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Gravestone Rubbing

By: Dawn

Gravestone rubbing can be controversial. Many rubbers are not careful, for this reason, some cemetery associations do not allow stone rubbing. The truth is, it can be very harmful to a gravestone causing flaking and breaking. Rubbing can cause decay so rubbing is often banned. So be sure to check, never assume it is allowed. It is a better choice to take pictures of the stones.

If you have determine that it is acceptable and you wish to do it, there are still some basic rules to follow, not only to make sure that you don’t inadvertently do any damage, but to ensure that your rubbing turns out well. Avoid rough stones, which are eroded or otherwise damaged, or have lichen on them. To get a good, clean-line print, the stone carving must be sharply but not deeply cut. Rounded, high relief carving will cause you to tear the paper as you rub, and you will risk defacing the stone with color. Note any hollowness or separation or flaking on the face of the stone. Any pressure or friction on the face of an unsound stone can seriously damage it.

Using the broad, flat area of your chalk or wax, lightly stroke the paper and watch the design appear. When you can see the design rather well, use the end of your chalk stick or wax bar to fill in and darken your print. You will decide when your rubbing satisfies you and is finished. Remove your print and put it where it will be protected from sudden showers or gusts of wind while you are in the graveyard.

You will want to record the name of the deceased, date of death, location of the graveyard and the date the rubbing was taken. If you rub only the ornamental carving rather than the whole stone, you may want to copy the stone’s full inscription for your record. The most important part of doing any gravestone rubbing is to respect the rules of the cemetery, be careful with old stones, and have fun.

These basic do’s and don’ts have been taken from the Association for Gravestone Studies, a wonderful resource for information regarding all things gravestone related.

Gravestone Rubbing Do’s

  • Check (with cemetery superintendent, cemetery commissioners, town clerk, historical society, whoever is in charge) to see if rubbing is allowed in the cemetery.
  • Get permission and/or a permit as required.
  • Rub only solid stones in good condition. Check for any cracks, evidence of previous breaks and adhesive repairs, defoliating stone with air pockets behind the face of the stone that will collapse under pressure of rubbing, etc
  • Become educated; learn how to rub responsibly.
  • Use a soft brush and plain water to do any necessary stone cleaning.
  • Make certain that your paper covers the entire face of the stone; secure with painters tape.
  • Use the correct combination of paper and waxes or inks; avoid magic marker-type pens or other permanent color materials.
  • Test paper and color before working on stone to be certain that no color bleeds through.
  • Rub gently, carefully.
  • Leave the stone in better condition than you found it.
  • Take all trash with you; replace any gravesite materials that you may have disturbed.

Gravestone Rubbing Don’ts

  • Don’t attempt to rub deteriorating marble or sandstone, or any unsound or weakened stone (for example, a stone that sounds hollow when gently tapped or a stone that is flaking, splitting, blistered, cracked, or unstable on its base).
  • Don’t use detergents, soaps, vinegar, bleach, or any other cleaning solutions on the stone, no matter how mild!
  • Don’t use shaving cream, chalk, graphite, dirt, or other concoctions in an attempt to read worn inscriptions. Using a large mirror to direct bright sunlight diagonally across the face of a grave marker casts shadows in indentations and makes inscriptions more visible.
  • Don’t use stiff-bristled or wire brushes, putty knives, nail files, or any metal object to clean or to remove lichen from the stone; Soft natural bristled brushes, whisk brooms, or wooden sticks are usually OK if used gently and carefully
  • Don’t attempt to remove stubborn lichen. Soft lichen may be thoroughly soaked with plain water and then loosened with a gum eraser or a wooden popsicle stick. Be gentle. Stop if lichen does not come off easily.
  • Don’t use spray adhesives, scotch tape, or duct tape. Use painters tape.
  • Don’t use any rubbing method that you have not actually practiced under supervision.
  • Don’t leave painters tape, wastepaper, colors, etc., at the grave site.

Supplies Needed

When beginning to do gravestone rubbings, you will want to invest in some basic supplies as well.

  • Painters Tape
  • Scissors
  • A small spray bottle of water and soft brush for cleaning away debris.
  • Paper
  • Rubbing medium

There are many types of papers and rubbing mediums to use. Most people like to start with a lightweight paper. You can use wrapping paper, vellum, rice paper, or newsprint. Tape the paper onto the gravestone, making sure that the edges of the paper overlap the edges of the stone. This not only helps to make sure the paper doesn’t move while doing your rubbing but protects the stone so that no rubbing medium gets onto the stone.

Just as with paper, you have many options for rubbing mediums, depending on the look you want to achieve. Rubbing wax is a good choice, as is lumberman’s chalk, graphite, and even crayons. You can use fixing spray, to seal your chalk and graphite rubbings and prevent smearing.

Click on pictures below if you need a product.

picture Set of Five Color Sumi Ink Sticks

pictureKorn’s Lithographic Rubbing Ink Sticks – Black

picture Yellow Mountain Pine Smoke Ink Stick

pictureSumi Rice Paper Roll

picture Staedtler Mars Vellum Paper

picture Bundle Newsprint Sheets

picture3M 2090 Scotch-Blue Painter’s Tape

pictureRazor-Edged Bent Scissors

picturePlastic Trigger Spray Bottle

pictureTough Guy 1VAE2 Nylon Brush

picture Sennelier Delacroix Fixative


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