It Takes 20,000 Hammer Blows to Make Gold Leaf at This Mandalay Workshop

Wielding seven-pound hammers, rows of young men in a Mandalay workshop rhythmically take aim at their precious targets with the goal of creating the thinnest of gold leaf.

The process starts with tiny squares of 22-karat gold separated from the next by a layer of protective bamboo paper. Hundreds of these gold-and-paper pairs are neatly stacked like pages in a book and then tightly wrapped in a bundle made from deer hide. After 20,000 hammer blows over five grueling hours, the gold is reduced to a thickness of just .0001 inches — about 30 times thinner than a human hair.

Writer and National Geographic fellow Paul Solopek shared his experiences at Myanmar's King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop on the magazine's website.

Solopek reported that the young tradesmen aim for the center of their deer-hide targets to achieve the ideal thinness, as the gold grows hot from the thousands of blows. An antique clock called a clepsydra guides the workday. It is constructed of a coconut shell floating in a bucket of water. The coconut shell has a small hole, which causes it to take on water and sink every hour, signaling a 15-minute break for the workers.

The writer noted that gold leaf manufacturing in Myanmar is many centuries old and is closely associated with Buddhist rituals.

Gold is nature’s most malleable metal. That means that it can be pounded so thin that one ounce of gold could cover about 100 square feet of a surface. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) calculated that it would take 576 ounces (or just 36 pounds) of gold to completely cover a football field. The element is also ductile, which means that gold can be made into the thinnest wire. The AMNH notes that one ounce of gold can be drawn into 50 miles of wire, five microns thick.

Edible 24-karat gold leaf has become a culinary treat for over-the-top eateries looking to add a touch of decadence to a main dish, dessert or drink. Gold is tasteless and is not harmful to the digestive system because it is inert.

Please check out this short video of the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop…

Credits: Screen captures via Gold leaf photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.