There are a variety of gold leaf frames on the market. They also go by the name gilt frames because it is frame guilders that make them using an intricate process. The price is an indicator of quality. Genuine gold leaf frames use genuine gold ranging in quality from 12CT to 23.75CT.
Guilders may use water guilding or oil guilding to apply the leaf spot. Clean it incorrectly and it can cause the gold powder to flake. Given the higher cost for a gilt frame restoration, any flakes from a genuine frame should be preserved. Frame restorers may be able to use a special adhesive to reapply the original gold leaf that flaked off.
How to tell if you have a ‘genuine’ gilt frame
The simplest way to tell is to feel the texture of the back of the frame moulding. Metal frame profiles are an indicator of the frame being genuine gold leaf.
However, there is also composition gold leaf. More affordable than graded gold applied by artisans, but nevertheless, it still involves metal work. Composition gold leaf is a mix of copper, zinc, and brass that is used to mimic the appearance of gold.
Ornate gold is an intricate resin-based sheet that gets placed on the front of the wood for décor. Turn the frame over, look at the back and you can tell it is wood. Ornate gold refers to the front décor on a wood moulding. It gives a similar look to traditional gold leaf frames, but without the higher cost because it is not gold or any composite metals.
How to clean genuine gold leaf frames
Genuine gilt frames need to be cleaned carefully, and minimally. A soft-bristled and never-used paintbrush is handy to clean between the crevices. This is best done regularly to prevent dust and debris from accumulating. The thicker the debris becomes is when chemical solutions may be required to soften dirt so it can be removed. Since gold is a metal, chemical cleaners risk corroding it.
Only a soft moistened cloth should be used to clean genuine gold leaf. For stubborn patches, try methylated spirits.
Essentially, the process of cleaning a real gold leaf frame is the same as you would care for gold jewellery. Rub it with methylated spirits to polish it up or soak it for up to 15 minutes. For frames though, given the gold leaf is applied with ‘size’ adhesive (which is a specialist adhesive) it should not be soaked. Only wipe the solution over the surface or use a cotton swab to dab between the crevices.
How to clean composite or ornate gold leaf frames
Composite and ornate gold leaf is created using similar processes. Neither uses real gold, but they still contain metals. Cleaning those should be done with attention to detail to minimise the risk of flaking.
At the application process, sheets of gold resin are stuck to the frame moulding, then a sealer applied over it. Using chemicals to clean any gold leaf resin can cause deterioration.
Treat ornate gold leaf frames with as much care as the real thing to avoid potential flaking. The cost of restoration work depends on the material used. Ornate gold can be scraped off the entire moulding, resin gold leaf sheets re-applied, and sealed to restore the frame with a new gold leaf coating.
Genuine gilt frames are more expensive to restore as it requires a specialist in gilt frame restoration to identify the type (water gilding or oil gilding), then apply close-matching patches to areas where the gold has flaked.
Gold powder is based on the quality of gold (12CT to 23.75CT). Just two grams of gold powder is expensive. On genuine gilt frames, if any gold leaf does flake, preserve the gold that has been removed as a framer may be able to use a gilding paste to re-attach flakes, saving on the cost of gold powder for restoration work.