gold foil, gold leaf

Gold is the most malleable of the metals. Rolling is usually employed to produce thicknesses down to about a thousandth of an inch. Even thinner sheet (the type called gold leaf) is made by goldbeating, which is an ancient hammering process. A single gram of gold can be beaten out to cover 0.6 square meters. Thicknesses in the tens of nanometers are possible.

Today gold leaf is usually sold in packets of 25 sheets, each somewhat less than 4 inches by 4 inches.

Goldbeaters in Birmingham, England, circa 1913

The work is done entirely by hand, and the customary sign is the picture of a gilded arm bearing a hammer poised for the blow. The leaf is hammered out in small home workshops from 24-karat gold, but is first sent to the rolling mills, whence it is returned in long thin ribbons 1¼ inches wide and one-thousandth part of an inch in thickness. Then it is ready for the beater. The ribbon is generally cut off into small 1¼-inch squares, weighing about 6 grains. The thin square is placed in the center of a vegetable parchment pad, consisting of 100 sheets on top and the same number beneath. This is beaten with a 14-pound hammer, and the gold, when considerably reduced in thickness, is placed between leaves of goldbeater’s skin; that is, skin prepared from a thin but tough membrane found in the large intestine of the ox. Eight hundred pieces of the hammered leaf are arranged over each other, between leaves of the skin — the whole being placed between parchment bands and beaten for a couple of hours with a 7-pound hammer. Then the 800 pieces are cut up into 3200 pieces and again beaten. When the work is done the leaf is one fifty-thousandth part of an inch in thickness and almost as light as air. An odd custom is invariably to preserve the leaf for sale purposes in old Bibles and Testaments, and enormous quantities of these sacred books are used for this purpose. There are not many goldbeaters left now in Birmingham, but a generation ago there were many factories, the largest of which employed 300 hands.

U.S. Dept. of Commerce.
Daily Consular and Trade Reports
. Nos. 751- 151. Vol. 2. April, May and June 1913.
No. 100, April 30, 1913.
Washington: U.S.G.P.O., 1913.
Page 541. Abstracted from the Times of London.


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