How to do Rubbings on Headstones
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
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 chain saw.
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 feeling cloth.
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 tombstone.
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 mailing tube.
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 items:
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. More
detailed information on why not to use shaving cream on a stone can be found here.
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" sound, 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. Our How To
Clean A Headstone page offers tips and advice on this process.
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
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
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.
Return to North Carolina Cemeteries Home Page