Step-by-step: Using computer-cut masks for glass gilding

By Chris Lovelady

Posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2022

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Like many sign makers, Chris Lovelady did gold leaf lettering on glass using traditional methods—patterns, japan colors and brown quills. That process delivered beautiful results, but the time involved kept the gold leaf version of a window sign out of reach of many of his customers.

Laying gold leaf goes fairly fast with a little practice. Backing it up—lettering on the paint that traps the leaf between the backing paint and glass—is the time-consuming part. It’s done in reverse—lettering backwards, in effect—and involves a lot of trimming to get professional results.

In an effort to reduce costs, Chris found he could use computer-cut masks to back up the gold and apply the “matte center”. This matte center is the center portion of each letter that is coated with varnish to create a dull center with a bright outline of “burnished” gold around it. Matte centers improve readability, especially on large copy. Without them, the burnished gold will reflect like a mirror and the lettering becomes unreadable from some angles.

“By using the mask,” says Chris, “I can reduce the production time, have constant paint thickness, especially at the edges, and a cleaner, more accurate image.”

For the outlines and shadows, and for backing up the gold, Chris uses a mix of 1Shot black lettering enamel and Ronan japan lampblack with 1Shot hardener added.

“The hardener prevents the black from chipping off when you clean off the gold,” he says. “I don’t measure the hardener, but if I put one ounce of each of black and lampblack in a four ounce paper cup, I pour in just enough hardener to cover the top of the paint. I’d guess that’s about 1⁄2 teaspoon. Lampblack dries very fast, but it increases the opacity of the paint.”

Along with using a hardener in the paint, another important aspect of Chris’s approach is removing the mask while the paint is still aggressively tacky.

“It’s critical that you remove the mask as soon as the paint tacks up enough for you to pull the mask without pulling up a lot of strings of wet paint,” says Chris. “The edge where the paint meets the mask will naturally round over as it finishes drying. This allows the gold leaf to roll up over the layer of paint or varnish.

“If you let it dry before removing the mask, the edge of the paint will have a hard, sharp corner. This will prevent the gold from making contact with the glass along the edge of the paint. When you clean off the excess gold, you’ll have a mess—a distracting, ragged strip of clear glass between the gold and the black.”

Like most glass gold, the job began by thoroughly cleaning the glass with cotton and cake Bon Ami. It’s a mild abrasive that is scrubbed on, dries, and is polished off. The layout was created on the computer, then a mask was cut from Avery Paint Mask film.

Here’s the mask, applied to the glass. The centers of the letters will be varnished, and the outline and shadow will be black. The burnished gold outline protected by the mask, will be between the two.

A 50/50 mix of black 1Shot lettering enamel and Ronan japan lampblack with 1Shot hardener added is applied to the outline and shade. It can be applied with a brush or roller, but a brush works best for small areas.

The varnish center and the black outline are applied at the same time. Chris finished a couple letters at a time then removed the mask between them before continuing, as you can see here. The varnish tacks a little slower, so he applied it first, then the black.

The 1020 AM didn’t get a matte center, so the outlines for it and the black panel behind Christian Radio could be done quickly with a 3-in. roller.

Once the mask was removed and the black had dried, the window is ready to gild.

“Gilding over the paint and varnish like this is sometimes called a Boston gild,” says Chris. “Once the gild is dry, you back up the areas you want to be gilded, then clean off the rest with Bon Ami and a wad of wet cotton.”

The finished gild was backed up with the same mixture used for the outlines. The primary copy is 23k gold, Christian Radio and the mike head are white gold and the stand is variegated gold.

Here’s a closer look at the mike.

Using masks on more complex layouts

When a layout involves painted panels or graphics, Chris still uses the same approach, but uses multiple masks, as on this window. After the layout is created on the computer, he produces three masks from Avery Paint Mask film. The first one is used for the black outline and matte center, and the other two for the painted panels.

Once the masks are cut, they are positioned precisely on top of each other and a few small triangles, each inside a square, are cut outside the graphics to serve as registration marks. By aligning the triangle exactly with the location of the one from the previous layer, the lettering is positioned exactly where the lettering was for the previous layer.

Here’s the first mask—the one used for the matte center and black outline/shadow—on the glass. The registration marks are clearly visible.

A second mask was used to paint the secondary copy and stripes. Note the registration marks.

The background panel and graphics were done with a third mask in careful registration.

Remodeling was still in progress, so airborne dust stuck to the varnish center as it dried. Chris went over the graphics lightly with steel wool the next day. This didn’t remove the dust particles but made them barely visible in the finished gild.

Interestingly, the steel wool also removed the few strings of black paint that had fallen across the open area of the burnished outline when he removed the mask.

Here’s the completed project.

You can see another similar job in this step-by-step on the Vital Signs website.

Chris Lovelady’s shop, Vital Signs, is in Thomasville, Georgia. You’ll find more photos of this project on

This appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of SignCraft.