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by Jessie Lie Farber


Rubbing is what you did as a child when you placed a scrap of paper over a coin and brought up the coin's design by covering the paper with pencil strokes. Using different materials, this technique can be used to reproduce the relief design of any surface. It is an ancient technique which originated in the Orient and which, like etching and other printing techniques, is employed by artists today to made original prints. Using this technique to make a print of the carving on a gravestone is


A gravestone rubbing is an excellent document, accurately reproducing, life-size, the design and surface condition of the stone. Rubbings are, therefore, useful as records. Some rubbings are works of art in their own right and are in the collections of galleries and museums. Unfortunately, most rubbings are ephemeral novelties, souvenirs, which find their way to dorm and den walls on their way to the waste basket--hardly a justification for incouraging the novice rubber, armed with coloring materials, to try his hand on handsome and vulnerable old gravestones. The Association for Gravestone Studies offers this introduction to gravestone rubbing because the increasing popularity of the activity without guidance is a threat to the stones. In addition, it is our hope that getting to know the stones through rubbing will encourage respectful interest in them and result in strong community support for their care.


Kits containing rubbing supplies are sold at stationery and art shops in areas where stone rubbing is popular. However, all you really need for a good start is:

  1. Masking tape. Scissors for cutting your paper.
  2. A bottle of water and soft brush for gently cleaning dust and bird droppings from the stone.
  3. Paper.

For the beginner an average weight wrapping paper works well and is cheap. Later you may want to try a rice paper, vellum tissue or even a thin pellon (interfacing material). Rubbing wax or lumberman's chalk. Rubbing wax is available in many art supply stores. I prefer the inexpensive lumberman's chalk found in most hardware stores. If you use chalk you may want to spray your finished rubbing to prevent smearing. Art stores carry fixing spray.


Beginners often choose stones from which a good rubbing cannot be made. If you choose a "good" stone. you have an excellent chance of producing a satisfying and encouraging print on your first try. Avoid rough stones, stones which are eroded or otherwise damaged, stones on which there is lichen. To get a good, clean-line print, the stone carving must be sharply but not deeply cut. Rounded, high relief carving will cause you to tear the paper as you rub, and you will risk defacing the stone with color. Note any hollowness or separation or flaking on the face of the stone. Any pressure or friction on the face of an unsound stone can seriously damage it.


Cut a piece of paper considerably larger than the stone or the part of the stone you plan to rub. Be generous with the paper; it protects the stone from your chalk or wax. Tape the paper tightly and securely to the clean stone. It is best to fold the paper over the sides and top of the stone and tape its edges to the back of the stone. Using the broad, flat area of your chalk or wax, lightly stroke the paper and watch the design appear. When you can see the design rather well, use the end of your chalk stick or wax bar to fill in and darken your print. You will decide when your rubbing satisfies you and is finished. Remove your print and put it where it will be protected from sudden showers or gusts of wind while you are in the graveyard. You will want to record the name of the deceased, death date, location of the graveyard and the date the rubbing was taken. If you rub only the ornamental carving rather than the whole stone, you may want to copy the stone's full inscription for your record.


As you practice and improve your skill, you will probably try other techniques and materials, eventually choosing for yourself those which best suit your rubbing style and your taste. A first and vital consideration as you experiment with materials and techniques is the protection of the stones. Some papers and coloring materials allow color to penetrate onto the stone. Experiment elsewhere. Do not use questionable methods on the gravestones. Because old gravestones are an important part of our national heritage, you should be as careful with them as you are when handling other ancient folk art treasures. Many rubbers are not careful, For this reason, some cemetery associations do not allow stone rubbing. Some require the rubber to register. You will want to respect the graveyard's requirements and leave the stones and the area as you found them. Following is an annotated list of books and articles about rubbing. Many of the publications are out of print, but they do occasionally appear on remainder lists, and some are available in libraries.


Andrew, Laye, Creative Rubbings. Watson-Guptill Publications, 165 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036, 1972. Introduces rubbing as a fascinating craft with "an immediate appeal to children and adults whether or not they consider themselves artistically gifted." Easily-followed steps for creating both the rubbing and the subject to be rubbed. No mention of gravestones, yet of interest to any rubbing enthusiast. An attractive book, half illustrations, half text. 96 pages.

Bodor, John J., Rubbings and Textures: A Graphic Technique. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, NY 10001, 1968. An excellent and thorough description of five techniques for rubbing a wide variety of subjects from all over the world. A separate chapter on New England gravestones as rubbing subjects, and a chapter each on the historical background of rubbing, suggestions for teachers, and suggestions for cataloging, storing, displaying and photographing rubbings. Highly recommended.

