Here is a step by step guide to take any 3d print and give it that added luster of low-cost imitation silver leaf. I've also done some work in the past using genuine gold leaf (which can be quite pricey) on 3d prints, you can see an example here on my website.
This particular instructable involves a pair of 3d printed hands, from a series of prints of some works entitled "Taliban Hands". You can read more about the background and meaning of these works here.
Lets get started!
Step 1: Gather Your Materials...
The materials for this process are readily available online and at most art, hobby or craft supply stores.
1) You will need a 3D print.
2) Speedball Metal Leaf (composition metal leaf), this is essentially aluminum alloy. You can certainly choose to use genuine silver or gold, it is just much more expensive.
3) Leafing adhesive - I tried two of these, one is from Old World Art "gold leaf" Adhesive Size #802 - this has worked great for me in the past for genuine gold leaf, it didn't work quite as well with the imitation silver leaf. What I did use was Speedball Spray Adhesive for Metal Leaf.
4) 3" Gilding Brush, you can find these anywhere that sells leafing supplies, they come in various sizes.
5) Soft brushes 1" and 1/2".
6) Tweezers and an x-acto knife.
7) Not pictured here, grey primer and clear flat coat spray paint.
Step 2: Prime Your 3D Prints...
I used standard grey primer to give these 3D prints a good undercoat. You definitely do not want to leave your 3d prints white! The grey serves both as an undercoat with a matt surface to better adhere the leafing as well as insuring that if (and when) your finished work gets scratched you will have grey underpainting showing through rather than white. Spray paint these out of doors of course and allow to dry thoroughly before proceeding.
Step 3: Start Leafing!
You will see I am working in an enclosed cardboard box, this is a good idea as the leafing tends to become airborne as you work and can make quite the mess.
1) Spray you 3D prints with the Spray Adhesive, follow the directions on the can.
2) Carefully remove your leaf squares from the booklet that they come in. This is generally where you will use the 3" gilding brush. Professional gilders I've watched online brush this through their hair to generate static, then touching it to the leaf in the book to gently pick up a sheet (watch a demo here, there are dozens online, this one is great as the lady is a bit whacky. Some use the brush to pick up the leaf, some use the paper. Do what you like, what works best for you!
3) Place the leaf on the object. I then use the soft brushes to gently tamp down the leaf so it melds onto the object. I use the brushes to as well brush away any excess.
4) That is really all there is to it! These hands were challenging due to the complex surface, the spaces between the fingers and such. With time and patience, all the surfaces of the 3d prints were covered.
Step 4: Sealing Your Leafed 3D Prints...
The final step in the process is to seal your leaf to your 3d prints. I use Tamiya brand model paint, matt clear enamel. This is really great stuff! Don't use the cheapo clear coats you will be disappointed!
I set up a cardboard box outside as a quickie spray booth - sprayed one side, let it dry, moved the prints, and so on. Once these are dry the clear coat works very well to protect your work.