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Leaves of Gold

Urban Billmeier makes gold leaf the old-fashioned way--he hammers it.



"Like gold to airy thinness beat."

When the poet John Donne first wrote these words, his Elizabethan readers had no trouble understanding them. They had seen the goldbeater pounding the precious metal into delicate leaves that would cover the domes of London's churches or adorn the ceilings of great houses.

But goldbeaters today are rarer than gold. A 75-year-old Chicagoan may be the last practitioner of a craft described by Homer and depicted in Egyptian tomb painting. With a name as unusual as his work, Urban Billmeier has been making gold leaf by hand since 1930.

"It was always a matter of argument," he says, referring to his name. "My mother said I was named after the pope; my father said I was named after the pitcher (Urban "Red" Faber)." The White Sox didn't hire Faber till two years after Billmeier's birth, but then the last pope named Urban, the eighth, died in 1644.

Only a few American companies still make gold leaf and all of them use machines. A spokesman for the Hartford-based M. Swift & Sons said that Billmeier may well be the last to do it by hand. Though demand for gold leaf has waned, Swift and the other companies continue to sell to their traditional buyers: gilders, sign makers, sculptors, and builders.

What does Billmeier think of machine-made gold leaf? "It's poor. Machines still don't do as good a job. They can't think."

Billmeier's gold leaf covers courthouses and capitols from one end of the country to the other. When the State Department decided to refurbish its Benjamin Franklin dining room, the gilder they contracted asked Billmeier to supply the leaf. Minnesota's statehouse in Saint Paul has his handiwork; so does the dome of the courthouse in Dubuque, Iowa. Billmeier once made a suit of leaf for the statue of Alexander Hamilton in Lincoln Park. A second was needed after vandals scraped off the first and carried it away piecemeal. Says Billmeier: "At that rate, they couldn't make ten cents an hour."

Billmeier's decision to enter the goldbeating business was a desperation move. As a high school senior in the fall of '29, he faced the worst job market of the century. He was apprenticed to his father ("If your father won't give you a job, who will?") as a "stiff," the name given to aspiring goldbeaters.

Wehrung & Billmeier had been making gold leaf since 1905 and business was booming. The shop's 32 goldbeaters had enough work to keep them hammering well into the evening hours. But the Depression changed that.

"When FDR raised the price of gold to $35 an ounce in 1932, it cut business in half," Billmeier says. The demand for gold leaf has never been the same. Substitutes were used, industry started making it by machine, and stiffs were nowhere to be found.

But the now white-haired Billmeier did well enough to provide for his wife, Lillian, and his four children, one of whom might enter the business as a second career. He has as much work as he wants and worries that West Virginia will decide to gild the dome of its capitol. "It would take me all summer," he says, shaking his head.

Billmeier's shop lies a few blocks west of the Southport el station in a quiet section of Lakeview. He's never lived or worked more than a mile from the house where he was born. The shop itself doesn't seem the ideal atmosphere for art. Its 15-foot ceilings, flaking brown paint, and low-watt light bulbs make it look more like a warehouse. Scattered about are ingots, hammers, and iron pots -- the goldbeater's tools.

As Billmeier explains it, the process has remained largely unchanged for centuries. He starts with a 5-inch piece of 24-karat gold, which he melts and pours into an ingot, or mold. A dash of copper is added to the molten metal to make it easier to work once it solidifies.

After hardening, the metal is run through a mill to produce a ribbon of gold more than 20 feet long and a thousandth of an inch thick. The ribbon is cut into 220 "leaves," each 1 1/4 square inches in area; the leaves are inserted between the pages of a special packet called a cutch. Now the beating begins.

"I have a strong back," Billmeier says, lifting the 16-pound "cutch hammer" with ease. Pounding the packet for 20 minutes with this hammer spreads the 220 leaves to 4 square inches. These are then quartered and placed in a second packet called a shoder (pronounced SHO-der). "You can't buy these anymore," says Billmeier of the shoder, whose pages are made from the intestines of old oxen. He claims that those made from younger animals are "not worth a darn. They're fine for making sausage, but not for a goldbeater."

Two more hours of beating spreads the 880 leaves in the shoder from 1 square inch to 4 1/4 square inches. These too are quartered; then comes a third beating, four hours long, in a packet called a mould, also made from intestines. The final result: 3,520 gold leaves, 3 3/8 inches square and 1/250,000 inch thick. But numbers alone can't capture the magic. Billmeier gently lifts one leaf from its packet with wooden tongs and holds it to the light. Donne's "airy thinness" is at once apparent.

Billmeier delights in his work. Four heart attacks and more robberies than he can remember have not daunted the cheerful goldbeater, who boasts that he can fill most orders the day he receives them. "I feel sorry for those who look forward to 65 and then stay at home and die of boredom," he says.

But the heart attacks and robberies have affected him. He used to walk the short distance to work, now he drives; and he keeps little gold on hand. He laughs when he tells how a thief once dynamited his safe. "This must have been an old-timer," a detective told him at the time. "We haven't seen this for years.

Billmeier still works a 20-hour week and is assisted only by several "bookers" who trim the finished leaves and set them in books of 25. Twenty books (500 leaves) make a pack and sell wholesale for $325. And how much gold does it take to make 500 leaves? About one-quarter ounce.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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