A yellow precious metal, gold was once the measure of our national wealth, the currency benchmark. It is a solid most reflective metal, and though it should be used sparingly, as in gilding, it should nevertheless be used. Gold leaf is a hammered, flattened form, gold foil a finer type of gold leaf. Beating gold from lump to the finest leaf is a highly technical and respected skill handed down from father to son.
A little gold does go a long way. In an evening garden, gold responds to the merest suggestion of light and looks amazing as the setting sun catches it.
In the home, gilding lifts a dark corner, or any wall, and becomes a neutral–leading the eye into the picture or beyond. Gilded mirrors and picture frames are at their best with flickering candle light and soft lighting, even a little gold on a lamp base will pick up and reflect the lamplight. A dusting of gold is often enough to create this effect.
Gold leaf or foil comes in small books just over 3″ (7cm) square, each containing 25 leaves. The gold leaf is so fine that a deep breath can blow it off the page.
The stretch of gold is mind-boggling. I have watched the beating process several times and I always expect it to run out–but it never does.
- Pure gold is melted and mixed/alloyed with copper to make it stronger: 22 carat (or karat, a unit for measuring gold purity, 24 being the unalloyed, purest form) contains the least amount of copper, and so on; it is then rolled–milled–to 1/1000 of an inch
- The beater takes one inch square of the milled gold and places it on a skin (a fine membrane once made from ox intestine) and into a 4” cutch–150 such membranes make up a cutch.
- The cutch is bound with several bands of parchment – the only known material that will withstand the hours of beating.
- The cutch is set onto a piece of solid stone and beaten with a 15 pound iron hammer, at a rhythmic beat of around 70 blows a minute; in just one hour, this 1” square of gold will spread to 4”x4″. To keep the spread even the pack is regularly turned
- Each of these squares is then cut into 4 and placed one by one into a larger pack called a shoder, capable of holding 1,500 skins.
- This pack is beaten in the same way for about three hours, until each square has spread to 5″x5″.
- These sheets are then cut again into 4–at this point the gold is so thin it can be smoothed by blowing on it–and leaved into a final 1,500 pack of skins called the mold. This time each skin has been dusted with a gypsum powder to prevent the very fine gold from sticking to the skin.
- The final beating uses an 8lb (….kg) hammer and takes about 5 hours, producing gold leaf of a thickness of 1/250.000″.
So a single one inch 1/1000….” thick square of gold has produced foil of around 230 square inches–or 2.5 square metres!!!