The Gift Of Gilt

May 12, 1991|By Beth Smith

Baltimore artist R. Wayne Reynolds is not a magician. But he can perform what seems like magic. Taking a tiny piece of flat, paper-like, 22-karat gold, he rubs it between his fingers and presto -- no gold. The shiny piece of deep yellow metal is gone.

But Mr. Reynolds, a graduate of the Maryland Institute of Art with a degree in painting, isn't in the business of making gold vanish. He is a gilder who specializes in the conservation and restoration of gilded objects. He also designs, builds and gilds original frames and makes reproductions of period frames.

Plus, he climbs ladders and balances on scaffolds to gild architectural features like crown moldings and ceiling medallions. With his team of gilders, he has worked at the White House, the Capitol, the National Gallery of Art, Blair House, Government House in Annapolis, and for numerous private collectors.

"Gilding is not brushing bronze powder on something to create a gold finish," says Mr. Reynolds. He does not paint objects with a liquid form of gold. He very carefully lays, piece by piece, solid, but very, very thin sheets of gold on frames, furniture or decorative trims and moldings, usually, but not exclusively, made of wood. While today gilders work to create special looks and finishes with gilding, traditionally the goal was to make the object look like it was made of gold.

"I use gold so thin, 1/250,000 of an inch thick, that when you rub it hard, it just literally disappears into the air," says Mr. Reynolds, standing in the gilding room of his quiet loft-studio on Falls Road near 36th Street.

But although the gold sheets are extremely thin, they are gold. And the use of the noble metal, combined with the technical embellishing process, makes gilding rather exclusive. For example, Mr. Reynolds makes a gilded reproduction of a 19th-century frame for $2,000. A Reynolds original gilded mirror with a shell motif costs about $5,000.

However, the tiny piece of gold Mr. Reynolds just rubbed out of existence is probably worth less than a penny because it has been hammered cobweb-thin by a process called goldbeating, an ancient craft developed 5,000 years ago by the Egyptians. Today, with the use of modern machines and the skill of the goldbeater, 1 ounce of gold can cover 175 to 200 square feet.

The product of goldbeating is a 3-inch square of gold, called gold leaf. It is so thin that a sigh will send it sailing across the room. The slightest touch of a finger will tear it. If a gold leaf gets a wrinkle on its surface, gilders blow it away.

Twenty-five gold leaves come packaged very carefully between pieces of very fine tissue paper, bound like a small book. Each gold leaf costs about a dollar. A gilder might use 200 to 300 gold leaves to restore the golden beauty to the ceiling of the caucus room in the U.S. Senate's Russell Building.

On a quick tour of his studio, Mr. Reynolds explains that he used oil gilding on the caucus room ceiling. Water gilding is also a traditional process for applying gold leaf. Water gilding produces a bright, shiny look with a high mirror finish. Oil gilding has a matte finish.

Both procedures require patient, painstaking applications of gesso -- a mixture of calcium carbonate or chalk, rabbit skin glue, and water. The gesso goes over carved wood to make the material extremely smooth so the gold will go down correctly and give the appearance of solid metal.

From seven to 15 layers of gesso are applied with a brush in a time-consuming process that demands that each layer dry before the next is applied.

Water and oil gilding require the use of the same three simple tools. Today, these tools are laid out on a table in the gilding room where Mr. Reynolds is going to demonstrate water gilding for a visitor. On the table are the gilder's cushion, a flat wooden frame, about 6 inches by 10 inches, covered by a tightly drawn piece of chamois; the gilder's knife, similar to a regular kitchen knife or spatula, but with a long, straight blade about 10 inches long; and, the gilder's tip, a small, flat brush made of sable held between two pieces of cardboard. Within arm's reach are a plastic cup of water, a second soft brush and a row of tiny ball-like ornaments from a classic Federal mirror.

As the demonstration begins, Mr. Reynolds gets a tissue-paper book, places it on the gilder's cushion, and opens to a page containing a gold leaf. Taking the knife, he cuts a small piece of gold leaf from the 3-inch square. Then, in a movement that seems as natural as breathing, he lightly rubs the sable brush across his forehead and touches the gilder's tip to the small piece of gold leaf. The thinner-than-thin metal quickly clings to the soft hairs of the brush.

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