View Full Version : Varnish over gold leaf

08-05-2001, 07:19 AM
Using the search engine on the above subject, I found two threads, but I could use a little more specific information.

We've got a Trumpy hauled out on the rail here for about a week. The owner wants me to touch up some bad spots in his varnish and then put refresher coats on the whole transom which has a large amount of gold leaf lettering. I asked the sign painter who came out and did Sarah's transom and he said no problem and that it was actually a good idea to varnish over the gold leaf. The two threads I found make it clear it can be done.


1. The sign painter said to lightly scuff up the gold leaf with a scotch brite pad. Is that really the best thing to do?

2. There are two areas in the lettering that adjoin completely bare spots. Normally, I'd protect the lettering with tape while I sanded the adjoining bare spot. Will tape (good 3M stuff) lift or damage the gold leaf?

3. The lettering appears to be at least a couple of years old and has some discolered spots - some of which may wash off or clean up, but there's one datk greyish black area that almost looks like it's "turned" - not maybe the right word, but like cheap jewlery "turns" is what I'm trying to describe. Any ideas?

Thanks in advance.

- M

B. Burnside
08-05-2001, 10:26 AM
This reply is based on experience with a relatively small amount of gold leaf - about 32 feet of cove strip. I have leafed it twice in 13 years.

One reason I had to do it again so soon was that someone tried to mask the leaf while painting around it, and the masking tape ripped it right off. So, no, I would say don't tape it. In subsequent years, I have taped very carefully the outer 1/16 of an inch or so of the paint just outside the cove, to keep the paint from straying over the gold. But I find that after the gold is varnished (and varnish cured of course)it is easier to cut the paint in around it by hand and wipe off any straying paint as I go. For your bare spots, maybe you could lay some paper over the gold and tape over that, making your tape reach past the gold. Or you could just sand very carefully.

Regarding scuffing the gold before revarnishing: Leaf is incredibly thin stuff, that is the wonder of gold. If you are putting another layer of varnish over it, I would say the careful cleaning you would do in your prep would be enough to prepare the surface to take more varnish. The only way I would go anywhere near my leaf with anything scratchy would be if there was new varnish in shiny condition over it. Then it would be a matter of preparing the varnish for another coat, without sanding through to the gold.

There are several grades of gold leaf available. The real stuff is very expensive, of course. But art supply stores usually carry someting that looks like it but isn't, and that may be what you are working with. That would tarnish like cheap jewellery, eventually. You could probably lift that spot with tape and lay another bit of gold or pretend gold over the spot, and finish with varnish as with the rest.

On my little strip I used gold size to lay it and also to seal it the first time. I think that was a mistake. Varnish is much more durable. The second round I carefully scrubbed away peeling varnish and gold size, but left whatever gold remained. The second layer went down in varnish. I used the paper-backed leaf (transfer gold), and cut the squares into strips the width of my cove. When the varnish was tacky, I lay the gold face down in the tacky varnish and gently rubbed the paper backing until the gold stuck to the varnish. When that was dry I gave it another couple of coats of varnish, and continue to add more varnish each year.

One nifty variation that I would use if I were doing it again is to lay the gold in good quality red oil-base paint. The gold is opaque, but any tiny irregularities look deep and rich, rather than white.

On texture: the first layer of gold went down quite smooth. With my technique of laying more over the first layer, the second layer is not so flat. But since it's gold, it still looks good, in my opinion. I guess with your boat name, you would need to consider making the texture of the new gold match the old.

Bob Cleek
08-05-2001, 02:23 PM
Barb is right on. If it tarnishes, it is NOT really gold leaf. You should be able to lay some more on top and burnish it lightly with a cotton ball. However, if you don't use the same stuff, the patch will not match. The beauty of real gold leaf is that it always matches... pretty much, as long as the gold is the same color. DON'T try to scratch the gold leaf... as said, it will cut through, no question about it.

08-05-2001, 02:48 PM
Real gold leaf should never be varnished over. Gold leaf will not tarnish and will protect the size underneath. The edges are usually outlined with a very fine black signpainters paint, so you can paint or varnish up to that. But if you varnish over gold leaf, the varnish will turn yellow and crack because it is over METAL and the metal heats up spoiling varnish. If there are spots failing, clean with soap and water, lay down new size over the bad parts and re-leaf. Good Luck!

08-06-2001, 11:53 AM
The treatment for varnished mahogany transoms in our family (30 yrs worth) was to start with three coats of varnish sanded w/ 220 grit between (never a poly urethane), sand again w/ 220, have the sign guy in to do his "magic" with the real gold leaf and outline painting, follow up with 2 - 3 more coats of varnish. The sanding over the gold leaf for the first couple of coats has to be incredibly light so as not to scratch through it. I do not think that you could do any sort of 'scuffing' to unprotected leaf without damaging it. We would then recoat with two coats each spring. We never experienced any sort of lifting , cracking, or separating of the leaf. Our transoms were always beautiful - This is what worked for us.

Nicholas Carey
08-09-2001, 01:53 AM
Originally posted by Ironmule:
My question is: About how much does a transom's worth of gold leaf cost? And in general terms, what does a professional sign painter charge to do the application? I'm still selecting a design and setting up shop at this point, but I love the look of varnish and gold leaf. http://media5.hypernet.com/~dick/ubb/smile.gif

A book of 23k leaf runs about $US 40 or so -- depending on the vagaries of the gold market. I can't tell you what a good sign guy would charge -- try calling them or checking the talk at www.letterheads.com (http://www.letterheads.com) ... the 'net home of sign makers and painters.

And don't varnish over leaf -- the varnish will yellow and lift and you'll lose the leaf. A good gilding job should be good for about 20-40 years or so (assuming the substrate is solid). Gold leaf is (obviously) unaffected by UV.