I’m working on Cohen’s invitation mask from BioShock and decided that I would make it pre fall of rapture as opposed to the beat to hell splicer masks that you see the rest of the game. You’ll notice pretty quickly that almost all of the tutorials online about gold leaf assume you are laying down entire sheets and covering something like a bowl or a plate. This is decidedly not what I’m trying to gild. I very likely did this the hard way, so feel free to use this as a lesson on how not to gild.
The mask itself looks like this in game and is at a point where everything in Rapture is still very clean and sophisticated. After finding a model on Thingiverse that I could use for the base, I got to work finishing and detailing it. Once that was done, I decided to forgo painting the embellishments and go full on gold leaf. I’ve made smarter decisions to be honest.
The gold leaf is a composite which means it’s made of copper and zinc instead of real gold, but it also means it’s $.25 instead of $10.00 per sheet. The glue is called Leaf Size and is essentially a water based PVA glue that sets up in about an hour. The brushes are for spreading the glue and flaking away extra material. Side note, this stuff turns into glitter as you work with it and you’ll end up looking like you rolled around the floor of a hobby lobby if you aren’t careful.
The first thing to know about applying gold leaf is that the leaf only sticks where the size has been applied (I’m not calling it that anymore, it’s glue). So take your time applying the glue, use a good paint brush and work in thin coats. The blue gets tacky in about 10 minutes and stays that way for 30 minutes or more, so you have plenty of time to work.
While the glue is setting up and getting tacky, you need to plan how you are going to apply the leaf. Do NOT make the mistake I did and try to apply an entire sheet at once. Most of the videos you find online do that, but they are usually working with big flat surfaces.
Cut your leaf into strips or small squares that cover the area you are working on but not much else. This is a HUGE quality of life improvement and you’ll waste far less leaf. I just use a razor blade to cut the bits down to size. Be sure to wear latex gloves so you don’t screw up the leaf.
Once your glue has become tacky but not wet (you can test by touching the glue that you painted on with the back of a finger and see if it sticks) it’s time to apply the leaf
Applying the leaf is a process where you need to move slow, but it isn’t difficult work. The idea is to lay the leaf directly on where you want it to adhere, press all around it so the glue gets a chance to stick and then lift the wax paper backing off of the leaf without sliding or moving the gold. Place, Press, Lift. That’s it.
If some of the gold doesn’t stick and you get little cracks, it’s fine. Just reapply additional leaf on that spot, odds are the glue is still tacky and the leaf is so thin that, later when we burnish it, you won’t be able to see any seams. If the glue has already setup, just dab a little bit back on and start that area over again. DO NOT try to sand it down or remove the leaf, you’ll end up with a roughly textured surface and a ton of work to do to smooth it back out.
The next part takes a very gentle hand and again, a bit of time. Using a foam or soft bristle brush, you’re going to wipe away the loose leaf leaving only the stuff that has stuck to the glue. This is messy. Do this over a trash can or risk looking like you coach cheer on the weekends.
Once everything has dried (overnight), all that’s left is to burnish the gold and seal it. Burnishing is a really fancy word for “wipe gently with a cotton cloth to smooth and shine the gold”. So do that. Sealing is as simple as using a gloss clear coat, poly or varnish, to keep the leaf from tarnishing. Since this is a composite and not real gold, it will react to the environment if you don’t seal it up. Be sure to use a gloss or all that shiny gold will become dull and look like gold paint, which is ok I guess , but probably not what you’re going for.