The gold leaf is what makes your name board a real work of art. Properly applied, it will last indefinitely, far longer than the varnish (or wood for that matter) under it.
There are two gold leaf options. One is to use 24 carat gold leaf, which comes in small delicate sheets. The other option is to use a faux gold leaf. The faux gold is much cheaper, and when first applied, looks reasonably good. The problem is that after a month or two of exposure to sea air, it will turn green. In theory, you can prevent this by coating it with lacquer, polyurethane or varnish, but then you lose the bright luster, and when I tried it, the lettering still turned green after a few months. If you are on a tight budget, this may be an acceptable alternative, and you can always remove it and gild it with real gold later. There are other materials that can be used such as aluminum or platinum, which you may want to try at some point, but my preference is to use 24k gold leaf. I have had good results with both Italian and German gold leaf.
I used 1-1/2 to 2 sheets of gold foil per letter for the 3-1/2 inch letters. The leaf comes in books of 25 sheets. The price varies a great deal depending on the price of gold at any point in time. The last time I ordered it, the cost was $50 for a book.
There are three steps to the gilding process. I first applied a liquid called "size" that will cause the gold to adhere to the finish of the name board. Next, I applied the gold leaf, and the third step was to outline the letters.
The gold leaf process has been around for many centuries, and many substances have been used for the size. Years ago, egg whites were used as size when applying gold leaf to glass, and it is believed the ancient Egyptians used human blood for size. As often as I manage to cut or gash myself in the course of some project, I can never depend on having enough blood available at the right time, so I purchase my size.
When you purchase size, you want gold leaf size. It will be available in either a quick dry or slow dry formulation. Once applied, the size will begin to dry, with a wet stage, a tacky stage and finally a dry or cured stage. The leaf must be applied during the tacky stage. If applied too soon, the leaf will become dull. If applied too late, it will not properly adhere. The quick dry size usually has an initial drying time of around 1-1/2 hours, and a tacky stage of about the same length of time. The slow size has a wet stage of about 24 hours and a tacky stage of about two weeks. You can also buy both and mix them to get a tacky stage that is somewhere in between. A ratio of 50/50 will give you a wet time of 8-12 hours and a tacky time of about a week. A ratio of 25% slow to 75% quick will result in a wet time 4 hours and a tacky time of 8-10 hours. I have both types aboard, but now only use the quick size.
The size is a clear liquid and it is difficult to see where it has been applied, so I add some color to it. You can buy a small container of universal tint from most paint stores that is compatible with oil, water and lacquer based paints, but this seems to affect the drying time. I now add a couple of drops of topside paint. White and yellow work nicely. You will also need a small artist’s brush, a mixing stick, a small mixing container – a clean tuna can works well - and something to use as a pallet such as a small square of plastic or piece of metal.
Use 220 grit sandpaper and lightly sand the area to be gilded. You want to remove any roughness, air bubbles or dust that might be on the surface of the finish. Pour a small amount of size into the tuna can. If you are mixing quick and slow size, pour the appropriate amounts of each into the can. Then add a couple drops of the paint or tint. Add only enough colorant to make a yellow or white wash.
Dip the brush into the size and wipe the excess onto the pallet. Paint the size onto each letter. When the brush is dry, return to the pallet for more, adding more to the pallet as needed. Stay within the letter areas and make sure each letter is entirely coated with size with no holidays (missed spots). When you are done, clean the brush in lacquer thinner and store it flat.
Set the boards in a location away from dust and wait for the size to reach the tacky stage. Depending on the type of size you are using and the mixing ratio if any, you have a rough idea how long this will take, but it will vary depending on the temperature and humidity. You can tell when the size is ready by rubbing a dry knuckle across the surface listening for a squeaking sound, called the whistling tack.
Now you are ready to apply the gold. Work in a draft free area. The gold is very light and will blow away with the slightest breeze. For this step, use a larger #10 or #12 artist’s brush. Use the brush to lift the gold from a sheet and place it onto the letter. Use the brush to fold any gold outside the letter back onto the size. Be careful not to let the brush touch the size directly. Gently paste the gold into place. Add more gold as needed until the entire letter is coated. There will be a lot of small pieces that can be gently swept into the small corners and serifs. As you dab and brush the gold into place, it will begin to smooth out and shine. Continue until all the letters are completed. Some small bits will stick to the board outside the letters creating a small shiny spot. These are easily removed within an hour or so of
application using a combination of liquid soap and water on a soft rag.
After enough time to ensure the size has completely cured - 24 hours or so with quick size - use a cotton ball to burnish and polish the gold. Use a gentle pressure to go over all the letters to achieve maximum shine. As before, use a liquid soap and water to remove any small bits that have come loose and stuck to the board outside the letters.
The last step is the outlining of the letters. Outlining makes an amazing difference in the appearance of the letters – it enhances the edges and seems to bring each letter into focus. For this step I used a fine #1 artist’s brush, a pallet similar to the one I used for the size, the scrap practice board I carved the symbols onto, and a quality enamel or topside paint in a contrasting color. Black, red and dark blue are all good colors. Since our sheer stripe is a dark blue, this is the color I used.
I experimented using the practice piece of wood. If you are right-handed, you should work from left to right to avoid dragging your hand through the paint and vice versa if you are left handed. I transferred some paint from the can to the pallet, wiped the excess off the brush, and pulled the brush along the edge of the letter. For the straight lines, I began at the lower left corner and pulled the brush away from me. Then I did the top and bottoms and finally the right side. For the circle, I started at the 9 o’clock position, pulled the brush to the top of the circle, then did the segment from the 9 o’clock position to the bottom. I replenished the paint after each stroke. After a little practice I was ready to start the name board. With a little patience and using the same technique, I found it to be easier than I expected.