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The Lesser Great Gilded Reindeer: Gilding 101

This week has already gotten away from me and it’s barely begun; I suspect I won’t be catching up to do my regular posts (or at least not all of them) this week or next. We leave for New Zealand December 20, next Tuesday, and I’m not sure what my vacation internet connectivity will be like.

On to the long-sought after reindeer and the gilding adventure: I have some handy tips if you decide to follow in my footsteps and gild something. My upfront advice: try liquid gilding or stick with spray paint.

Anyway …

Before Thanksgiving, I came across a paper mâché reindeer head (really, half a head and a rack) in an AC Moore in Richmond, VA, 3 hours from where I live, and recklessly left it in the store, unpurchased. With Christmas approaching, I kept thinking about this reindeer and how nice it would look in silver on my front door instead of my usual yarn ball wreath.

Balls & bells & beady crabapples: finished before Christmas!!! #2012xmas
Ho hum. This yarn ball wreath has graced my holiday door for 4 long years now.

After Thanksgiving, I looked in my local AC Moore for the deer: no dice. I tried Michael’s: no dice again, but they had all of the supplies to do gilding, which is what I wanted to do with this reindeer. I found that I could order the deer from Michael’s online, but they only sell them in 3s and what would I do with the other 2 reindeer? I gave up and purchased a consolation decoration.

But last Monday a Christmas miracle happened: I stopped by JoAnn (more known for fabric & sewing than general crafting) and they had one remaining precious paper mâché half reindeer head!!! And 4 other reindeer … uh … heads with necks (more like what you’d see mounted as a trophy). I scooped up the half reindeer and after searching high and low for the gilding supplies, just bought the reindeer head and made another trip to Michael’s for the gilding supplies.

The precious reindeer head and the gilding supplies

Supplies: for gilding something with actual metal (and not cheating with liquid gilding or spray paint), you need the gilding sheets (thin sheets of metal, available in silver & gold), gilding adhesive (I suspect this is just diluted white glue, more diluted than what’s used for Mod Podge/découpage), a set of brushes for spreading glue and getting the gilding sheets to stick, and the thing you’ll be gilding.

Gilding Step 1: As you can see, I gathered all the supplies and also, for once, covered my work space (aka the dining room table) with a protective layer of newsprint, which turned out to be a bad idea by step 3.

Step 2: Paint the thing you want to gild with glue so the gilding sheets have something to stick to; without the glue, you’d just have little bits of silver or gold floating everywhere. (Even with the glue, that’s going to happen.) So I painted the reindeer with glue and laid it carefully down on the paper to dry until it was tacky.

The gluey reindeer

The downside to the paper on my work surface is that the back of the reindeer’s antlers rested on the paper as they dried to tacky. To avoid découpaging the antlers to the paper, I laid some clear plastic wrap down thinking that would be enough to separate the two. Had I started painting the head with glue and moved up, I probably wouldn’t’ve had a problem, but I started with the antlers and moved down. I did realize that the antlers were sticking to the plastic wrap a little to much before the antlers were ripped and before the plastic wrap was permanently fixed.

Tip 1: If you’re gilding something large or complex break it up into sections and fully gild each section before moving on to the next so the whole thing isn’t covered in glue all at once. I’m lucky I didn’t get glue on what I was wearing, the table, the paper, or the cats, who were curious, of course. Also, I did find that I was rushing step 3 to beat the glue before it dried too much.

Applying the gilding sheet to the tacky reindeer and trying to patch all the areas where the gild didn’t reach on the first go around

Step 3: Take one of the wax sheets with a gilding sheet stuck to it (with static!), position it over your now tacky/sticky object with the metal side down, press down with your fingers and/or one of the brushes to adhere as much of the sheet as possible to your object, then gently lift the wax paper away from the object, and gently smooth the metal on the object with one of the brushes. Soon, you’ll have little bits of metal all over yourself, your work surface, the brushes, the cats, and, if you’re doing it right, the object you’re gilding.

This seems like an easy thing to do until you realize that it’s a little more complex and difficult with 3 dimensional features, like antlers, eyes, ears, and nostrils. In some of the hard-to-reach areas, I peeled the metal away from the backing and carefully placed it over the area I was working on, then used the brush to nudge the gilding into place. In other areas, I centered the gilding on the sheet over an ungilded area and rubbed with my finger or fingernail until it stuck.

Tip 2: Use spray paint or liquid gilding instead of glue & gilding sheets because it’s so difficult to apply the sheets evenly over indentations, bulges, and curves. My finished reindeer is not entirely gilded; there are still spots on it where the brown paper shows through, but the eye is so distracted by all the shiny silver that you have to look really hard to find those areas. So if you’re seeking perfection, go with spray paint or liquid gilding.

This was about 2 hours of gilding, including set up and a bathroom break or two

Tip 3: See Tip 1. Tip 1 also allows you to take frequent breaks so that if/when you get frustrated, you can step away instead of feeling like you have to beat the clock before the glue goes from tacky to dry. I think there’s a 2-3 hour window of tackiness before the glue dries too much and I had begun to hit it by the time I realized I needed to step away from the project or shred it into tiny, tiny pieces (I only have so much patience, you see).

Step 4: Allow the completely gilded object to dry 2 hours or (ideally, I think) overnight and then go over it again with one of the brushes to brush all of the extra gilding off. I’ll tell you right now that I skipped this step. I may or may not go back and do this; the reindeer looked good enough and I was really tired of brushing it.

Tip 4: Do Step 4 outside if you can. The gilding gets everywhere, even if you’re careful. I think despite my precautions & despite how careful I was, I will have gilding stuck to my dining room table forever now. It also ending up on the cats, the dogs, in my hair, on the kids, and probably in our dinner. Step 4 is going to create even more itty bitty bits, so go outside if you can.

The Lesser Great Gilded Reindeer on my front door

Step 5 (optional): Seal your gilded object with a coat of clear finish, preferably spray paint. I’ll probably do this at some point in the future; I spent too much time on this to not add another layer of protection to it.

Tip 5: Skip steps 1-4 and just use spray paint.

Ta da!

I’m calling the finished reindeer The Lesser Great Gilded Reindeer because in my mind, The Greater Great Gilded Reindeer is either a gilded paper mâché trophy head or gilded version of an entire reindeer. Maybe next year I’ll attempt a Greater Great Gilded Reindeer (with spray paint, of course).


6 responses to “The Lesser Great Gilded Reindeer: Gilding 101”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. What an interesting project. The LGGR looks fab and festive! 🙂

    1. Thank you! It was interesting to decorate, but next time: spray paint or liquid gilding. 🙂

  2. PaperPuff Avatar

    I love the yarn wreath, it looks super! But, even though it was obviously not a barrel of laughs, the reindeer is still rather fabulous, right? And so many possibilities for changing the look over a few years too.

    1. The reindeer was definitely worth it – it looks exactly the way I thought it would and even though it was kind of a slog, I’d do it again (with the sheets, not spray paint or liquid gilding, although I’d like to see how those look in comparison).

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