Without question, when it comes to recording inscriptions, one of the most demanding
problems is when the stone has become so weathered over time that the lettering
becomes almost impossible to read. Tombstone rubbings have been commonly used
for many years as one of the primary methods for the preservation of a stone's
inscription. The following information is designed to show how to do a tombstone
rubbing safely, and when to use an alternative method of documentation.
Metallic brushes are entirely too harsh, can cause damage to the stone, and they
also leave particles on the surface of the stone that can rust. You should use the
softest bristle brush possible.
At least one large sponge
Used for among other things, soaking up excess water when washing a stone.
You may also want to bring a small spray bottle of water for gently cleaning dirt
and debris from the stone. The spray bottle, should contain only water and not
detergent or chemicals of any kind that would damage and further erode the
stone's material. You might want to use Photo Flo, which is made by Kodak
and used in photo developing. Mix one cap full per gallon of water. Wash stone
with solution, then rinse stone with clean water.
Can be found in most nurseries, garden supply stores or department stores
such as Target.
Towel or old rags
Used to kneel on or clean polished granite stones. Launder them first, but do
NOT use fabric softener. The softener will affect their ability to absorb liquids
as well as cutting down on the "magnetism" for dirt and dust.
Bring along a sample size of antibacterial waterless hand cleaners or wipes.
Masking or drafting tape
Keep in mind here that most, if not all tapes - duct, masking, strapping tape,
etc. all leave adhesive behind. You want to try to find a way to attach the
paper to the stone that will leave nothing behind. As an alternative, you may
want to hook together several rubber bands to make a long rubber band that
will go around the grave stone, using one at the top and one at the bottom
of the stone to hold the paper in place.
Scissors or retractable razor knife
To cut paper or trim tall grass around the base of a stone
Hand-held grass clippers
For trimming grass and/or weeds close to the stones. Do NOT use weed
whacker type trimmers as these can scar the stones. These are quite
likely the single most destructive implement to ever be introduced into
a cemetery, and there are hundreds of examples of the damage that
these tools have sauced to stones by people that use them to clear away
grass and weeds by base of the stone. For site clearing/cleaning, a pair
of pruning shears or hedge clippers is also helpful for brush that is too thick
to rip out or cut with grass clippers, but not thick enough to bother with a
Rubbing Surface - Paper
Most monument companies will supply you with a special blue paper. It
contains wax in it and is designed for doing rubbings of gravestones. The
important thing about this paper is not to let it get hot, as the wax will melt
and then the paper will not make good rubbings. There are some who have
expressed reservations regarding the use of this paper and advise against
using it, saying that "it leaves the wax behind and thus creates a barrier
for the natural transpiration and absorption of water. It will also melt and
turn dark or "waxy" with age and ruin the natural color and patina of the
stones". If you cannot find this paper, plain white paper, newsprint, butcher
paper, rice paper will work.
Rubbing Surface - Pellon
Pellon works well, never is brittle and you can even find it in colors in many
cases. Pellon comes in a variety of stiffness. The thickest which is
specifically made for heavy fabrics. The lightest, or thinnest, is made for
lightweight fabrics and works best for rubbings. Look for plain with no
iron-on dots on it. Once your rubbing is finished, and you have returned
home, take out your iron, foil, wax paper, and ironing board. Set the Pellon
on the ironing board with the crayon side up, put foil under the Pellon to
protect the ironing board and wax paper (waxy side down) on top of the
crayon. Iron on a low setting, just high enough to melt the crayon into the
fabric. The end result is a very sturdy and frameable rubbing that could
last many lifetimes.
Rubbing Surface - Newsprint
Blank newsprint paper can be purchased at larger craft stores or art supply
stores in large pads, or also can usually be purchased as roll ends from
a local newspaper for a very modest price. Some printers will even give it
away. They do however usually need the spools returned. One drawback
with using newsprint is that it is extremely acidic. Because it's dry when
you use it, it shouldn't hurt the stone or leave residue, however, the newsprint
will disintegrate and turn yellow and brittle over time.
Rubbing Surface - Pellon
Tissue paper transfers easily, however, it is very fragile. A interesting
alternative that can be used is a very thin chamois or a thin fake leather
Rubbing Surface - Butcher Paper
Can be found in most Butcher shops or grocery store meat departments.
