A New Gilded Age at the Homestead

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Well, yes, we do interpret the 1890s at the Homestead and it is of interest that many of our economic issues now can be compared and contrasted to that era and up through the end of our interpretive era at 1930.  But that’s not what this post is about.

Instead it is about some interesting work done by one of our group of talented museum professionals.  In fact, this is one of the most gratifying aspects of being at the Homestead: working with colleagues who have their varied palette of interests and skills that can be put to use to advance our mission.

The Homestead’s Facilities Coordinator, Robert Barron, cutting gold leaf for preparation for a finial on a settee that is displayed in the Main Hall of La Casa Nueva, 14 December 2018.

So, this post looks at the work our Facilities Coordinator, Robert Barron, does with gilding, a decorative process of applying gold leaf, a thin layer of the precious metal, to materials like wood, stone, and others.  Robert received professionalized training in gilding from the Campbell Center in Illinois to complement other skills he has developed in masonry, tombstone conservation and restoration and others over the years.

One of the earliest demonstrations of gilding Robert has given at the museum involved redoing lettering on crypt shutters at the mausoleum in El Campo Santo.  In fact, he has given public demonstrations of this at our Ticket to the Twenties festival and he still has more work to do with that ongoing project.

Robert applying a sheet of gold leaf on the finial at the left side of the back of the piece.

In recent weeks, though, Robert has turned his attention to another project, this one involving a settee that has been displayed in the Main Hall of La Casa Nueva for many years.  This piece was restored once, in the 1990s, with new upholstery and painting in gold colors of decorative elements of this very attractive piece of furniture.

Robert, however, offered to gild those portions that were painted, which provides a better layer of protection for the wood of which these sections are made as well as to improve the aesthetic appearance of the object.  Utilizing the skills he received in his training, he has completed some of the work on the settee to date.

Robert applying the base coat of Kollner Instacoll as preparation for the application of gold leaf.

In this work, Robert uses Patent gold leaf, which utilizes a thin layer of wax with the leaf so that is easier to apply.  There is a yellow chemical applied first called Kolner Instacoll base and, once that dries, then there is a clear product that is an activator by the same company that manufactures the base.

After these preparatory layers are applied, Robert then cuts the leaf and places it on the area, applying pressure with a rubber brush in order to set the gold.  While flatter surfaces are done the same as areas that have more of a three-dimensional one, such as carved sections or ones that are raised, Robert uses the same basic process outlined above, but adds more to the work.

Here we can see the tools and equipment involved in doing the gilding work Robert does.

So, those areas of the settee that have carvings, for example, involve using loose-leaf gold, which is extremely fine, so much so that any observers have to stand at a distance of at least a couple of feet to avoid the potential of inadvertently scattering the loose material.  Robert, of course, has to be careful he doesn’t exhale too closely (worse yet, sneeze!)

The loose-leaf gold is cut with a special gilding knife to give it a size manageable for the surface and applied with a gilding brush made of badger hair, the composition of which is ideal for applying the fine material.   Other brushes, made of goat and squirrel hair, are utilized for removing any residual gold flakes.

Another action shot!

On some surfaces, such as a carved cherub that is a central decorative element on an ornate parlor table (said to have come from a castle in Scotland, though who knows?) which sits across from the settee in the room involves Robert’s use of an agate burnishing tool to smooth out and give the gold a dull tone so that it looks more vintage and less like a new application.

Naturally, this work can be very time-consuming and requires significant levels of concentration and great attention to detail.  It also often means applying base coats on one day and then returning on another to apply the leaf.  A section could take a couple of days to work on and then there are gaps because of Robert’s other priorities.


A completed section of a front panel with flat areas utilizing gold-leaf sheets.  To the left is a prepared carved sheet with the base coat completed and which awaits the finishing with loose-leaf gold.

Weather also has a significant impact on when work can be done, so that, if it is too humid, for example, gilding those crypt shutter letters at the mausoleum has to wait until it is drier.  This can make planning when to do the gilding a bit of a challenge, especially as we’ve had, fortunately, a decent rainy season so far this winter.

Given our past experience of having Robert do some of his gilding at the mausoleum during public events, we are now going to have him be available to continue his work on the settee on selected days in upcoming weeks when we offer public tours.

Preparation of areas of the leg and derriere of a cherub that is a focal decorative point of a beautiful marble-top console table that is exhibited across the room from the settee.

While we can’t guarantee that he’ll be doing that work when anticipated, because of weather or other priorities in his schedule, anyone interested in coming down to see him at work while taking a tour of La Casa Nueva can certainly give us a call at 626.968.8492 to inquire when he is planning to work on the settee so you can see him in action.


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