Jacobs, G. Walker, Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye: A Guide to Gravestones and Gravestone Rubbing. The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, VT 05301, 1973. Contains a section on the history of grave symbols and stonecutters, followed by a section on five rubbing techniques. Good step-by-step descriptions. Well illustrated. 123 pages.

Neal, Avon and Ann Parker. Early American Stone Sculpture Found in the Burying Grounds of new England. Sweetwater Editions, New York, NY, 1981. Available from AGS. This is not a book about rubbing. We mention it here because of the quality of the full-page rubbings in the book. Neal and Parker have introduced 42 of New England's most interesting gravestones, each in a double-page spread: on one page a rubbing of a detail, on the other, the inscription, information about the stone, and a photograph of the whole stone . This handsome book sold for $395, which includes an original rubbing by the artist/authors. According to the New York Times review of the book--and we agree--it is well worth that price.

A gift from the publishers makes it possible for AGS to offer a limited number for contributions to AGS of $150. First come, first served. Address AGS, 46 Plymouth Road, Needham. MA 02192. 115 oversized (11" x 16") pages.   Tashjian, Dickran and Ann, Memorials to Children of Change. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1974.   Like the Neal/Parker book, this is not a book about rubbing, but it is listed here because Ann Tashjian's rubbings will inspire anyone who has ever made a rubbing. The text compares the carvings on early American gravestones with other examples of art. 309 pages.  

SOFT-COVER Diandrea, Phyllis M., Rubbing Off History: A Guide to New England Gravestones and Rubbing and Casting Technique. Published by the author, 142 Palfrey street, Watertown, MA 02171, 1975. Offers glimpses a bit broader than those found in most slim, pamphlet-type publications for beginners. Brief sections on history (stonecarvers, symbols, epitaphs) and on technique (wax and foil). Illustrations poor and poorly reproduced. 29 pages.  

English Brass Rubbing Centre, Brass Rubbings. 803 South Inglewood Avenue, Inglewood, CA 90301, no date.   A catalog of rubbings, lectures, and activities offered by a California rubbing center. good illustrations of rubbings made from replicas of England monumental brasses. Also prices for making your own rubbings and for ordering custom-made rubbings; also for ordering rubbings made in England from the original brasses. 27 pages.  

Firestein, Cecily Barth, Rubbing Craft: How to rub doors, letterboxes, gravestones, manhole covers, and how to use these designs to make jewelry, T-shirts, needlepoint and more.

Quick Fox, A Division of Music Sales Corporation, 33 West 60th Street, New York, NY 10023, 1977.   A wide-ranging treatment of rubbing and of ways to use rubbing designs in other crafts. Of interest to the rubbing enthusiast who wants to go beyond making the rubbing. Half illustration, half text. The author teaches rubbing at the New School in New York City. 95 pages.  

Frisvell, Richard, Faces in Stone: The Early American Gravestone as Primitive Art. Published by the author, 88 Beach Street, Belmont, MA 02178, 1971.   The first edition of this small pamphlet was probably the first of the spate of publications introducing gravestone rubbing that appeared in the years preceding and following the 1976 bicentennial celebration. It has been severely criticized, and rightly so, for recommending the use of a wire brush for cleaning stones, for recommending an ink technique to beginners, and for other errors and inaccuracies (e.g., recommending a late afternoon sun to achieve a raking light for photographing stones). Its pen and ink drawings are inadequate as illustrations. Nevertheless, Friswell, a psychologist, wrote an insightful introduction to the stones as they fit into early American life and introduced many people to stone rubbing. The book has had an impact, and collectors of books on the subject will want to find and own a copy. 19 pages. By 1973, Faces in Stone, with text revisions and better illustrations, had gone into its fifth printing. A useful introduction. 19 pages.  

Gillon, Edmund Vincent, Jr., Early new England Gravestone Rubbings. Dover Publications, Inc., 190 Varick Street, New York, NY 10014, 1966.   A three-page introduction that outlines the rubbing technique used by the author is followed by a large and varied collection of rubbings and photographs. No text. 'Notes on the Plates' are brief and are often inadequate and inaccurate. The illustrations may be copied without permission. About 200 unnumbered pages.  