If you wish to accommodate any size tombstone, you could take a
(partial/whole) roll of butcher paper,tearing off what you need for each
Tip - You may want to take your rubbing papers of choice, already cut to
size, with you from home at the start of your trip, carrying them in a
These include rubbing wax, black crayon charcoal and similar products.
With either charcoal or chalk, insure that a fixative is used. Be sure that
your medium will in no way leave any residue on the stone. The Oregon
Historic Cemeteries Alliance offers the following instructions on making
your own rubbing crayons. Gather all the leftover crayons from the kids
(all those little broken or remaining pieces) or go buy a new box--cheap
ones may be best. Melt them in a can. Place the can in a pot with just
a few inches of water and bring the water to a boil. Stay with the crayons
until they are melted. Use an old muffin tin (big muffins--not the tiny
ones) with a muffin paper (makes it easier to get out of the tin when finished)
and pour the melted crayons into the tin. Let stand until crayons are
completely solid again. The muffin paper will leave ridges in the sides of
the crayon, but these will wear down quickly. By using this method, you
can reuse the leftovers of these rubbing crayons, again and again.
A carpenter's crayon can also be used, and while somewhat more expensive
they will not melt in a hot car.
Fixative, such as Tuffilm Final Fixative made by Grumbacher, can be
purchased at any crafts store. Try to use a matte finish if possible.
Make sure it is NON-YELLOWING.
Cardboard tube or art portfolio
Used for storing clean paper and finished prints.
Pencil and Notepad
Used to record information about the stone or cemetery location.
In addition, you will want to also look at taking along the following safety
Plan to bring at least several quarts of water with you for drinking , apart
from the water you use for washing the stones.
Both work gloves and rubber gloves.
First Aid kit
Bee and wasp spray
Antibacterial liquid soap and or waterless instant hand sanitizer
Protective hand lotion
For poison ivy, oak and sumac.
A NOTE ABOUT SHAVING CREAM AND FLOUR
A word of advice, DON'T use shaving cream, flour or anything else on
tombstones!. These have many ingredients harmful to tombstones (like
butane) and in some cases can be abrasive. There are a number of
websites that promote this method, with one going so far as to assure
that the shaving cream will not harm the stone. Please do not attempt this
as you WILL be causing a great of damage to the stone and even by
washing it after you are finished you will not remove all of the material
that you have placed on the stone.
In the case of flour, Daniel H. Weiskotten [email@example.com] states
that "introducing a starchy organic material to the stone is a death nell
for it. it not only will feed the lichens that are there but will introduce
new ones which will have little natural competition. Also, wheat paste,
which the flour essentially becomes when that first rain pours down (or
the first dew forms) is a great adhesive. Just because we can't see any
of it doesn't mean that it is all gone. Those little fungi and microbes
love that sort of stuff and it is best not to introduce anything to the
surface of the stone."
Practice on a rock at home, or check with a local monuments store to see
if you can practice on one of their tombstones, before going to the cemetery.
As mentioned at the top of this page, before you start check with the
cemetery or with the state or local Historical Society to learn if tombstone
rubbings are permissible. This practice has been banned in some states
and cemeteries due to the damage it can cause. In the case of cemeteries
located on private property, remember that you are doing rubbings on
someone else's property. It is ALWAYS advised to gain permission by
attempting to speak with the property owner, and explain want you want
to do, BEFORE you begin. We have put together a sample permission
form for your use in attempting to gain permission, with instructions. If
you do not get permission, please respect the wishes of the cemetery
and ask if you can take a photograph to record the information and condition
of the stone. If you find that a gravestone is severely damaged, please
notify the property owner or supervisor of the cemetery.
AT THE CEMETERY
Be sure that the tombstone that you have chosen is completely stable.
If it is wobbly or the surface is crumbling, then DO NOT do a rubbing.
Take a photograph instead. Lightly rap on the stone; if it has a "hollow" s
ound, DO NOT use this stone to make a rubbing because it is vulnerable
to accidental damage. Before starting a stone rubbing, it may be necessary
to first clean the stone.
