|Rick Glawson's Angel Gilding Article
"Reprinted from the July, 1988 issue of Signs of the Times magazine" Cover shot close-up on the right>
Anyone who has attempted burnished gold on glass will appreciate the discovery of “angel gilding”, a technique that presents the opportunity to consistently produce a perfect gild. The initial impact of such news should be as tremendous as the resulting gild is brilliant. The specifics of the “discovery”, coupled with the nature of the process itself, are also significant, as the following interview suggests.
The angel gilding technique is described as the chemical deposition of gold on glass, meaning that pure gold is suspended in a liquid state until it is converted back into its original form and deposited on glass through the proper addition of chemicals. Another technological advancement to threaten the signpainter? Not exactly, because there’s a twist. The technique actually dates back to over a century ago and was widely used by the sign industry at one time. The discovery, then, is more accurately a “rediscovery,” made possible by the determined efforts of a master craftsman who has made a specialty of classic glass decorating techniques.
Once the word is out, there is sure to be a debate. Some will see the news as reassurance in the legitimacy of the time honored methods of signpainting; others will consider the chemistry of angel gilding contrary to the tradition of classic gilding techniques. Readers will have to decide for themselves…
The Interview with Rick:
Q: You’ve spent the last three years researching the angel gild technique. I understand that the discovery or better, rediscovery was the result of a trail of clues. How did it all begin?
A: Shortly after I began restoring antique glass signs, it became apparent that an entire group of glass sign manufacturers had existed which specialized in quantity-produced, framed glass signs. Because of previous research, I was usually able to restore such signs using the original techniques and materials but one thing puzzled me about the framed glass signs, particularly those that were glue-chipped or acid-etched: From the front they looked gold but when the back-up paint was removed, I saw silver.
Q: It’s not feasible to double gild…that is use gold-leaf and back it up with silver?
A: There’s no reason at all to, unless it was a mirror, and you gilded the design and then silvered the entire background. The difference in these signs was that the silver and gold matched up exactly. I have to admit, I was thrown for a loss. For the moment, I filed it away.
It wasn’t too long after that I found the right information to enable me to do chemical silvering in my own shop. I thought to myself, “If you could do this with silver, why couldn’t you do this with gold?”
The next development happened at a Letterhead meet A Happening Fandango in May, 1986. A fellow signpainter, Rufus DeSoto (St. Martinville, LA), had brought a copy of HOW TO PAINT SIGNS AND SHOWCARDS, by E.C. Matthews which he thought I might want to see. Because it was Matthews, the book got my attention and I started reading through it. There, in the gilding section, was probably the most significant clue of all: a description of a “new gilding process patented by Mr. Andres of San Francisco.”
Matthews went on to give a full description of how to use a gold solution for gilding on glass. The crux of the process was that the gold was backed up with an application of silver solution for added brilliance and bulk. I now knew two things. First, why the silver was behind the gold and secondly that it is more feasible than using gold.
When I’ve seen that something has been done in the past, I know that it can be done again. The discovery gave me the incentive to continue my research.
Q: For historical perspective, what time period are we talking about?
A: The original copyright on this specific Matthews’ book is 1920, which means he was probably writing it 1917-1918. If you look back the earliest Signs of the Time you find that the list of glass sign manufacturers. There was an entire portion of the sign industry making nothing but glass signs, a majority of which were angel gilded.
Although glass signs were widely used during the turn-of-the-century the manufacturers depended heavily on their two bread-and-butter customers the brewing and distilling industries. Unfortunately, the market for such signs decreased once the distillers and brewers acknowledged the coming Prohibition. Without the volume, most glass sign manufacturers were forced to close their doors or shift to another industry.
It was at this time that the aforementioned Mr. Andres bought the rights to the gilding process from the glass manufacturers.
He must have had some knowledge of the mainstream sign trade because he saw the possibility of applying the technique to window lettering using a spraying method. The glass sign manufacturers had poured the solution in a horizontal fashion.
Apparently he was also wealthy because he was able to set up agencies across the country to sell what he claimed was a patented process. The response was less than overwhelming. According to the August, 1925 issue of Signs of the Times, the technique would no longer be offered to the sign trade.
Q: And that was the end of it?
