What Is In A Name?

(Other than Gold Leaf and Paint)
by Sherwood Heggen

Okay. You have chosen the name for your boat. You think it’s clever and fitting even though your spouse thinks it’s dumb. Give it some thought; maybe it is. Whatever the name, it still needs to be painted on the transom of the boat. You want professional looking gold leaf, but then you consider the cost of a sign painter and you have no skill or experience to do the job yourself. Well, there is hope by the following method to get through this with very little cash and some of your time invested.

The following is a “here is how I did it” rather than a “here is how to do it” article. That means it won’t be all you need to know about gold leaf lettering and it might not be exactly the correct approach. It will, however, give you enough information to prompt the desire and confidence to try your hand at it and realize good results. This is a report of my first time experience of doing gold leaf lettering. If I can do it, you can do it.
Watching a sign painter exercise the skill of applying go

ld leaf and painting the shadow/outline is so intimidating. The sign painter’s special little kit of brushes, paints, and a supply of gold leaf kept securely in an envelope makes them appear to have such special talents and skills necessary to do the job. You are impressed as you watch them lay out the work on the subject with a few strokes of a grease pencil. What begins to take shape is a name in artistic script or bold letters in any style desired. Then the kicker. They create depth with a painted shadow making the name appear to stand away from the surface it is painted on! Wow! How can that be done with such apparent ease?

Where does that leave us not so talented people who want the gold leaf lettering but don’t want to pay a sign painter to do it? Well, that is what this offering of Gadgets and Kinks is all about. You can do gold leaf lettering and it will look good to great depending on your artistic skills. There will be a little cheating going on to get it to look professionally done but no one needs to know. Read on.

Here is how I did it. Please understand, you will not know everything you need to know about applying gold leaf lettering after you read this. With only a little practice in the beginning, results might not be just like a sign painter’s effort, but you will get better every time you do it. Practice makes perfect.

Here is how you can proceed based on my first time experience. Determine what name you want on the aft end of your pride and joy. A simple, short name might be best to reduce the size of the initial project. Once you have determined the name, decide what font style would best suit the boat with the aid of your computer. Also, make a rough drawing of the transom and name to determine size and placement of the lettering. Next, you are going to take a trip to a fast sign shop where they make vinyl stick on lettering. You are going to ask them to make you a stencil of the name which will include a shadow or outline of the letters. The letter and shadow/outline portions of the stencil are cut separately on the same stencil and removed at different times as described later.
When you get to the sign shop, tell the person of your intentions. They can make virtually any size, shape, and style you want for the letters in the name. They can curve it, arch it, or stretch it to your satisfaction. They can put in a simple outline or a shadow which should include an outline. The outline/shadow must be cut separately in the stencil. You can exercise your artistic wishes through the computer operator’s skills and design a very professional looking layout for the name. Request the stencil be of a thin material to reduce the thickness of the sizing you will be painting in the cutout area of the stencil. Also, request a few letters separate from the name to use as practice stencils. Pay the sign person for their work and head for home with your stencil. You are going to do gold leaf lettering!

A few tools will be necessary for the job. My search for gold leaf in art supply stores left me with nothing. They say they don’t carry it because of very small demand. The source I used for acquiring gold leaf is Woodworker’s Supply, Inc. They can be reached at 1-800-645-9292 or www.woodworker.com.

I am sure there are other suppliers of gold leaf but this was convenient for me. From them you would order a 25 sheet pack of what is called Deep Patent 23K gold leaf. Gold leaf is expensive; nearly two dollars per three inch square sheet. You can opt for the imitation gold which is about one-fifth the cost, but when compared to real gold side by side, it doesn’t have the same elegant appearance. By itself, it will do, so don’t be afraid to use it. Also, buy a nankling gilder tip brush. This is used for laying and attaching the gold leaf onto the sizing. You can also buy a can of sizing, but for the limited amount of work being done here, varnish will act as the sizing. It is important to have a soft artist brush to apply the sizing for the gold leaf and also for the larger areas of a shadow. I used a flat, half inch wide, camel hair brush. For painting borders, a small pinstriping brush is necessary.

These are available through quality art supply stores or auto paint supply stores. If they don’t have them in stock, it is likely they can advise you what size would be correct and order them for you. Also, have available some cotton balls, a plastic bondo spreader, and some varnish and thinner. For those with past middle age eyes, some cheater glasses will help you see the fine detail when doing the work.

With all of the supplies available, practice before attempting the name on the transom. If you don’t have a varnished surface available to practice on, use a piece of glass or side of a flat gallon can. When you actually do the name on the transom, prepare the surface by wet sanding with 400 paper and clean the surface well. Cut out a letter from the practice stencil and affix it to the practice surface. You have one shot at getting this placed correctly. This is done by removing the covering from the back of the stencils exposing the sticky surface. Carefully lay down the top edge of the stencil against the practice surface, and while holding up the free edge, use a plastic bondo spreader to lay the remainder of the stencil to the surface. Use a cotton ball to press the stencil firmly around the edge of letter. When you are sure the stencil is firmly attached, remove the front paper, exposing the stencil. If not already removed, remove only the letter part from the stencil where the gold leaf should be.