RUBBING THE STONE
Make sure the stone is clean and completely dry. Tape will not adhere
to a wet stone, and the dampness will make the paper fragile and liable to
tear. Besides ruining any chance of a rubbing, this may cause you to
accidentally damage the stone with your rubbing material. Cut a piece
of your paper or other rubbing material to a size slightly larger than the
stone. If possible, write any information on or about the stone, inscription,
date, location, etc. on the back of the paper before doing the rubbing so
you don't smear your rubbing. Or, carry a small notebook, write the
information on a page, tear out and roll up with your rubbing. Tape the
paper to the stone. Make sure that it is secure so that it won't slide as
you are rubbing and cause a blurred image, and that it covers the face
of the stone completely, so that you won't get marks on it.
If only doing lunettes, please be sure that a large enough area is covered
to protect the stone.
With your fingers, press the paper lightly against the stone. This will
cause the paper to indent into the carvings, resulting in a clearer image,
with less rubbing medium accidentally transferring into "blank" areas.
Using rubbing wax, a large crayon, charcoal, or chalk, gently start to rub
along the outside edges - creating a "frame" for your rubbing. Using
long, even strokes following the same direction, fill in the "frame".
Rub lightly to start with, and then apply more pressure to darken in the
design if it suits you. Be very careful and gentle.
If you used chalk for your rubbing, then carefully spray the paper with a
chalk spray such as Krylon. Be very careful not to get any on the
tombstone. It is best to remove the paper from the stone and lay it flat on
the ground in an area away from any stones before spraying. When the
rubbing is done, carefully remove it from the tombstone and trim the edges
to suit your liking. Remove the tape from the paper, being careful not to
tear the edges of the paper.
If you have a general idea as to the size of the stones that you will be
rubbing, you could pre cut your rubbing papers of choice at home and carry
them in a paper or plastic mailing tube. You can also use a plastic 3"
sewer or PVC plastic pipe, with one flat end cap glued in place to the
pipe and on the other end a screw in cap, that is meant to be a cleanout.
This way you will have your transportation problem solved prior to starting
your trip. Art portfolios used to transport drawings/oils/pastels, etc. are
great for storage and transportation of rubbings that need to be laid flat.
These can be somewhat expensive, but are well worth it if you plan to
do this over a long period of time. They have a handle and zipper,
can be locked, and are great for traveling on planes or long trips. Cheaper
portfolios, made of lightweight cardboard and having only an elastic-band
or wound-string closure, can also be used for short-term storage, when
you will be handling the package yourself and don't need to worry about
it being mishandled by a baggage attendant. Take along a roll of
kitchen waxed paper to go between each rubbing which will reduce or
prevent smudging until you get home.
If you bring your fixative with you, please take into account that any
aerosol type of can, especially one containing flammables, is liable to
confiscation by airlines, as it is dangerous to carry such materials
aboard a plane.
PRESERVING THE RUBBING
Once you get your rubbings home and wish to preserve them in their original
state, use an aerosol adhesive product. Two sets of tweezers (found in
"beading" section of art supply) should be used to manipulate the rubbing
(paper) onto acid-free mat board, available at most art supply stores.
Carefully line up the bottom edge of the rubbing paper with the bottom
edge of the board, then gently smooth the paper upward onto the board
using light pressure with a roller. Be sure to keep the paper taut to
prevent creasing or wrinkling. If you wish to further preserve rubbings
applied to mat board, apply the board to foam core, which is stiff enough to
withstand just about any handling. Make sure the foam core is also
acid-free, or it will contaminate the mat board over time.
If you choose to frame your rubbings, be sure the framer includes "spacers"
between the paper and the glass, to enable the paper to "breathe", and prevent
damage from condensation or mildew.
Aluminum Foil Rubbing - An alternative to traditional wax or crayon type rubbings
is that of aluminum foil & a damp sponge. Place foil on marker, dull side up so
the sun doesn't reflect back into your eyes Using the damp sponge press
gently so as to not tear the foil around the carving or writing areas and instantly
you have a 3-D impression of the marker that you can keep or ball it up and
put it into your recycling bag.
Glenn Fields Send your questions (and thanks) directly to Glenn
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