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Old furniture, new persona

Love the shiny glamour of mirrored or silver-leaf furniture, but not the high price tag?

With a few hours' labor, even a novice can give a tired, old piece this modern look at a fraction of the cost of buying new.

I am not particularly creative, but I successfully used the ancient technique of gilding — applying ultrathin leaves of metal with liquid adhesive — to transform a bedroom dresser and reach successful marital compromise.

The project involved a tall, five-drawer chest, the one piece of furniture my husband insisted on bringing from his bachelor pad into the first home we bought together. He loved the dresser's functionality and big drawers. I hated the dark wood and dated, Queen Anne-style brass pulls that clashed with the mirrored end tables, shimmery bedspread and shiny, silver nailhead trim I'd chosen to decorate our bedroom.

My decorator friend Joe Paul Bingham suggested silver leafing to make the dresser fit the room, but I was intimidated and found little guidance on exactly how the process works. Joe Paul's advice was to tackle the project while drinking some wine and not be too particular about the application. That may be easy for an artistic talent like him, but not for a left-brain person like me who usually depends on a clear set of step-by-step directions for any project.

But it turned out Joe Paul was right: Aluminum leaf appears microthin and fragile but is surprisingly forgiving. It doesn't always go on perfectly, but those cracks and imperfections give the dresser a kind of antique look. Any major gaps easily can be covered by pressing down a little more leaf that gets picked up by the adhesive.

Leaf is available in a variety of metals, and I chose aluminum over silver because it's easier to handle, less expensive and has a shinier look, which I like. You can pick up metal leaf at a craft store, but for larger projects, professional supplier Gilded Planet in San Francisco ships aluminum leaf in packs of 500 for just $57.

After calling their experts, I sprang for the more expensive patent leaf because each 5.5-inch square comes attached to a sheet of waxed paper for easier handling. I gave the dresser's measurements, and they said I needed 150 leaves to cover it, at a cost of $84.

The folks at Gilded Planet also sent me a quart of adhesive to bond the leaf to the dresser, a professional gilder's brush to apply the leaf and a quart of acrylic Clear-Coat to seal it when I was done, all for another $67. I also spent $65 at Home Depot on sandpaper, a can of aluminum-colored spray paint to prime, new glass knobs and pulls to replace the old, brass hardware and wood putty to fill the holes.

So for about $200 and a Sunday afternoon's worth of work, I got a piece of furniture that would have cost more than $1,000 new, pride that I can be crafty and a dresser that now both my husband and I love.

Instructions for metal leafing a dresser:

1. Move the dresser to a workspace that you don't mind covering in little metal bits, and where there isn't a breeze to blow the thin leaf around. A garage is ideal.

2. Remove hardware and fill the holes with wood putty if you plan to replace with new drawer pulls.

3. Give the entire piece a light sanding to give it some teeth.

4. Cover with spray paint, that includes a primer, in a color that you don't mind showing through the cracks of the leafing. Allow to dry.

5. Paint a thin coat of water-based sizing on every bit of surface where you want to apply the leaf. The sizing goes on in a chalky color, and you can tell it's tacky and ready to use when it turns clear. That takes about 20 minutes, and it remains sticky for more than 30 hours.

6. Apply the leaf by laying a sheet on the surface of the dresser and tapping down with a gilder's brush. Apply the next leaf with a slight overlap for a more seamless look. Use your brush to wipe away loose bits of leaf. Repeat until covered.

7. Brush on acrylic Clear-Coat to seal the surface from abrasions, water and light damage. Allow to dry.

8. Install knobs and move your finished piece back to a prominent place to show it off.

Old furniture, new persona