Gold tooling is an art developed by bookbinders to ornament the covers of books. The term is a general one, used to refer to tooling with metals other than gold. The effect that gold tooling aims at is that of a pool of metal inside a blind tooled indentation. Although gold tooling is generally thought of as a leather decorating technique, it is also commonly performed on cloth (gold tooled velvet is apparently spectacular), paper, and vellum.

Traditionally, gold tooing was done with gold leaf and glaire. It's a finicky process, taking years to master. The technique can create very finely detailed effects, and is still the preferred one for fine binding. In 1932, an easier, if less delicate, process became possible with the invention of gold foil.

A Brief History

The art of gilding books is thought to have originated in the Islamic world, sometime around the thirteenth century AD. Copies of the Qur'an were beautifully ornamented with gold tooling, or a combination of gold and blind tooling. As with much Islamic art, the designs were primarily geometric or naturalistic, with stars, leaves, and plant forms predominating.

The first European state to learn of gold tooling was Venice, in the middle of the sixteenth century. The technique caught on like wildfire. Within a quarter century of the first examples of gold tooling, virtually every Venetian-bound book was all or partly decorated with gold. Within fifty years, the art of gold tooling was ubiquitous throughout Italy. That's as close to revolutionary as it gets in the conservative world of bookbinding.

Although European gold tooling started in Italy, the art reached its technical pinnacle in seventeenth century France. The binders of the guild of Saint John Lateran (which also included printers) perfected all stages of the process, from the selection of tools to the best recipe for glaire. The bindings from that period sparkle and glitter with intricate golden designs, sometimes so finely interlaced that the leather is barely visible. All that was lacking, to modern eyes, was taste and restraint.

The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought a measure of sanity back to book cover design. Artists such as T.J. Cobden-Sanderson in England, Sir Edward Sullivan in Ireland, and Marius Michel in France demonstrated that simply because they could cover an entire book in gold filigree didn't make it a good idea. Although gold tooling is still used in fine binding today, it is generally used with moderation, often in combination with inlay or onlay work.

The history of gold tooling is more than just the history of fine binding, however. Foil, invented in the early Twentieth Century, made the process of gold tooling easy and inexpensive. Since then, gold tooling has moved from the rarefied art of decorating books for the wealthy to a common, inexpensive way to add sparkle to almost anything. Any book you buy with a metallic design on the cover has been gold tooled (in the loosest sense of the term).

How to Gold Tool with Foil

The instructions below assume you're using leather, though other materials can be used as well.


  • The tools themselves, which will be used to make impressions in the leather.
  • A stove or other heat source
    You can get a special finishing stove, an electric hot plate with a rack around it to hold tools onto the heated surface. These are expensive. I use the gas stove in my kitchen, holding each tool in the flame in turn. I used to use a candle, but the soot tended to blacken the brass too much.
  • Heat protection
    If the leather you're tooling is on a book, the cardboard of the covers will absorb the heat of the tool. Otherwise, that heat will travel right through the leather and burn the working underneath. And even if you are tooling a book, you will still need somewhere to put the hot tools you've just used.
    I use an old cork tile or a piece of plywood.
  • A damp cloth to test the tool temperature.
    This will get scorched, so don't use your best linen napkins.


  • Something to tool
    The commonest materials for hand tooling are leather and vellum, though cloth and paper also take foil very well.
  • Another scrap of what you're tooling
    At least until you're a very good judge of tool temperature, you'll need to try things out.
  • foil
    Be sure to have enough to tool your test scrap.

What to Do

  1. Mark out your design
    There are a number of ways to lay out the design for the project. The most important issue is that the layout must be on top of the foil. Foil is opaque, so you can't see any layout marks on the leather underneath it. It is also is too thick to show blind tooled impressions when laid on top. You have two choices:
  2. Attach your design to the cover
    Do not, obviously, tape the design right on the leather cover. Instead, tape it to a sheet of paper the same size and wrap the entire thing around the cover like a sleeve.
     | ================== |   = cover
                 paper back
  3. Heat your Tools
    Heat the tool up slowly, using a relatively low temperature. Every now and then, touch it to the damp cloth. When the tool is hot enough, it will just hiss. Try it out on the foil and the scrap of leather. Go slow - there is always a temptation to test quickly but do the final piece more slowly and carefully. You need to make sure your dwell time is the same for the test as it will be for final.
    Look at your result.
    • If the impression looks blind tooled and the foil doesn't stick, heat the tool a bit more.
    • If the foil fills in the openings in the letters, if everything looks gloppy, the tool is too hot. Its heat is activating the adhesive near the tool as well as the stuff under it.
    Once the test sample is right, give the tool a little more heat (it got cool when you tooled, then chilled down a bit more while you looked at the results). Touch it to the damp cloth again to test the temperature.
  4. Tool
    Press the tool into the surface. Rock it slightly up and down and side to side so all the details of the tool touch the foil. Be precise, be firm, be swift.
    If you've placed the tool crookedly, then sorry, it's too late now. Comfort yourself with the thought that your tooling looks handcrafted.
If you lift the foil off of the cover and see a gap, where the tool was too hot or too cold to activate the adhesive on the foil, then you can try to retool. It's risky, because if you misplace the tool, you will get a blurred impression, or worse yet, a doubled one.

