I am a furniture and panel gilder, with a background in bookbinding. When I first saw someone using a gilding screen frame for book edge gilding about ten years ago, I knew it would be a great tool for my work as well.
Most people do not know about this incredibly practical tool, but once I learned how to make one it became indispensable in my studio. I always provide a gilding screen frame in my student’s tool kit when I teach gilding, and when I attend conferences or conduct workshops people invariably approach and ask “What is this thing?”
In an effort to answer that question and to share what has been shared with me, I am offering this explanation of the frame and its history, how to use it, and how to make one of your own.
What is a gilding screen?
A gilding screen frame is a tool that allows a gilder to temporarily attach a piece of leaf—whole or cut—to silk so it can be easily transferred to the object to be gilded. It is particularly useful on flat or broad cover surfaces. But this is the best part: because the leaf lays smooth and flat on the translucent silk it is easy to sight for accurate placement onto the surface being gilt. If a gilder has multiple screens you can ‘load’ the screens with leaf and have them ready for laying pieces in succession quickly and accurately. The screen can be used for traditional water gilding and glass gilding. Though I haven’t used it on oil or water-based size gilding, I have heard of others who have had success with this as well.
Click the tabs above to learn more about the gilding screen’s history, use, and how to make your own.
Interested in learning more?
Sarah Pringle, 2015. An edited version of this post is in the Society of Gilders journal publication The Gilders Tip, Volume 29 No. 1, Winter 2015.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Urban J. Billmeier for information on current use of the screen in manufacturing; Dan Grenier, furniture maker, for help with the frames-making portion of this article; Nick Rege-Colt and Mason Rapport for the drawing of the screen frame; John Polak Photography for the current images of the screens; Peter Geraty, binder and teacher, for introducing me to screen frames; Celia Jeffries for her editing expertise; and The Society of Gilders for its support and promotion of education in the gilding arts.
There is a bit of a mystery as to the exact origin of this tool.
Urban J. Billmeier of W&B Gold Leaf, LLC, manufacturers of Wehrung & Billmeier products told me they have used the gilding frame in their business since they started making roll gold about 1910. W.H. Coe Mfg. Co. patented the process in the 1890’s. When their patent ran out W&B began production of roll gold and employed Gold Beaters who had moved from eastern U.S. companies and brought the gilding frame process with them. Billmeier pointed out that although W&B may have made many improvements to the production of roll gold over the years, they have never stopped using the gilding screen.
The gilding screen is used to transfer whole leaf from the book, or beating mold directly onto the roll paper. Urban J. outlines several steps, which vary according to the paper being used. First, glycerin is applied to the gilding screen silk in a small line along the right side of the silk to pick up the leading edge of the leaf. The screen is then held with both hands and gently lowered onto the leaf using a slight amount of pressure to focus the glycerin on the leaf. The leaf is then raised and transferred in a continuous motion from left to right and down onto the paper. As the leaf is being set into the proper position the Spooler [person making roll gold] blows downward on the leaf. This both releases the leaf from the lace and sets it into place. It requires a level of dexterity, practice, and patience for the Spooler to place leaf exactly. This, in most cases, is exactly 1/8 inch from the edge of the roll paper. Each leaf overlaps the previously positioned leaf by exactly 1/16 inch.
Billmeier says the gilding screen is a subtle tool that allows the Spooler to pick up a whole leaf without damaging it, and allows her to place the leaf exactly where desired by viewing the surface and the leaf simultaneously through the silk.
Another reference to the use of a screen frame is in J.A. Wilson’s book Modern Practice in Leather Manufacture(1). Mr. Wilson acknowledges the work of Dr. Henry Rose, of Allied Kid Co. in Delaware, who received a patent on a frame for such use in the 1930’s. Fig. 1, 2 and 3 [from Wilson’s book] show the frames in use in the ‘leaf-laying rooms’ where gold and silver (actually aluminum) leathers were made at Allied Kid Co. in the mid 20th century.
1. Wilson, John Arthur. Modern Practice in Leather Manufacture. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1941. Page 607.
How to Use
Tools and Materials
- Loose/ surface leaf
- Gilding cushion (you could pick up out of a book though this is harder to do)
- Gilding knife
- Small bowl of clean water and sponge
- Gilding screen frame(s)
- Moisturizer such as un-petroleum jelly or shea butter (something with no chemical additives)
- Damp cloth
- Cotton balls
- Isopropyl or denatured alcohol
- Set up a clean, well lit work space with tools, materials and object to be gilded.
- Place tension stick at the top edge of the gilding screen. Check that the silk is clean and dry (see below for cleaning).
- Prepare your non-writing hand with a very thin coat of moisturizer for tack (I use unpetroleum jelly) by taking a small dab of moisturizer and rubbing it onto the back of your hand so it is thin, thin, thin – hardly there. Wipe your finger with the damp cloth to remove excess. Use as little moisturizer as possible—too much tack from the moisturizer can leave residue that causes discoloration of the leaf and hinders a second gild or subsequent toning applications. Start with very little, you can always reapply if the leaf is not adhering to the silk.