A: No, because even though the technique had failed to attract the sign industry’s attention, another potential buyer surfaced the mirroring trade. In fact, the royalties from this customer were sufficient for Andres to forget about the sign industry forever…even though he had left himself open in his 1925 announcement to reintroduce the sign trade to the process if the interest warranted.
I later found out that while he had claimed a patent in 1920, he was not officially offered it until 1934. By that time, he didn’t care enough about the gold method to respond; he had already made his fortune from the mirroring trade which was interested only in silver.
Q: Then the technique was simply lost to time until your research?
A: Essentially. I did hear from Keith Knecht about a signpainter who had traveled around a country observing various goldleaf jobs so as to improve his own work. He had made a special trip to Albuquerque to meet an old gold man who was doing angel gilding. The old gold man was self taught and unfortunately harbored bad feelings for a trade he had to learn the hard way. He was determined to take his knowledge to the grave.
Q: What happened next?
A: With the help of a few tidbits here and there, I began actively experimenting with the chemicals I thought were involved. I have a very minimal chemistry background but I think this may have helped. I didn’t have to believe what doesn’t work. I’d work with it for a couple of days straight but never with any real success.
Lee Littlewood (Lee’s Better Letters, Portland, OR) then sent me a photocopy of Andres’ patented formula that had appeared in a British book. It wasn’t enough by itself but with the other information I had gathered, I finally succeeded.
Q: You’ve mentioned several people were helpful in providing information and/or support. I’m sure there are others…
A: Everyone was encouraging and supportive, but besides those already credited, I have to thank Mike Jackson (Jackson Signs, Jackson, WY). Steve Ledford, a chemist for Delamo Chemical CO, which manufactures silvering chemicals, was very helpful in providing information and chasing down difficult-to-obtain chemicals.
Q: Signpainters are now more concerned, as they should be, with the materials they use. The mention of “chemicals” specifically is sure to prompt some questions about angel gilding.
A: There are no dangerous chemicals involved, However, if an individual feels he is more sensitive than the average person, he may want to wear a mask.
Q: Others may hesitate to use the technique because they associate it with their struggle through high school chemistry.
A: Yes, I’ve already heard the comments “I’m not a chemist and never did understand that kind of stuff. I’m just a signpainter” My response is that a signpainter is already dealing with chemistry when he lays his first gold. It may be simple to soak gelatin capsules to make a water size, and then apply little sheets of gold, but there are reasons principles of chemistry behind why the gold adheres to the glass. Yes, you can get into some difficult and intricate explanations but you don’t need to in order to make the chemistry work. You can achieve the results without understanding the fine points. Like the computer, it’s a tool.
Q: I understand the analogy but you may be treading on dangerous ground when you bring in the computer.
A: No, I think it’s a good analogy, because I don’t want to give the impression that angel gilding will make book gold obsolete. Angel gilding will no more replace the traditional methods of gilding that the computer will replace the signpainter.
Q: What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of angel gilding?
A: Its advantage is also its disadvantage. The only real drawback is that it’s too brilliant. Anyone who has been using goldleaf for a number of years can tell you that the majority of the problems they have are due to the goldleaf…not the gelatin or the water, but the quality of the leaf. It’s now possible - once again, I should say to have a perfect, mirrored gild, with no overlaps or patches.
Q. The brilliance is undeniable, but what about the factors of labor and cost?
A: The Wheel of Fortune project (see May, 1987 cover story) is a good example of the time you can save. All of the glue-chipped pieces for that job were silvered using the same spray technique that I now use in the angel gild. The time involved was five minutes, But I also did a glue-chipped set of pieces for myself in gold, and that took 45 minutes. Because the glass was glue-chipped, I had to double water-gild. As much as I love gold on glue-chipped glass, it was always pure drudgery to have to come back and surface gild behind chipped work, yet it was the only way to produce a nice job.
The saving grace for me is that the technique is nothing new. I’ve reads that the chemical deposition of gold and silver were both accomplished around 1860, so it’s been known how to deposit the solutions on glass for more than 100 years. Anyone who knows me understands what an appreciation I have for the craftsmanship evident in the antique glass signs of the turn-of-the-century.
Q: And price?
