bits and pieces for repairs.