- Lightly wipe the gilding cushion with a wrung out sponge to clean and discharge static.
- Transfer a piece of leaf onto the cushion, cut to desired size if necessary and flatten it with a quick breath.
- Rub your index finger over the back of your hand a couple times to pick up some tack from the moisturizer. Remember, thin application! With that index finger “charge the screen frame” with moisturizer by gently rubbing back and forth onto the silk in the approximate area the leaf will be placed (you don’t need to cover all the silk. It will build up in areas not used and cause the problems mentioned above).
- To discharge any static build up on the screen, breathe on the silk with a moist exhaling breath (as if you were trying to see your breath on a cold day).
- Site the gilding screen so that the top edge of the silk is about 1/8 inch below the top edge of the leaf. Lower the screen with the intention of ever so slightly rocking the screen back to front to pick up the leaf. You want to be able to see the left and right sides of the leaf clearly, but don’t let it flop.
- Apply gilding liquor to the prepared clay surface, sight the leaf on the object to be gilded with the intention of ever so slightly rocking the screen top to bottom to deposit the leaf. You want to ‘kiss’ the surface of the gilding liquor on the clay not press the screen down. Try to avoid moving the screen straight down, especially with a whole piece of leaf, because that can cause a large bubble to form in the leaf which can result in a holiday (area where the leaf did not stick).
- Check the silk for gilding liquor residue, if necessary gently dry with a clean cloth or cotton just for this purpose. Screens should be dry before you load leaf onto them.
- Screens do not need to be charged with moisturizer every time. Try to pick up leaf and if there isn’t enough tack to lay flat on the silk securely, recharge the silk with moisturizer. Conversely, if the leaf is not releasing from the silk when you try to lay it on the liquored clay, it probably has too much tack. Clean the silk, let it dry, and re-charge the screen with a lighter application of moisturizer.
- Cushions only need to be dampened to clean and/or discharge static as needed, not every time.
To Clean and Store a Screen
Generally I clean screens after the leaf laying part of a project is completed. Lightly dampen a cotton ball with alcohol (or the solvent for the type of size you are using) and gently rub the silk back and forth to clean. Repeat until the cotton is clean. Let the silk dry. When not in use store the tension stick in the bottom of the screen and keep screens away from heat and sunlight so the silk doesn’t degrade.
Making the Frame
- Mill wood to ¼’’ thick by 1’’ wide by the length of each part
- Cross cut pieces to length: Sides 2 @ 6’’; Backs 2 @ 5’’
- Cut dado’s in the sides 1/8’’ wide x 1/8’’ deep
- Cut tongue of back pieces to fit dado’s
- Cut the pattern on the sides; make sure there is a right & left
- Glue up with yellow woodworking glue, check for square
- Clean up, break edges with fine sandpaper to round the corners
- Make a removable tension stick – 3/16’’ x 5/16’’ x 4-3/4” (same as width inside of the back piece)
- Make a spacer stick that is 3/16’’ x 5/16’’ x 4-5/8” for covering the frame with silk.
Covering the Frame
- White 100% silk organza (or fabric that you can see through, can be stretched, glued to wood and cleaned with the solvent for the type of size you are using.)
- Rabbit skin glue and brush. (I use rabbit skin glue because it is completely reversible and compatible with traditional water gilding materials. Non reversible PVA can also be used, but will require more work to prepare the frame when the silk needs to be replaced.)
- Break away blade, exacto knife or scalpel to trim excess silk
- Cut silk oversized, at least 9’’ x 9’’
- Pull threads to make the piece of silk at a right angle and on grain
- Keeping the piece of silk square, fold over an edge 1/2’’and iron to crease. This will be your top edge and the selvage will be on the inside of the frame.
- Start with a side and put a thin layer of glue on the outside edge, line up the top folded edge of the silk with top of the screen frame, keeping everything square. Glue the silk down, adding extra glue on top of the silk if needed. Keep the glue only on the outside edge.
- Remove excess glue with your finger or dry cloth and let it completely dry.
- Put the smaller (4-5/8” long) of the two spacer sticks in the frame
- Placing the frame on the side that’s already glued, weigh it down or clamp it so it doesn’t fall over
- Put glue on the side facing up and pull the piece of silk up onto that side, add glue on top of the silk and work it until it adheres securely to the wood edge and is taut.
- Place weight on this newly glued side or clamp in place. Let it completely dry.
- Trim top edges of excess silk on the sides.
- Remove spacer stick for applying silk and put in the longer tension stick. Sand it to length if it is a bit too long.
- Glue off the back edge and pull the silk up onto that edge until the silk is smooth and taut and the top edge of the silk is square not curved or dipped. Add glue on top of silk and work it down until it adheres securely to the wood edge and is taut (using a towel to put the frame on helps to keep it steady during this step).
- Let dry completely.
- Check it over and glue any areas that might not have adhered. Trim all excess silk.
- The silk covering the frame is reinforcing, it helps strengthen the back joint.