Cleaning Gravestones can prove to be a tedious and difficult job, however with
the right knowledge and materials it is possible.
Metallic brushes are entirely too harsh, and they also leave particles on the
surface of the stone that can rust.
Small, soft, slanted paintbrush - To clean debris and critters out of lettering
At least one large sponge
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, a neutral PH detergent which is made by Kodak
and used in photo developing. It will clean the stone without affecting the chemical balance of
the stone. Mix one capfull per gallon of water. A 2 gallon garden spray bottle can normally do
several stones if used properly. Wash stone with solution, then rinse stone with clean water.
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.
Cutting Tool - Hand-held grass clippers, scissors or a retractable razor knife for trimming grass
and/or weeds close to the stones. Do NOT use weed whacker type trimmers as these can
scar the stones. 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 chain saw.
Pencil and Notepad to record information about the stone or cemetery location.
In addition, you will want to also look at taking along the following safety items:
Drinking water - plan to bring at least several quarts of water with you for drinking , apart from
the water you use for washing the stones.
Gloves - 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
IvyBlock (for poison ivy, oak and sumac)
ABOUT STAINS AND STAIN REMOVAL
Before you attempt to remove a stain, it is extremely important to know what has caused it. If
you don't know, it is highly recommended that you consult a stone specialist
Avoid using chemicals of any kind until you know which chemical cleaner to use. Certain
chemicals will react with the spilled material, and could make the stain permanent.
Removing stains from marble or granite can prove difficult. These stones are porous materials,
and If not thoroughly sealed they we be susceptible to staining. The only way a stain can be
removed is to use a safe chemical that will pull it out of the stone and an absorbent material
that will soak up the stain. This chemical absorbent-material combination is commonly referred
to as a poultice.
Poultices are commonly powder or cloth materials that can be mixed with a chemical and
placed on top of the stain. Refer to the table below for some of the more common poultice
materials. Clays and diatomaceous earth are safe and readily available, but do not use
whiting or clays containing iron with an acidic chemical; iron will react with the acid, and may
cause rust staining. It is best to purchase powders that are designed specifically for stone and
tile. Consult a stone restoration specialist or your stone supplier if in doubt.
Paper towels Cotton balls Gauze pads Clays such as attapulgite, kaolin, fuller's earth Talc
Chalk (whiting) Sepiolite Diatomaceous earth Methyl cellulose Flour Saw dust How to apply
To apply a poultice, take the following steps:
1. Clean the stained area with water and stone soap. Remember to blot rather than wipe.
2. Pre-wet the stained area with a little water. Distilled water is recommended.
3. Refer to the chart and determine which chemical to use for the stain.
4. Mix the poultice material with the selected chemical. Mix until a thick peanut-butter paste
consistency is obtained.
5. Apply the paste to the stained area, overlapping the stain by at least ¼ . Do not make the
application too thick, or it will take a long time to dry.
6. Cover the paste with a plastic sandwich bag or food wrap. Tape the plastic using a low-contact
7. Allow the paste to sit for 12–24 hours.
8. Remove the plastic cover and check to see if the paste has dried. If it has not, allow it to sit
uncovered until thoroughly dry.
9. Once it is dry, remove the paste by scraping and rinse the area.
10. Examine the stain. If it still remains, but is somewhat lighter, re-poultice until it is gone. If
the stain refuses to disappear completely, it is time to give up, replace the tile or call a stone
Stain removal can be very difficult, and care must be taken when using a poultice.
(The above information from The National Training Center for Stone and Masonry Trades)
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.
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. 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
Before starting, all surfaces of the stone should be checked. If there is any question as to the
stone's condition, do not attempt to clean it, as the surface could be irreparably damaged in
Start with a test patch of your proposed cleaning technique on an area of the structure that is
The stone surface should be thoroughly pre-soaked with water.
Thoroughly wash with plain water the pre-wetted stone with natural, soft bristled (natural or nylon),
wooden-handled brushes of various sizes. The use of plastic handles is not recommended, as
colors from the handles may leave material on the stone that will be very difficult to remove.
Wire brushes, metal instruments and abrasive pads may give you instant satisfaction but, if
you clean with anything that is harder than the stone, you risk scratching the face of the stone
and causing more damage in the long run. Be thorough. Wash all surfaces. Scrub the stone
from the bottom up to avoid further streaking and staining. Always watch carefully to make
sure that none of the stone’s surface is eroding as you scrub. Rinse thoroughly, with lots of
Keep the stone wet at all times; really wet. Where a garden hose is not available, be sure to
bring plenty of jugs of water and keep dousing the stone as you work and, most importantly,
flush the stone well when done.
Remove bird droppings, dirt moss, lichen etc. from the stone if possible. This will insure clear
and sharp copy. If lichen is a problem, you can scrape with a wooden or plastic scraper.
Tongue blades or craft sticks work well. Also, inexpensive plastic putty scrapers from home
stores work well. Remember, no metal. If you have any trouble getting any of these materials
off the stone, STOP and be sure that you do not cause any damage the stone in your attempt
to clean it.
If used, do not allow detergent solutions to dry on the stone while cleaning.
