- Associated Press - Monday, July 7, 2014

DEADWOOD, S.D. (AP) - Tim Peterson is what you might call an emissary of the old school.

The Spearfish-based artist named his sign painting business the Flat Earth Art Company to reflect his disdain for technology. Sign painting is one of a thimbleful of America’s classic trades that moved into the 21st century completely unchanged. But the roots to one of the standards in the traditional sign painter’s repertoire digs back even deeper. In fact, it’s stretched across millennia largely unaltered.

“The Egyptians were famous for gold leaf gilding,” Peterson said while applying 23-karat gold leaf to the visage of a large gold nugget relief-carved into one of Deadwood’s six stone gateway signs. “All the icons you see in museums, those are all gilded with gold leaf. They weren’t solid gold, but they were made structural objects covered in gold leaf, which is really thin. Three-millionths of an inch thick.”

In May the Deadwood City Commission hired Peterson to clean and hand paint the relief carvings on all six of Deadwood’s stone gateway signs, and Peterson’s nearly at the end of the project, the Black Hills Pioneer reported (http://bit.ly/1jHdB6W ). The carving on the gateway sign between Deadwood and Central City on U.S. Highway 85 features a stereotypically bearded prospector holding a pan with a large gold nugget in it. For Peterson, a simple coat of gold paint wouldn’t do, it only made sense to gild the carved nugget in gold leaf.

And it makes financial sense, too. Despite what Peterson said some customers assume about the pricing on gild work, it’s really not that expensive. Each roughly standard post-it note sized sheet of gold leaf is worth roughly $2. Peterson brought an extra level of authenticity and oomph to the prospecting scene on the gateway sign in question for less than the cost of a bottle of Goldschlager schnapps.

Peterson said the gold leaf sticks to any surface with a tack to it, like wet paint, for example. But to do it right, Peterson brushed a small coat of an adhesive called latex size on the nugget, let it sit for a few moments, and then simply pressed the gold onto the nugget with his fingers.

“It’s been done like that for thousands of years. This is such an old technique, and it has not changed one iota in all of that time,” he said, pressing gold leaf onto the size-coated carving. “I know that I’m not going to get it into all the cracks and crevices, which is fine. My intent isn’t to cover the entire thing with gold, because gold nuggets in the wild would not be completely gold, they would be part of a rock.”

After pressing several sheets of gold leaf onto the carving, Peterson brushed away the loose gold flakes and lightly polished his work to a deep shine.

And that’s it. No clear coat or anything else over that gold. It doesn’t need it. In fact, it would only degrade the quality and appearance of the gilding over time.

“A clear coat will act as a magnifying glass, concentrate the rays of the sun, and break down the gold, whereas if it’s just left alone it will retain its quality. Any kind of clear coat will diminish its color and its reflective ability. Clear coats yellow, crack, and fail. This is metal, it’s not going anywhere,” Peterson said. “The refractive and reflective quality of gold leaf is unlike anything you can put on a sign. It will outlast the paint, because it’s metal. Once you see gold, you know exactly what it is.”