Remember that you can't see through foil, so you can't see where to place your tool unless you re-use the same piece of foil. Lay it over the work so the transparent places line up to the gold on the cover, reheat the tool, and try again.

How to Gold Tool with Gold Leaf

Tooling with gold leaf is the original technique, the one that gives the finest impression and the most delicate detail. It's a more elaborate process than tooling with foil.


You'll need everything you needed for tooling with foil, plus:


Again, you'll need almost all of the materials you used for tooling with foil. The exceptions are the foil itself (obviously) and the test piece. (Generally, by the time you tool with gold leaf, you know when the tool is the right temperature. It's rarely worth the long process to prepare a test piece as well as a final one, and checking your results takes even more time.)

What to Do

  1. Mark out your design
    Again, there are several ways to transfer your design to the book cover. In this case, you can't use a paper pattern on top of the gold leaf, in case the gold sticks to it.
    • The easiest way to transfer your design is to blind tool it (dry) ahead of time. This is only appropriate if you can be sure of placing the tool in exactly the same position when you re-tool with gold leaf.
    • The other way to work to your design is to lay out the lines on which the tools will go. Make tiny pinpricks, then lay a piece of vellum lightly on the line once the gold leaf is in place. As long as you know where on that line your tools go, you can gold tool without blinding first.
  2. Fill in the pores
    If you're tooling in leather, it may have pores that need filling in. Otherwise, filled in, they'll show through the gold. The effect will be spotty and disappointing. Different kinds of leather will require different degrees of filling. Goat skin, for instance, may not need filling at all, but calf always will.
    Dilute wheat paste until it's watery, then brush it onto the leather. Cover the entire surface, not just the area to tool, or you'll leave a watermark. Rub the dilute paste into the pores with a bone folder and leave it to dry.
  3. Glaire the piece
    For most gold tooling, you can cover the entire work with with the glaire. Again, don't just brush one area and leave the rest alone, or the border between the two will show.
    Glaire can leave a slightly glossy surface on leather. Unless you're sure, test it first. If you don't like the effect, then an alternative approach is to blind tool the cover first. Then use a very fine brush and paint the glaire only into the blinded impressions.
    Once the glaire dries, then put on another coat.
  4. Oil the piece
    Rub a thin coat of olive oil or Vaseline on the area around the tooling. The coat will give the gold leaf something to stick to until the hot tool activates the glaire.
    If you've only glaired the impressions, you may have to oil the entire cover to avoid leaving marks. (If you've glaired the entire cover, the glaire will protect the leather from the oil).
  5. Apply the gold leaf
    The only way to learn to use gold leaf is to use it. This node assumes you will experiment with the gold handling techniques described in the gold leaf node.
    Lay the gold leaf out on the gold pad. Use the gold knife to cut it into strips, just taller than the size of your type or ornament.
    Use your gilder's tip, or a piece of cotton wool that you've rubbed over your forehead to transfer the gold leaf pieces to the book cover. The oily layer will grab the gold leaf off of your gilder's tip or cotton ball. If you've blind tooled ahead of time, press the gold leaf down with the cotton bud until the impressions show. Fill in any breaks in the gold leaf with extra flakes. The joins won't show, but gaps will.
    The best gold tooling uses at least two layers of gold leaf. If you're doing fancy work, then add another layer.
  6. Heat your tools
    As when tooling with foil, heat the tool slowly. Touch it to the damp cloth from time to time to test the temperature. It should just hiss when it's hot enough.
    Unlike when dealing with foil, it's generally not worth it to test the tool on a sample scrap. It's not that the preparation is too laborious (though it is), or that gold leaf is too expensive to waste on lots of test sheets (though it is). The problem is that, to check your results, you need to rub the rest of the gold leaf off of the surface, and by the time you've done that, the tool is cold.
  7. Tool
  8. Press the tool into the surface. Rock it slightly up and down and side to side so all the details of the tool touch the foil. Again, you must be precise and firm, but this time you don't have to be swift. The glaire doesn't care about your dwell time the way the adhesive on foil does.
    If you've placed the tool crookedly, then sorry, it's too late now. Comfort yourself with the thought that your tooling looks handcrafted.
  9. Rub off the excess gold leaf
    Bookbinding suppliers sell a "gold rubber" or "gold eraser" made of rubber soaked in kerosene. If you don't have one, use a rag dipped in lighter fluid for this step.
    Basically, you want to rub off all the gold leaf that is not bonded to your cover by the glaire. Using the eraser, or the rag, rub over your design. The glaire will hold the gold leaf strongly enough to withstand gentle rubbing, so don't worry that you'll rub your design off.

If, when you look at your gold-tooled design, you see a gap in the gold leaf, use a very fine brush to paint the area with two coats of glaire. Then re-gold and re-tool it. The join won't show.

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