Gravestone Rubbings – How-To

Halloween, ghosts, and haunted cemeteries. They seem to go together.

Gravestone and monument rubbings were once very popular. In fact, in past centuries, they were a common field trip activity for schoolchildren.

Today, many grave markers have been damaged by overzealous rubbing. They’ve also suffered from natural decay from harsh weather and years of acid rain.

Here are my best tips for successful gravestone rubbings.

gravestone casting
Typical casting from a Colonial American gravestone. It’s an alternative to putting pressure on the actual grave marker.

Before attempting rubbings on actual headstones or monuments, be sure to check the laws in your area.

  • In the U.S., particularly in New England, it may be against the law to make rubbings on gravestones.  That’s because so many gravestones are fragile, and the pressure of rubbing can damage them.
  • In the U.K., centres have been set up specifically for making rubbings, using replicas of the original monuments and plaques.

(In my classes, students capture these eerie and Gothic images by working with castings and polymer clay replicas of the original stones. But that’s another topic for another day.)

If it’s legal to create gravestone rubbings, or if you’re working with replicas, here are some basic steps for success:

Choose your rubbing subject and supplies according to the result that you’d like.

  • Pastels tend to be more murky, and smudge easily so they will need spray fixative before moving the rubbing.
  • Conte crayon and pencil are more crisp and less likely to smudge, but they can abrade the original image, if you’re working with fragile headstones or architectural details.
Supplies: You will need paper – thin is better than thick. Many people prefer newsprint, but some use heavier paper. You will also need something to rub with. Some wax crayons are made for this purpose, but you can also use pencil, crayon, pastels, oil pastels, or conte crayon. If you use pencil, you’ll also want a kneaded rubber eraser. And, a few friends have recommended those big fat kiddie crayons that Crayola and others make. Or, you could use one of those “make your own crayons” kits to design something better suited to your hand. If you are working on a large rubbing, you may want non-marking, easy-to-remove masking tape to keep the paper from moving. If you are working outdoors, water and paper towels, may clean the surface of a soiled headstone. (Do NOT use soap of any kind, and do NOT scrub.) If your art may smudge, use a spray fixative to protect it, but do that spraying away from the gravestones.
1. First, cover the image with paper. If it’s a large piece, you may want to use special, low-stick masking tape to prevent your paper from moving.
2. If you’re using a pencil of any kind, hold it almost horizontal against the paper as you rub. If you’re using a conte crayon or pastel, rest it flat against the paper. Pressing gently, rub over the image until an outline starts to appear.
3.As lines and features become clear, continue rubbing with an emphasis on the areas where lines are already visible.Continue rubbing, covering the entire image. Apply the most color to the areas in which you expect lines or features.
4. When all of the image is visible on your paper, you’ve finished. Usually, the image will not be clear or crisp. If you’re using pencil, you can clean up your rubbing with a kneaded rubber eraser.

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