Some stains in porous stones cannot be removed. Do not expect the stones to appear new
Do not clean marble, limestone, or sandstone more than once every 18 months. These types
of stone may occasionally be rinsed with clean water to remove bird droppings and other
accretions. Granite can be cleaned as needed.
Keep a record of the cleaning, including date of cleaning, materials used and any change in
condition since last cleaning (such as missing parts, graffiti, and other damage). These records
should be kept at a central location where the condition of the stone can be monitored over
time. Saving Graves will be happy to store this information as a part of a cemetery protection
To clear up a common misconception, lichens do not eat the rock, rather they naturally grow
on stone surfaces that are available to them, whether these surfaces are naturally occurring or
are artifacts of human activity. You will not be helping to preserve the stones by removing the
lichen. The gray and orange patches formed by lichens on gravestones give a distinctive
character to an old cemetery. These attractive "time-stains" not only enhance the appearance
of the churchyard but are often of some rarity for which, like many other organisms, the
cemetery is a wildlife sanctuary. Many lichens require a particular type of stone on which to
live and, in many lowland districts, the cemetery may be the only undisturbed location in the
area for many of these types of stones.
There are differing views as to whether lichens damage the stone on which they are growing or
whether they protect it. There is evidence that the acid substances produced by lichens can
attack the stone, but this effect is limited to a very thin layer immediately under the lichen.
Any small cracks present or caused by this process will probably be infiltrated by the fine
root-like hairs (fungal hyphae) of the lichen and this may cause more damage. It has, however,
been argued that any damage caused by these processes is less than would be brought about
by the weather if the lichen was not present. The tough, rather thick, lichen can protect the
underlying stone from the weathering effects of wind, rain and frost. On some soft stones in
exposed sites the lichens may eventually cover raised areas where the surrounding stone has
been eroded away by natural weathering.
In some circumstances it may be necessary to remove lichens and various methods have
been used with success. You'll never get a crustose lichen off a rock and keep the rock's
surface intact. Lichens cause differential weathering on the rock which is visible as stains.
On basic rocks the lichens will stain the rocks by their acids. The lichens also shield the
rock from radiation which can lead to differences in color even on acidic rocks. If the purpose
is to enable an inscription to be read, other ways of doing this should be tried first before the
removal of the lichens. These methods, to increase the clarity of an inscription, include
wetting or looking at it in the twilight with a torch shone along the inscription on a gravestone
at a low angle. This will enable many worn inscriptions to be read. If it is deemed that cleaning
is essential, only the minimum area necessary should be treated. This may be done by
physically rubbing the lichens from the surface. Where this is done on a smooth stone the
result may be unsightly as it is almost impossible to remove many crusty lichens from the
lettering of the inscription. The lichens remaining in the lettering and cracks will probably
regrow but rare lichens may have been lost from the surface. Another physical method that
has been used is to cover the area to be cleaned with black polythene. It may take some
months for the lichens to die but they may then be removed with a brush.
A homemade poultice an be produced using Dry porcelain clay mixed to a peanut-butter
consistency with equal parts of water and glycerin. Small quantities of glycerin are available
at most pharmacies; for larger quantities, search the Internet for soap-making supplies, floral
supplies, etc. or check your Yellow Pages for "soapmaking supplies"; the large craft stores
might carry it as well (Michaels, Hobby Lobby, etc.) Just be sure to stay away from "glycerin
melt-and-pour" soap base. You'll need straight glycerin (you'll mostly likely find "vegetable"
glycerin). Please be sure NOT to ask for NITRO-GLYCERIN. You will have every law
enforcement agency in the country checking your personal history and watching your every
The Association for Gravestone Studies suggests that Calcium Hypochlorite (e.g., Chlorine,
"HTH," "Shock Treatment") is effective for the removal of biological growth. It is a granular
product that is not to be confused with "liquid chlorine" or sodium hypochlorite.
Calcium hypochlorite is available from swimming pool suppliers. A suggested cleaning
solution is one ounce calcium hypochlorite to one gallon hot water. Please keep in mind
that this product should be used only when a waterhose with a good water pressure (e.g.,
55 psi) is available. Any water pressure over 40 psi has the potential to cause significant
damage to a stone, depending on the condition of the stone. Saving Graves recommends
alternatives to this method if at all possible.
Whatever method is used care should be taken to treat as small an area as possible and
not allow the chemicals to drip onto adjacent parts of the stone or statue. Before commencing
try to get an experienced lichenologist to check that there are no rare lichens present.
Remember, before you kill them, that these lichens may have been growing on the stone
for many years.
Please note this practice has been regulated or banned in some states and in many
cemeteries (particularly in colonial graveyards) due to the damage it can cause to the
stone. Because old gravestones are an important part of our national heritage, you should
be as careful with them as you are when handling other ancient folk art treasures. Many
cemeteries now ask for permits before you are allowed to do rubbings. Common courtesy
tells us that we should first ask for permission from the cemetery or graveyard superintendent
or sexton prior to doing rubbings or taking photographs. We strongly advise to check this
information out in advance, if at all possible. How can we expect the general public to respect
our cemeteries if we ourselves don't abide by the rules and regulations?
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