Kelly, Susan H. and Anne C. Williams, A Grave Business: New England Gravestone Rubbings, a Selection. Art Resources of Connecticut, 1979.   This excellent publication was published in conjunction with a traveling exhibition of Kelly/Williams rubbings sponsored by the Art Resources of Connecticut. In addition to a catalog of the rubbings in the exhibition, with notations about the work exhibited and the stonecarver, the publication includes a sound and succinct introduction to early gravestone art. A valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in gravestone art. 42 pages  

Kull, Andrew, New England Cemeteries: A Collector's Guide. The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1975   Good directions for finding 262 interesting New England cemeteries. Symbols are used to indicate whether the cemetery is "unusually picturesque," has "interesting carving," "Famous people," and/or "a grand style." Not focused primarily on subjects for rubbing or on early carvings; and by no means a complete list of yards containing fine rubbing subjects. A big help to the serious collector of rubbings, nevertheless. 253 pages.  

McGeer, William J.A., Reproducing Relief Surfaces: A Complete Handbook of Rubbing, Dabbing, Casting, and Daubing. Published by the author, 102 Brimfield Road, Holland, MA 1972.   This small jewel of a book gives the reader professional directions for rubbing and other techniques for reproducing relief surfaces, with special emphasis on gravestones and monumental brasses. The author is an artist and a professional cast maker who has developed his own methods for making molds and casts. He can cast a full size replica (or a miniature one) of a stone, and has done so for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and other institutions. Beautifully illustrated. A list of sources for materials is included. 40 pages.  

Marks, Glen K., Oldstone's guide to Creative Rubbing. Oldstone Enterprises, Inc., 186 Lincoln Street, Boston, MA 02111, 1973.   Introduces gravestones, monumental brasses, historical markers and collages as subjects for wax rubbings. Oldstone Enterprises is the foremost supplier of rubbing materials. Illustrated. 21 pages.  

Smith, Elmer L., Early American Grave Stone Designs. Applied Arts, Witmer, PA, 1968.   "A pictorial presentation of the often forgotten folk art in the early graveyards of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and in Virginia." Comprised of drawings made from rubbings; also some photographs. No text. Of interest in that it introduces a number of little known stones. However, the "Design Notes and References" are often inadequate and inaccurate so that finding the stone is not made easy. 42 pages.  

Wakin, B. Bertha, To Rub or Not to Rub: Being a Book on the Art and History of Tombstones. Lith-Art Press, Woodstock, NY, 1976.   Touches briefly on symbolism, rubbing, documenting, and using gravestones and rubbing to teach history and art. Illustrated with poor rubbings. Not for the initiated. 72 pages.  

Wasserman, Emily, Gravestone Designs: Rubbings & Photographs from Early New York & New Jersey. Dover Publications, Inc., 180 Varick street, New York, NY 10014.   An interesting, informative 31-page introduction to the designs and the stonecutters is followed by a collection of 220 rubbings and photographs of New York and New Jersey gravestones. Notes on the plates give information about the designs illustrated, some of which is not accurate according to current scholarship. A useful introduction to some of the carving styles seen in these states. The illustrations may be copied without permission. About 190 unnumbered pages.  

Williams, Melvin G., The Last Word: The Lure and Lore of Early New England Graveyards. Published by the author, Ludlow, MA, 1973.   A charming and useful introduction to gravestone studies and gravestone rubbing, available from Oldstone Enterprises, Inc., suppliers of rubbing materials (186 Lincoln Street, Boston, MA 02111). Six pages are devoted to rubbing instruction for the beginner. Includes a fold-out map (credited to Ludwig's Graven Images) showing good yards. Illustrated by the author, a professor of English and a popular lecturer on gravestone art, and Ray Bentley, owner of Oldstone Enterprises. 319 pages.  

ARTICLES AND UNPUBLISHED PAPERS Halporn, Roberta, "New York is a Rubber's Paradise." Center for Thanatology Research, 391 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217. 1990.   Gives directions to and descriptions of several New York City cemeteries that offer good rubbing and can be reached by subway. Also mentions the London Brass Rubbing Center where replicas of English Brasses can be rubbed (phone 212/879-4320). The author is a publisher of books on thanatology and knowledgeable in the field of gravestone studies. 11 pages.   Smaridge, Nora, "Tombstones, Manhole Covers and the Ancient Art of Rubbing." The New York Times. Arts and Leisure Section. Sunday, July 27, 1978.   A spin-off from the author's book on retirement hobbies. An interesting overview of rubbing as a hobby, which probably lured many readers into the graveyards with paper and wax. One wishes the author had said more about good care of the stones.  

AGS PUBLICATIONS Farber, Jessie Lie, "Gravestone Rubbing for Beginners." Published by AGS, 30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA 01609.   Instruction for getting started right, written with special concern for the gravestones being rubbed. Recommended for anyone unfamiliar with rubbing using rubbing wax or lumberman's chalk or crayon, especially teachers or group leaders planning to introduce gravestone rubbing to others. 6 pages. $1.50; members $1.00.  

