Gravestone Rubbings – How-To

Halloween, ghosts, and haunted cemeteries… they seem to go together.

Gravestone and monument rubbings were once very popular, and a common field trip activity for schoolchildren.

Today, many grave markers have been damaged by overzealous rubbing, as well as the natural decay from the elements and from years of acid rain.

Here are my best tips for successful gravestone rubbings.

gravestone casting
Typical casting from a Colonial 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 UK, centres have been set up specifically for making rubbings, using replicas of the original monuments and plaques.

(That’s why my students enjoy something different. They 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:

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. There are wax crayons made specifically 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 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.
1. First, cover the image with paper. If it’s a large piece, you may want to use masking tape to prevent your paper from moving. (This demo shows a rubbing with a casting from the gravestone of Mary Nasson of York Harbor, Maine.)
2. If you’re using a pencil of any kind, hold it almost horizontalagainst 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 notbe clear or crisp.For this demo, I used a pastel pencil because it shows clearly in photos as I’m working. However, other rubbing materials work better on this kind of image. See examples, below.If you’re using a pencil, you can pinch your kneaded rubber eraser to remove shading in small areas, and create a more distinct image as you “clean up” the rubbing.

rubbing with pencil

same image with conte crayon

In the photos below, you can see another casting, and the resulting rubbings.

Clockwise, from upper left: The original casting, a rubbing with pastel pencil, one with blue conte crayon, and a pencil rubbing.

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.

Casting from Gravestones and Other Sculpted Surfaces

4castings-cemfour castings from gravestones

Many ancient gravestones and other items are either too fragile for repeated rubbings, or they are otherwise unsuited as art resources.

When possible, I cast polymer clay molds from them.

If you’ve worked with polymer clay in the past, you know that there are several release products that you can use to keep the clay from sticking to an object, including talc, cornstarch, and water. When casting from headstones, I use water. This protects both the stone and the clay.

Before casting from any stone or other location, check local laws. And, use common sense. If the stone is very fragile or otherwise falling apart, don’t risk further damage to it.

Also, due to the use of water, do not cast when the temperatures are below freezing, or if they may drop below freezing during the next day or two. (Water can get into hairline cracks in the stone and freeze when the temperatures drop, damaging the stone.)

Supplies: I carry two water bottles (spritzer/spray bottles), one with distilled water and one with distilled water and a small amount of Shaklee’s Basic H in it.

Basic H is a pH neutral surfactant; I add about two or three drops per pint of distilled water. You can use any similar product as long as it is pH balanced and used very sparingly, and it contains no fragrance or added color. It must be a pure surfactant.

Carry plastic wrap and paper towels with you, too.

You will also need polymer clay that you have prepared by kneading it or processing it through a pasta machine. I allow two or three packages of polymer clay for each small casting. The prepared sheets of clay should be at least 1/2″ thick, and 3/4″ is even better.

And you will need a baking tray or other large, flat surface, to transport your cast, unbaked polymer clay.

Optional: Clay molding tools. A basic flat edge with a beveled point is good, plus a gently curved tool.

Directions

1. Select a good stone for your casting. A “good” stone has fairly deep carvings and an interesting design, even if you can only capture a small area of it with your casting.

2. Clean the stone by spraying it with distilled water, and then wiping it down gently with paper towels. Or, if it’s a warm day, let the water evaporate. Repeat until the stone is clean enough to work with; generally, you’re only cleaning off residue from birds that sat on the stone.

3. If the stone’s carvings are distinct enough, drape a good sturdy plastic wrap (in the UK: cling wrap or cling film) over the area of the stone where you intend to work. If the stone isn’t suited for this, spray it thoroughly with distilled water, making certain to get plenty of water in the cracks and lines.

4. Immediately press the prepared sheet of polymer clay against the stone. Working from the back, press the clay firmly into the area you’re casting from. Then, smooth the back of the clay as best you can; if it’s too lumpy, it’s harder to use for rubbings later as it will rock slightly on your work surface.

5. Carefully peel the clay off the stone, or–if working with plastic wrap–carefully lift the wrap-plus-clay off the stone. Place the clay, design side up, on the baking tray for transport.

6. Check to make certain that you’ve captured the details that you wanted. In some cases, you may want to use your clay tools to add more details to mimic the stone. Sometimes, you may need to repeat your efforts by kneading the clay and starting over. (Some stones simply don’t cast well. If you don’t get the results that you want within two tries, find another stone.)

7. If you worked directly on the stone, clean the stone by spraying it with distilled water and a very small amount of pH balanced surfactant. Wipe it to remove any residue of the clay. Repeat as necessary until the stone is completely clean. Then rinse by spraying with the pure distilled water. Let air dry if the day is warm. Otherwise, dry the stone thoroughly.

8. Repeat for other stones, if you like. Then, carefully carry your cast designs back to where you can bake them.

Care of castings: If you rub very heavily and/or repeatedly, these castings can crack and break.

You can repair the breaks by gluing with white or wood glue. These castings will break if dropped, and with steady use you will see stress fractures. When the fracture is big enough, fill it with white glue and clean off the residue with a damp towel and/or a moistened cotton swab.

Additional notes: In this process, I discovered something startling: The “negative” that is cast from a gravestone can sometimes produce a superior rubbing to the original, “positive” design. At the very least, it can be startlingly different.

Below, the first image below is the positive image, the way it would look if you did a rubbing from the original gravestone.

Below that image, you can see how different the rubbing is when it’s made by rubbing the mold that was cast from the original stone.

bluepos-rubbing

bluegif-rubbings