barb blairbefore & after basics

before & after basics: making silver leaf less stuffy

by Barb

A few months ago, I found the most perfect horse paint-by-number at one of my local thrift shops. However, no matter how perfect the paint-by-number, the frame was horrifying! I knew something would have to be done to it, and I’ve been contemplating my approach. Enter some gray paint and about four sheets of silver leaf and we have a spiffy piece of artwork on our hands! You may have preconceived notions about silver leaf being glamorous or fancy and not the right look for your project, but I hope you will see that leafing can be adapted to any project with great results. It’s all about how little or how much you use and where you place it on your piece. Today on Before & After Basics, I hope to start a love affair between you and silver leafing! Ready? — Barb

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!


  • rags
  • sanding sponge
  • stain
  • wax paper
  • frame
  • paintbrush
  • silver leaf
  • silver leaf adhesive
  • spray paint
  • drop cloth


1. For this project, I painted the frame gray rather than leaving it wood because it had no character on its own, and because I wanted the paint to show through. If you would like to paint the frame, feel free to do so! Make sure that your surface is clean and free of dirt and dust before you begin with the silver leaf.

2. Apply a thin coat of liquid adhesive to the frame. The adhesive is very thin and watery, so it is easy to apply too much. Make sure there are no “puddles;” you want it to be nice and smooth. If you do not want to cover the whole surface, just apply the adhesive where you want the silver leaf to go. One suggestion here: make sure that wherever you put adhesive, you put silver leaf. Otherwise your surface will remain tacky — so not good! Let the adhesive set for 30 to 60 minutes to get nice and tacky.

3. After letting the adhesive set, start applying your silver leaf. Take a piece of wax paper and lay it over the top of the silver leaf sheet, “ironing” over the top of the wax paper with your hand. This makes the silver leaf stick to the wax paper, which makes application much easier. I have done this both ways, with and without wax paper, and the wax paper definitely makes it easier to apply. The wax paper keeps the silver leaf from tearing because of the moisture from your hands. Place your paper silver-leaf-side down on the area where you have applied the adhesive and rub gently.

4. Dust away the excess. Now here is where I go a little crazy with the directions! Typically the directions will tell you to use a soft brush or cloth to remove the edges, but I would rather get my fingers in there and rub like crazy! I am a lover of texture and layers in finishes, and I love to add little bits and pieces for a more distressed look. If you prefer a perfectly smooth look though, do use a soft brush or cloth.

5. Once you have applied all of the silver leaf the way you want it, take a sanding sponge and lightly sand any areas that you would like to blend or make a little more authentic.

6. For a fantastic aged look, apply a dark stain over the silver leaf. I like to apply it with a rag. The stain not only works for aging the silver leaf, but it also acts as a sealer. I personally prefer applying stain over silver leaf to add dimension. This is an optional step, and is totally dependent on your preference.

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    • I’m replying SO late! But I wanted to know if it was water based stain that you used? Than you~(!)

  • Fantastic! I have some old coffee tables I’ve been wanting to cover in silver leaf, but didn’t want them so perfect-looking. This is a great tutorial. Thanks tons!

  • first, i have the twin to this painting. annie got it for me at the red ribbon and i’m betting you got yours there!!
    secondly, how much silver leaf to do this to a table? dining table.

  • i have a question regarding paint by number pieces. while my mom was going through her chemo treatments we/I would do paint by numbers. I still have them. But they are so, so paint by number. Have you ever tried to do a wash/glaze to soften the paint by number-esk of it? did not want to try this on the ones we did. Just asking.

    • nadine, all of my paint by numbers have come to me by way of thrift or etsy and are already completed, so I personally have not tried putting a glaze over them. Maybe you could try a stain or wash on one that is not valuable to you and see what happens.

      annie & mollie, hey friends!! this is totally the twin…and from red ribbon!! what a hoot! I’m glad we both got a piece of the pie:) oh, and mollie, it would take a good bit to do the table, but I think it would be so fantastic!

      thank you all for the silver leaf love….I hope this was helpful to you, and that “spiffiness” will abound in your abodes:) xo

  • Barb – so many of your pictures feature that wonderful pinched glass vase. Can you tell us where you got it? I am in love with it!

    • nadia, these vases can be found at viva terra: http://www.vivaterra.com/recycled-glass-balloon-vases.html

      mollie, I know we talked about this in person the other night, but I think it would take about 10 packs to do a dresser completely covered, so maybe if you use this technique it would only take between 5-7…..and I don’t think it would matter if you used silver or aluminum. I can’t wait to see the table!

  • I love this! Have you ever tried working with aluminum leaf? My budget is tight and I see it’s much cheaper.

  • Over all the years I have seen the gold/silver leaf technique, I’ve never really wanted to try it until now. I LOVE the look you got from this technique. Thanks for the how-to!!!

  • Great info on silver/gold leafing. For years (too many to count) I have used old (or today new since I don’t wear them anymore) stockings/knee-hi’s) for stain application – on anything. Cut to length desired and stain away. There’s no lint, dust, tracing, etc. Thanks again for the blog.

  • For Meg and Mollie, I am pretty sure the tutorial actually shows a faux silver leaf. I worked in an art store that sold both. For this process, I don’t think you would be able the tell the difference either way. Also, I recommend the water based adhesive rather than the oil based for most beginners. It is was more forgiving and easier to work with.

  • Hi Barb,
    I hope you don’t mind a few tips regarding the silver leaf.
    -If you use real silver leaf, the leaves measure 3 3/8″ square and they definitely will tarnish (turning dark gray or black) sooner rather than later. This needs to be sealed with polyurethane or varnish.
    -You can get the same effect (minus the tarnish) with aluminum leaf. The leaves measure 5.5″ square. It is cheaper and can also be glazed.

    Either way, the frame looks great!

    • Ann, I most certainly do not mind! Thank you so much for your input. I have heard a lot about aluminum leaf, and need to try it myself . I sealed my silver leaf with brown stain, and a little tarnish will not be a bad thing, but can see where other people and other projects may call for different measures.

  • I love your frame. I just silver leafed an old desk and I am wondering if sealing it with an oil base stain will work. It is too shiny and I want to give it depth and age. Or should I use a water based sealant? I am new to all this. Help!

  • when you stain, do you mix with glaze or use it straight and do you then seal it all with something thanks?

  • Thanks for the inspiration, its a bummer I can’t post a pic of the frame I did after reading this!

  • Thank you so much for the inspiration. One question I am finding it hard to buy adhesive in Australia? any suggestion on other glues / adhesive I could use? thanks heaps frame was beautiful.

    • Rachel, a water-based size by Mont Marte is available from Basement Books in Sydney. They also carry gold,silver and bronze leaf.