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  Michael John Neill – 7/2/2003

Tombstone Rubbings

Before anything else let me say one thing: Make certain you do no harm.

It started out as a simple project, and it mushroomed. For a 4-H project, we were going to have my daughter create rubbings of stones of her ancestors through her great-grandparents. This would provide her with approximately twelve stones to rub—what we felt was a reasonable goal.

Fortunately, we know where all but one of these ancestors was buried (William Apgar, born 1888, Chicago, where are you?) and all but three are within one hundred miles of our home. I was in for a learning experience as well. Despite the number of cemeteries I have visited, I had never made a tombstone rubbing.

The stones used for the project were all relatively recent. The dates of death ranged from the 1920s to several years ago. Consequently, even though stones are not necessarily erected immediately upon someone's death the ones we would be using would be relatively easy to rub. For our 4-H project there were no old soft stones with weathered inscriptions on insecure mountings.

Of course as a genealogist, I was not content with just working on relatively recent stones that were easy to read and contained information I already knew. I was more interested personally in the older stones. While rubbings are an excellent way to preserve a stone's inscription, they are also a good way to help the family historian to read stones that are partially illegible. However, as I learned, rubbings are not the only way to attempt to read an old, weathered tombstone.

This week, we will discuss tombstone rubbing in general. Next week's column will discuss our specific experiences—both with recent and not-so-recent stones. Readers are welcome to send in suggestions and tips of their own for a follow-up article in August.

Practice First
As a general piece of advice, I would advise practicing on local stones first. This is especially advised if you have never made rubbings and plan to do it while on a research trip. The ability to get good rubbings takes a little bit of practice and experimentation with materials. The first rubbings I made were far from excellent. The time to practice is at home when you have the time. Your first rubbing should not done on the last day of your trip, 800 miles from home, 50 miles from a motel and when it looks like rain is imminent.

General Advice
Before making any rubbings:

1) Obtain permission (if possible) to make the rubbings from the cemetery or the sexton. They might even have additional information and be able to help you locate the stone more easily than walking through and visiting each stone. Some cemeteries do not allow rubbings and in some areas it is against the law to do so. Tombstones should be treated as the fragile works of art they are.

2) Obtain permission from the landowner where the cemetery is located if it is an abandoned rural cemetery. Getting shot while making a cemetery rubbing is not advised.

Learn about Making Rubbings
How to do Gravestone Rubbings at

There is excellent advice here on materials needed for making rubbings. Personally, I would try a variety of media: crayons and charcoal in particular. Different stones respond differently. I would also have a variety of rubbing media in my cemetery rubbing kit.


Soft Brush
—if you must, but no metal ones. Metal bristles can damage inscriptions, especially ones on soft stones. Leave your scouring pads at home. I generally only use the brush to get the bird droppings off more recent stones and do not use the brush on the inscription. Even getting the lichen off old stones may cause some of the stone to come off as well. You are not at the cemetery to re-carve the stone.

Water Bottles—to drink, and to GENTLY clean the stone and yourself. Leave abrasive cleaners at home. Do not rub old stones vigorously and do not use household cleaners on the stone; you are not cleaning your bathroom toilet.

Kneeling Pads—like the ones used for gardening. If you plan to work on several stones and your knees have seen several decades of adult life, you will be glad to have a cushion.

Towels or Rags—for GENTLY cleaning the stone and yourself. Again, you are not cleaning your bathroom. If you feel a need to clean something in a harsh manner, go wash your car after making rubbings.

An Old Blanket—in case you need to sit on the wet ground.

Old, Comfortable Clothes—making tombstone rubbings can be dirty work. Heels, hose, and that $500 dress are best left at home.

Hand Cleaner—your hands will get dirty, especially if you use chalk or charcoal to make the rubbings.

Handheld Grass Clippers—unless you want to pull the grass with your hands. Do not bring a weed whacker.

Rubbing Surface—some type of paper or light interfacing (Pellon is one brand). Getting paper in rolls allows you to more easily handle larger surfaces. Thin papers are okay, but easier to tear. If you use interfacing, make certain it does not contain adhesive dots.

Rubbing Material
—crayon, charcoal, chalk. Keep in mind that a hard rubbing material, such as crayon, may actually damage a tombstone made from a soft type of stone.

Garbage Bag—so you can take your mess home with you. Do not leave litter in the cemetery. Peel crayons before getting to the cemetery.

Paper Attacher—tape may leave residue on the stone, which may accelerate the aging process. If you do choose to use tape, make certain you clean it off afterward. Rubber bands can also be strung together to make a larger band that will accommodate larger stones.

Fixative—a non-yellowing fixative is best to make certain the charcoal or crayon stays on the rubbing surface.

Paper Transporter—a tube or large portfolio to put your rubbings in before taking them home.

Cell Phone—if you are with a research partner, you can call each other if the cemetery is extremely large. If the cemetery is small and remote, a cell phone may come in handy if there is an accident or if you get hopelessly lost. Accidents do happen in cemeteries.

What to Put on the Stone

Avoid anything other than air and water. A cleaner called Photo Flo is generally considered safe and results in minimal damage to the stone—but again, avoid vigorous cleaning of older stones. Some stones are very fragile and easier to damage than you may think. Wire bristles are a definite no-no, and using your car keys to clean off lichen is not advised either. Car keys on soft stones may do significant damage to the original inscription (would you use car keys to get bird droppings off of your car?). The Center for Gravestone Studies has cleaning suggestions and other helpful information at

Other Options

A rubbing may not be the only way to obtain a rendering of the transcription. Photos taken with a digital camera at varying angles, settings, etc. may also result in pictures that can be read— especially when the pictures are manipulated with a photo-editing software. And snapping a picture without touching the stone is not going to cause any harm to the original inscription. We found that some of our pictures were significantly more legible than our rubbings.

Be Careful
Not all stones are on secure mountings and stones can topple easily. If the stone appears wobbly or sounds hollow when you gently knock on it, do not attempt to make a rubbing. You may inadvertently knock over the stone. The stone may break or crumble into several pieces. If the stone is a large one, it may fall on you, leaving you lying under the illegible inscription until help arrives.

Time May Be Crucial
There was one stone I last viewed fifteen years ago. When I saw it this summer, I was surprised at how much it appeared to have aged. If there are old stones you have never read, rubbed, or photographed, consider putting this on your genealogy "to-do" list.

Next week, we will discuss our rubbing experiences. Keep in mind that we are learning too.

Copyright 2003, Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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