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Goldbeating – The Art of Delicate Gold-working

The use of gold for art has been well-known since the ancient times, not only due to the attributed value given to the metal itself, but due to its uncanny properties such as its resistance to tarnishing, and its unparalleled beauty. One of the most delicate forms of gold-working is known as gilding, in which thin sheets of gold are beaten or applied unto a surface using specialized glue. However, the creation of these thin sheets also curtails a very complex and laborious process known as goldbeating. Goldbeating is the process of creating thin sheets of gold that can be used for gilding or gold leaf. This process once involved hours of laborious manual work. Dated to as far back as ancient Egypt, gwoldbeating for use in gilding and gold leaf once took many weeks to complete, often involving many individuals who would hammer out tiny bars of gold into paper-thin sheets that would then be used to gild everything from dinnerware to furniture. To this day, the process of goldbeating has changed very little, and it is only with the help of machinery that the process is somewhat cut-short of the original amount of time it once took to create nearly transparent sheets of gold leaf.

The ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to discover the amazing resilience of gold and its ability to retain its shape despite being hammered into very thin sheets. Records of ancient gold beating methods were rumored to take weeks before completion, making gold leaf twice as precious not only because it was made of nearly pure (23 karat) gold, but also due to the labor-intensive process that it took to create gold leaf. Because gold could be hammered into a sheet so thin the sun could shine through it, it became the perfect decorating medium for sundry items, and later on, books and even personal accoutrements. The ancient process of goldbeating once involved the use of large, heavy, evenly shaped stones that would be used to hammer out gold. Later on, the stones were replaced with more modern tools such as hammers, and later on, mechanical rollers, but the process of slowly beating out the gold until it became very thin still remains the same. Every era in history has, at one time or the other, achieved a zenith in the goldbeating art, with ancient Egypt, the Renaissance and the era of the Sun King, Louis XIV being some of the most notable.[1]

Goldbeating was originally done with the use of large rocks as hammers, later to be replaced by tools made of cast iron. In goldbeating, a tiny amount of gold would be melted and poured into a mold, which was then cooled to solidify it. It then taken out of the mold and hammered down with in a solid marble or granite base. In the olden days, this base was usually placed atop the fell trunk of a tree to allow for a steady base capable of withstanding the impact. This process was later refined by the addition of metal rollers that would be used to thin the gold in preparation for later beating. Because modern implements allowed for thinner gold leaf, there is a difference (in terms of mere millimeters of thinness) between ancient gold leaf and more modern gold leaf. The modern process now commonly employs rollers for prep the gold into a thin sheet, which is then cut into one-inch squares and interleaved in parchment.[2] Far older examples once used the membrane of ox’s intestines, still known as goldbeater’s skin,[3] to interleave the thin one-inch sheets and prevent it from sticking to any surface. The primary process of interleaving and beating is referred to as the cutch. A single sheet of ox skin or parchment can hold as much as 150 gold squares, and is then beaten by hand following a rhythmic pattern that could take hours to do. This is followed by further beating in another similar packet known as a shoder which contains 1, 500 gold squares that have been beaten into a single sheet. This is then beaten to join the soft sheets by force, until the final process of cutting the paper-thin sheets in with a wooden tool known as a wagon. After this the sheets are placed unto a mat coated with gypsum powder called a mold. The addition of powdered gypsum prevents any possibility of sticking. A final beating by hand is then performed, after which the sheets are cut into tiny squares and are packaged for use in gilding and gold leaf. The whole process is meant to create a whole unbroken sheet of gold 1/ 250,000th of an inch thick, allowing the gold to adhere unto surfaces easily without the need for very little pressure. This thinning not only allows gold sheets to be made with very little amounts of gold, but it also allows for finer results during gilding.

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Content researched and created by Alexander Leonhart for ©

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