A: I’ve discovered that if the pouring method is used, the cost is equal to or a little less than, the price of goldleaf for the same amount of coverage. This doesn’t take into account the savings in time or the brilliance achieved. If the solution is sprayed, you get approximately three times the coverage. For $160 worth of chemicals that is, all the different chemicals needed you get 25 sq ft of coverage when spraying on glass. This translates to 15 books of gold.
Q: I understand the technique can also be used vertically for example on an on-site storefront window.
A: Lee Littlewood has already used the silver on some window lettering jobs in Portland. Andres, himself, made a runner available to catch the run-off. In fact, he ignored the idea that you could pour it on glass in selling the concept to the sign trade. His kits included two bulb atomizers for applying the solutions.
What I have done is cut a 28 in. length of 2 sq in plastic gutter downspout and capped both ends by cementing in pieces of acrylic (the 28 in is for 30 in doors). I then tape it to the door which catches the run-off like a gutter does on a house. I do suggest using drop cloths when doing the job on-site.
The technique itself, is really no more involved or difficult than that of traditional glass gilding. I want to emphasize that it was taken off the market through no fault of its own. It isn’t dangerous and I can attest to the fact that it does work. It was simply a matter of one man controlling the product and finding greener pastures in another market.
Unlike the old gold man determined to take the secrets of angel gild to his grave, Glawson intends to spread the word to all who show interest. A basic review of the technique follows, but specific instructions - mixing proportions, etc are omitted, simply because they become meaningless without the proper ingredients on hand. The angel gild kit, however includes a detailed set of step-by-step instructions.
The chemistry of angel gilding offers a choice of two methods of application either pouring or spraying both of which are discussed. The first step cleaning the glass is critical to both methods. Glawson uses a special glass-cleaning compound that is different than the Bon-Ami usually preferred for cleaning glass.
The second step involves the mixing of various ingredients to produce five separate solutions one each of gold and silver concentrate, a gold depositing agent, a silver reducer and a tinning agent. When all are prepared, the tinning solution is then sprayed on the sections to be gilded, allowed to set for a minute and then lightly spray-rinsed with distilled water. The remaining steps are specific to the choice of methods.
For pouring level glass, dam up the edges of the glass or isolated areas using a hot glue gun. Now pour an equal amount of the gold depositing agent into a paper cup of gold solution and then pour the mix onto the glass surface. After 30 seconds, the solution will become dark and form a film, which is lightly rinsed off with water. The procedure is then repeated using the same mix of the two silver solutions. The solution will soon turn muddy at which point it is poured off. Now rinse off the glass with water and blow-dry. The gild is ready for backing up.
Spraying on vertical glass necessitates a catch-all or drop clothes to collect run off of the somewhat caustic chemicals involved. Woodwork, for example, will darken if exposed to run-off. To begin, repeat the cleaning, tinning and rinsing off procedures described for pouring.
Using an airbrush or “Preval” sprayer, now apply a mist of the solution of mixed gold ingredients at the top of the glass so that the chemicals flow down over the intended area in a consistent manner. After rinsing, repeat the procedure with the silver solution, and rinse again. Gild is now ready for backing up.
Excess silver can be removed with cotton and Bon-Ami or with the silver stop provided in the case of the latter, spray or brush-on a solution of the stripper and water and rinse-off silver will disappear.
The idea to feature an actual sample of angel gilding on this month’s cover was the spontaneous result of the interview that was the basis for this article. The design, however, belongs to Rick Glawson who is also responsible for the majority of the fabrication, including gilding and glue-chipping.
For the record, “angel gild” was first glue-chipped, then angel-gilded (including the bright line) and finally, outlined in black. The masthead is burnished angel gild, based on camera-ready art supplied by Signs of the Times.
The talents of Pat Mackle (Decorative Glass Processes, Monrovia, CA) were enlisted for the “brilliant-cut” flourishes, which are also angel gilded. For the marbled background, Glawson called upon Steve Borowitz, a specialist in aging, graining and marbling at a respected Disneyland paint shop. Using an actual marble sample for reference, Borowitz hand painted the background on a special transfer paper which was then applied to the glass with water-soluble glue.
Special thanks to Tod Swormstedt at The American Sign Museum and Signs of the Times for use of the article. Also thanks to Kimberly Zanetti for transferring the article to a text document!
Additional Rick Glawson Pages:
Tips and Techniques
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