Farber, Jessie Lie, "A Technique for the Experienced Rubber." Published by AGS. 30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA 01609.   Instruction in using oil paint to make rubbings on tough, thin paper such as acid free tissue paper used by art museums for packing art objects. 3 pages, $1.50; members $1.00.  

Duval, Francis, ed. The AGS Series of Regional Guides to 17th and 18th Century Graveyards. Published by AGS, 30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA 01609.   This series is in preparation, with two guides now available:   Guide 1, to the graveyards of the Narrangansett Bay area (eastern Rhode Island and parts of southern Massachusetts), by Vincent Luti. 17 pages. $4.50; members $3.50.   Guide 2, to the graveyards of Long Island, New York, by Richard Welch. 16 pages. $5.50; members $4.75.   Each guide gives directions and information about the stones to be found in choice yards in the area. Excellent illustrations.

THE ASSOCIATION FOR GRAVESTONE STUDIES   A TECHNIQUE FOR THE EXPERIENCED RUBBER   by Jessie Lie Farber     NOTE: Whether you are an experienced rubber or a beginner, this information sheet should be read after reading the information sheet, "Gravestone Rubbing for Beginners," available from the Association for Gravestone Studies, 30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA 01609.   An increasing number of early graveyards restrict stone-rubbing, and for good reason: an inexperienced rubber or a careless one can do permanent damage to historically and artistically precious old gravestone carvings. The technique described here is one that poses the particular threat of getting paint on the stone, a defacement difficult if not impossible to correct. For this reason, the technique is not recommended for use by anyone without considerable experience in the art of gravestone rubbing.  

MATERIALS NEEDED Use a tough, thin paper considerably larger in size than the area to be rubbed. An art supply store will have a number of papers to choose from. To find the paper you prefer to work with will require experimenting with an assortment of papers. Among those I can recommend are "cigarette paper," model airplane paper, and the acid-free tissue used by art museums for packing art objects.   Masking tape, for fixing the paper to the stone.   A pad of writing paper and a pencil, for noting data about the stone.   (Optional) A few paper clips for attaching these notes to your rubbings.   Tube(s) of oil paint.   A roll of paper towels.   An applicator. I use a 3" or 4" section of discarded nylon stockings or pantyhose. A piece of felt can also serve as an applicator.   Scissors, for cutting the nylon or the paper.   A palette. A small (about 5" x 7") piece of masonite will serve satisfactorily.   A soft brush, for cleaning dust off the stone.   A spray bottle of water, for washing bird dung or other foreign matter from the stone.   (Optional) Absorbent cloth, for wiping or drying the stone.   A soft wood stick, such as an ice cream stick, for removing small deposits of lichen from the stone.   Paper or plastic bags for trash, such as discarded masking tape and paper towels, and a container for carrying all this into the graveyard.   (Optional) A thin rubber glove to protect the rubbing hand from paint.   Because skill is required to control the application of paint, you should first experiment with this technique using objects other than gravestones. Make experimental rubbings of tiles, book covers. iron gratings, pressed flowers or leaves glued to a sheet of paper or cardboard, even raised wood grain--anything with a surface design in relief. Experimenting with a variety of papers and surfaces will help develop the skill needed to successfully use the gravestone rubbing technique described here. Only after you have achieved some good rubbings and are confident that you can control the paint and will not deface the object being rubbed should you proceed to the graveyard for the purpose of using this rubbing technique on an old gravestone. Even then, you should first make some gravestone rubbings using rubbing wax (available from Oldstone Enterprises. c/o Ray Bentley, 186 Lincoln Street, Boston, MA O2111, telephone 6l7/542-4112) or lumberman's chalk, available at many hardware stores. Rubbing with these materials will give you valuable experience with the texture, shape and carving of the stones without the threat of defacing them with paint.  