Leave the shadow part in place. Using a soft brush, apply varnish thinned about 20 percent to the open areas of the stencil. This will act as the sizing to attach the gold leaf. After it has dried to a tacky state, remove the shadow/ outline portion of the stencil. Let the varnish continue to dry until the surface has a dry, rubbery feel when you touch it. Don’t touch it with your fingertip. Instead, close you hand and use the second joint of your index finger to feel the surface. If it is still too wet, the varnish will feel tacky. If it is ready for the gold leaf, it will have the dry, rubbery feel.

Here comes the fun part – applying the gold leaf. Gold leaf is extremely thin and fragile. The gold leaf you purchased has a backing to it to transport it to the surface where it will be mounted. Any little breeze, including breathing on it, might lift the gold leaf from the paper backing, so proceed slowly and carefully. No heavy breathing, coughing, or sneezing is allowed here. Certainly, don’t do this outside in a breeze or you will see gold flying in the wind. Mount the gold to the sized area by carefully laying the gold side to the surface from the bottom of the letter up and brush it in place through the paper backing with the nankling gilder tip brush with moderate pressure. Follow up with rubbing the area gently with a cotton ball to be sure all of the surface has gold attached while holding the paper in place. Remove the paper. Wherever there was varnish/sizing, the gold will attach. It will look ragged at this point. Let the varnish dry overnight. When dry, use the nankling brush to brush away the loose gold leaf for a clean, crisp edge to the letter. Using a small pinstriping brush, paint the shadow/outline. Use black enamel or a color to match upholstery. Stay with darker colors otherwise the letters will look washed out and will be hard to read. Some
artistic ability and a steady hand will be necessary here. The stencil will keep the paint within the lines on the outside of the letter, but you will have to control the brush to paint only to the edge of the gold leaf on the letter. To hold your hand steady and away from the surface, cut a half-inch dowel to about a foot long length and tape a small piece of sponge to one end to act as a pad. Place the padded end against the surface holding the other end with your free hand, and use the dowel as a bridge to hold your hand a way from the surface while painting the shadow/ outline. When you are finished, the work will look like the photo below.

Don’t be disappointed that it looks like a second grader’s art project, it will soon get better. Peel the stencil off the surface and the work will look a lot better, as in the photo below.

Let the outline/shadow paint dry overnight and then apply a coat or two of varnish. Do not sand before you varnish or you will remove the gold with the first pass. Practice this process for a number of letters on your practice surface until you feel confident with your new found skill. Then move on to applying the name stencil to the transom of your boat. Do a “dry mount” first by positioning the stencil with the backing in place. When satisfied with its position, tape it in place at the top edge if the transom is flat. Tape it on the side if the transom is curved. This will allow the stencil to lie flat when attaching it to the surface. Witness what happens on the first photo when the stencil is taped on the top with a curved transom. The stencil buckles. All worked out
well, but not without undue anxiety. Make position marks with tape and then remove the whole stencil from the transom. Carefully peel the backing off the stencil and position it on the transom according to the marks. It is good to have an assistant hold up the free edge of the stencil to keep it from attaching itself prematurely. Once the stencil sticks, it is difficult to remove it without
creating additional problems. Use the bondo spreader to lay the stencil in place, starting at the top/edge center. Proceed with the job as described above.

Keep in mind I said this is how I did it. There are probably professional sign painters out there reading this getting a good laugh because they can do this free hand, but by the process described, it came out very well. As my experience and knowledge of the process grows, I
am sure I will find the absolute correct equipment and techniques. I am sure I will never do a gold leaf name without a stencil because my artistic talent is just not there. I feel confident that if you follow the method described above, you will have the same satisfactory results I had.

Isn’t boat restoration fun? If you have come to the part where you have done the name in gold leaf on the transom, you probably have accomplished many other boat restoration tasks you didn’t think you could do. To you I say, “way to go: good job”. You suddenly realize that you didn’t destroy it; you restored it. This restoration process is all about keeping a boat from the past to pass on to the boat lovers of the future. It is an admirable effort. Keep at it.

If you want to know more about restoring your boat, or just have a quick question about boat restoration, you may contact me at Heggensj@Centurytel.net or 715-294-2415. Either I, or a network of knowledgeable sources, will get an answer to you as quickly as possible. It is okay to ask questions about how to do something. It is not okay to work blindly and screw it up, making more work for yourself or someone else. Time is passing and you’re not getting any younger. Get to work on that boat!