Friday, July 30, 2010

Make: Gravestone Rubbing

Another tutorial re-boot from, although it's more of a recap of my experience and a guide to other resources than an actual how-to..

This was something my grandmother did when I was a kid. It's been close to 30 years since I've tried it. A few years ago, I ordered a stone-rubbing kit, but didn't do anything with it except lose one of the pieces. I also ordered the video linked below. On an overcast Sunday, in late April '06, I took the "boughten" kit and the other items I'd assembled, and headed to a local cemetery.

It was a real learning experience. First off, it's quite physical work. And time-consuming, if you do it right. Two major things to take with you, in addition to the materials needed for rubbing: sunscreen and drinking water. I remembered the first, and attempted to get the second, but the store had NONE in stock. Not even in the machines outside (truly bizarre). I figured I wouldn't be that long so it wouldn't matter, but I was mistaken! Even on a cool, overcast day, I got a little dehydrated.

The most important thing to remember is to do no harm to the stones! Check out some of the resources below for tips about how to clean them (plain water only), etc.. Common sense plays a part too -- don't touch stones that are leaning, crumbling, or have been patched together (right). Take a camera too, and just photograph any stones that might be jeopardized by rubbing. Note: Please be aware that some states have outlawed the taking of rubbings.

  • Association for Gravestone Studies
  • Morbid Outlook: How to do gravestone rubbings
  • Cryptic Clues in the Bone Yard. I have this video in my collection, and found it to be quite interesting. It shows you how to build a complete kit without spending a ton of money. The benefit to the video over a website is that you can watch someone do a rubbing.
  • Cyndi's List - a list of cemeteries & funeral homes. Intended for genealogists who want to find a particular grave; however, there may be resources that will help you find a good cemetery to visit.
  • There are stone-rubbing kits available. The one I purchased had 5 sheets of special paper, 2 cakes of very hard rubbing wax, a roll of low-tack masking tape and a soft bristle brush.
Prepare for an adventure!
First, pack your bag. A great comprehensive list is available in the resources. My first trip included the items pictured below. Make sure to wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty, and take a big bottle of water!

This rubbing wax came with the kit I purchased, but you can make your own by melting down crayons (see resources) or peeling the paper off a giant toddler crayon. This commercial wax is very hard. I'd like to experiment with different types.
After selecting the stone, very carefully clean it, using a soft, soft brush and plain, clean water ONLY. Make a note (or photograph) of details like cemetery name, name on stone, date, etc.
Cover the stone with your paper. This is special paper that came with the kit. When it's gone, I'll use pellon (interfacing) from the fabric store. Use low-tack masking tape and wrap the paper around the edges and tape on the back. Make sure the paper extends past any place you want to rub - don't risk getting any wax on the stone.

Originally, this cemetery was very, very Baptist. Even if the sign didn't explain it, you could tell by the fact that on the vast majority of the older stones, the women didn't have last names. They were "Jane, wife of John Smith," never "Jane Smith." That's why I picked these two to work on for my first try. It helped that Reed (Abigail's stone, shown up top) is a family name, and she died near Halloween. But essentially, I selected two stones that were in good shape that denied the women their own last names.
Start rubbing (see resources for tips). The image will start to appear.

Keep rubbing, until the image is clear and as dark as you'd like it. Carefully remove the tape and roll up the rubbing. See resources for care & handling of the rubbing after you get it home.
On the second example (Elizabeth's), the stone had some extra detail that made it difficult to fit the paper tightly around the sides. It still worked, but it was touchy.

These aren't perfect - not by a long shot - but I'm happy with my first attempts. Sadly, they didn't make it to the new house for some reason, so another trip is in order.

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