THE TECHNIQUE 1. Study the stone. Determine whether or not it is sound. A stone with cracks, spalling, an eroded surface, or a hollow sound when lightly thumped with a finger should not be rubbed.   A stone that is cut in high relief cannot be successfully rubbed using this technique. Sharp protuberances such as the nose on a carved face are especially hazardous as these protrusions tend to break the paper and allow paint to penetrate onto the stone.   2. Clean the stone, carefully. This rubbing technique is very sensitive and will show any particles of dirt, lichen, or erosion. Avoid eroding surfaces. Avoid stones with more than a few small spots of lichen. Do not use anything but water to wash the stone. Experiments have shown that a chemical added to the water can result in damage that sometimes becomes apparent years later.   3. Record data. If you are eager and enthusiastic to make your rubbing, you may be tempted to record the data after you finish your rubbing. However, experience will probably teach you that an interruption (such as rain) or fatigue, or simple memory failure will eventually result in your failing to make the notes if you wait.   I suggest you record the location, name of the deceased, death date, the stonecarver (if known), and the date the rubbing is made. If you do not rub the whole stone, you may want to transcribe the inscription.   4. Cover the area to be rubbed with paper and secure it firmly to the stone with masking tape. To protect the stone, the paper must be considerably larger than the area to be rubbed.   5. Using your finger, rub the paper against the stone, indenting the paper where the stone is incised. This is a laborious process and one that is often omitted, but it is worth the labor. Omitting this procedure insures that the quality of the rubbing will be inferior.   6. Apply paint to the applicator. Wrap a small section of nylon around the index finger of your rubbing hand. Squeeze a pea-size dab of oil paint onto the pallet. Using the covered finger, rub this dab into the applicator (the nylon covered finger or the felt or the dauber).   7. Test the paint on the applicator by rubbing it onto a paper towel. Experience is needed to determine whether there is too much or too little paint on the applicator, and whether it is evenly spread.   8. Carefully, rub the applicator over the incised surface of the paper. As you rub, the image of the carving will appear. With experience, you can emphasize certain areas of your rubbing, making them darker or lighter. Colors can be used, and mixed. (I like to make a rubbing the color of the stone.)   One dab of paint may be enough to rub an entire stone--or it may not, in which case you will add paint to the applicator. One piece of nylon is usually adequate for rubbing a stone, but it may wear, causing streaks as you rub, and need replacement. Experimenting and patience are the required ingredients for proceeding with the rubbing process. This is where you can be creative, and where each person's work differs from anyone else's.   9. When you are satisfied, remove the rubbing and place it in a safe place, out of the wind and away from the threat of moisture. Attach your notes to it with a paper clip.   10. Clean up trash. Collect your rubbish (the used masking tape, paper towels, and anything else you want to discard) and put them in your trash bag. Try to leave the yard neater than you found it.   11. After it is dry, roll your rubbing(s) onto a cardboard tube for storage.   12. You may want to mount your rubbing on museum board. I suggest you do this with dry mounting tissue. This tissue is available in photo supply stores, which can also give you directions for its use. Or you can have the job done by a professional framer. If you decide to do the mounting yourself, you should first mount a practice rubbing, or a blank sheet of rubbing paper. It is very discouraging to spoil one's work at this stage.   13. If you mount your rubbing, it is possible to "clean it up" using an eraser. The eraser on a pencil will do, but if you make many rubbings, you may want to purchase an Eberhard Faber Pink Pearl Soft Pencil Eraser #4-00, or something similar.   14. Sign your rubbing and, using the data you recorded, label it by name of deceased, date, location, etc. I suggest you do this with a lead pencil.   15. (Optional) Spray your rubbing. Number 1301 Krylon Acrylic spray coating, available at art supply stores, will protect the finished product from smudging and from dust.    

ESTABLISHING RUBBING/DAUBING CRITERIA The practice of making gravestone rubbings has aroused controversy, notably at the 1976 Dublin Seminar(12). Some communities and the entire state of New Hampshire have restricted rubbing to those who have obtained a permit. Ideally, such legislation should also require that the applicant demonstrate competence in the acceptable rubbing technique before being given a permit. Such steps have been taken because of an increasing number of incidents where stones have been defaced by careless applications of wax or ink. A very serious example of such accidents has occurred in Columbia, Connecticut; the Lydia Bennitt stone (Ludwig, plate 244), one of the most beautiful marbles in New England, has been disfigured, perhaps permanently, by a black ink-like substance, presumably applied by a person using an Oriental style wet ink rubbing technique.   Persons taking rubbings from gravestones must understand that stones differ in their fragility. While a sound stone can be rubbed with perfect safety, many are so delicate that touching the surface could cause the detachment of a major portion of the design. Connecticut Valley sandstones are particularly susceptible to damage from handling, but every stone should be examined carefully before rubbing. If cracks can be seen, if a hollow sound is heard when the face of the stone is tapped lightly with the back of a fingernail, or if grains become detached when the stone is rubbed with the fingertip, the stone should not be rubbed.   Even greater caution should be exercised in making three dimensional castings of gravestone designs. Casting materials which might penetrate or stain a stone, or release compounds which could eventually discolor and become insoluble, such as vegetable oil aerosols like Pam, should never be applied to the surface of a gravestone.   Enforcing rubbing standards is difficult for municipalities, especially since most rubbings are done on weekends, when offices which issue permits and offer advice and guidelines are closed. Therefore, the task may be left largely to word-of-mouth transmission by interested individuals.

Patrick Crocker

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