Gold Leaf Name Boards


Ripple came to me with her name on her transom, but refinishing the transom on an earlier haul-out left her nameless, and my best intentions to renew the proclamation of her identity were defeated by the press of... well... sloth.  In defense of my failure, I did not want to have to re-apply the name to the transom each time I varnished, especially as the overhanging transom made it difficult to read the name in any case.

Name boards are the answer. Mine have been waiting patiently in the queue of winter projects.  The recent loss of my workshop space near the marina finally triggered the project.  Moving my shop to a spare room in our condo meant that any spare moment was a putterable moment. I lost my table saw in the bargain (neighbors being what they are),  but what I gained was immeasurable: a clean, warm shop-space three steps from the kitchen.  Now, instead of a cold, drafty, impossible-to-clean work space, I have a small, compact shop with my workbench, all my tool-boards, and sufficient room to manage small projects. Warm. Clean. Inviting and pleasant to work in.

I had set aside some nice mahogany boards of about the right dimensions for the name boards, including some practice pieces with which to launch my letter-carving efforts.  YouTube accorded me my training materials.  I had purchased suitable carving tools for the job when I first had the idea, and I have carefully aged the edges ever since, to be sure they stayed sharp.

I selected a font for the letters I wanted to carve (750 pt type turned out to be about right for the 3 inch letters I wanted), and I traced the letters onto the boards with carbon paper. The letter R is sometimes used to hone one's letter-carving skills (though I found e more difficult).  It took only a few practice letters to bring me to the threshold of layout for the name boards, and while my carving is far from perfect, the results are pleasing.

Carving done, ready to start varnishing
Each of the two boards took about 8 hours to carve, stars included.  As any carver will tell you, the key to good work is wickedly sharp tools, tempered in patience.  Stropping and polishing wheels on a motorized arbor, immediately to hand, made the task of keeping the carving chisels perfectly tuned during the carving.

Varnishing the boards took another couple weeks - a coat a day, first thing in the morning, tented to protect it from dust so the workshop could be used for other things while the varnish dried.  Wet sanding the surfaces of the boards with 400 paper between coats was fast and easy.  I imagined the possibility of having to sand the contours of the incised letters as well, but it turned out to be unnecessary.  Coat by coat, these surfaces became more regular, especially within the tricky spots... the seraphs, in particular. I stopped after 8 or 10 coats, and left the varnish to cure while my attention turned to other projects.

My patience for allowing the varnish to cure was really just approach-avoidance for the gilding process.  Applying gold leaf to the incised letters had been the goal from the start, in part because I've had the gold leaf for the job for more than 40 years.  I bought a package (24 sheets, about 3.5" square) back in the 1970s, thinking... someday I'll find a project for that....).  But I've never used it, and the prospect was more than a little intimidating.  Once again, YouTube provided helpful guidance.

I used a calligraphy brush to paint the size in the incised letters, and then carefully removed excess on the surface with a soft cloth stretched over a small block of wood.
The process involves applying a glue (gold size) to the places you want the gold to stick and letting it set up for 12-18 hours until it is just tacky to the back of a knuckle. Gold leaf is impossibly thin, easily carried away on a gentle breath.  Applying it is best done with a gilding brush, wiped on one's hair to charge it with static electricity, which attracts the sheet of leaf and allows you to fly it onto the surface to be gilded.  The leaf is gently pressed into the incised letters with a soft make-up brush.

A lot of gold needs to be rubbed away with a soft cloth wetted with denatured alcohol.  It surprised me how tenaciously the gold clings to the varnished field... it takes considerable pressure to rub it off, but it is pretty easy to do without damaging the leaf in the letters.
In theory, the leaf sticks only where size has been applied to catch it.  I found that a clean varnished surface is almost as good as the size in grabbing the leaf, so I had to go back over the surface with a soft cloth wet with denatured alcohol to rub the gold off the un-lettered varnished surfaces. The result was entirely satisfactory.
Gilding Tools: The packet of gold leaf, small brushes to apply size, a gilder's 'tip' (a thin, but wide brush that is charged with static electricity and used to pick up a sheet of leaf), two sizes of make-up brush

You will not have read this far without wondering about the cost.  When I bought my book of gold leaf in the 1970s, it cost about $25 for the packet of 24 sheets.  Today, the cost is on the order of 10 times that, and I used about half the sheets on these name boards.  One could paint the letters, and there are faux-gold paints and leaf, but they all seem like a false economy. Go big, or stay home! Starting from scratch, without carving experience, you'll have a fifty or so hours in a pair of name boards, and the material costs will be the gold leaf, a couple board feet of mahogany, and a cup of varnish.  The Wow! factor of the final product is worth the expense.

I'll let the whole thing cure for a time, and put a couple finish coats of varnish over the boards for additional protection. I have decided to attach the name boards to the house sides.  I'll put threaded inserts in the backs of the boards, drill, fill, and re-drill holes in the house sides, and install the boards over nylon washers as a thin stand-off, making them easily removable for maintenance.

Ripple will have her name back, in gold as good as her provenance.


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