How to Do a Tombstone Rubbing

A tombstone rubbing, when done right, can be a great way to capture a beautiful gravestone inscription.
Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images

Tombstone rubbings are commonly used by family history researchers as a method for preserving a tombstone's inscription. Learn how to do a grave rubbing safely, and when to use an alternative method of cemetery documentation.

How to Do a Tombstone Rubbing

First, you'll need to get permission. Check with the cemetery or with the state or local historical society to learn if tombstone rubbings are permissible. This practice has been banned in some areas and cemetery locations due to the damage it can cause. Be sure that the tombstone that you have chosen is sturdy and stable. Do not do a tombstone rubbing on any stone that is wobbly, flaking, chipping, crumbling or otherwise unstable. Take a photograph instead.

If allowed, clean the tombstone with plain water and a soft-bristle (natural or nylon) brush. Scrub the stone from the bottom up to avoid further streaking and staining. Flush well with water when you are done. Again, do not do this on a stone that is crumbling, chipping or flaking.

Cut a piece of plain white paper, butcher paper, rice paper or Pellon interfacing material to a size slightly larger than the tombstone. You can obtain rice paper from art supply stores and Pellon from craft and fabric shops.

Tape the paper or fabric to the gravestone. Make sure that it is secure so that it won't slide as you are rubbing and cause a blurred image, and that it ​covers the face of the stone completely so that you won't get marks on the tombstone when rubbing. If you have someone with you to assist, then you may prefer to have them hold the paper to avoid any possible damage from using tape.

Using rubbing wax, a large crayon, charcoal, or chalk, gently start to rub along the outside edges of your paper or material, carefully working your way in. Or you may choose to begin at the top and work your way down the tombstone. Rub lightly to start with, and then apply more pressure to darken in the design if it suits you. Be very careful and gentle so as not to damage the tombstone.

If you used chalk for your grave rubbing, then carefully spray the paper with a chalk spray such as Krylon. Hairspray is another alternative, but whichever you choose be very careful not to get any on the tombstone.

When the rubbing is done, carefully remove it from the tombstone and trim the edges to suit your liking. If you used interfacing for your tombstone rubbing, then place the material face up on an ironing board with an old towel over it. Press down with a hot iron (don't use a back-and-forth motion) to permanently set the wax into the fabric.

Tips for a Better Tombstone Rubbing

  • Interfacing material is an especially good material for tombstone rubbings because it doesn't tear and folds without creasing for easy travel.
  • Caught without supplies? In a pinch, you can use green leaves to do the rubbing as long as you can put your hands on some paper.
  • Consider other methods of preserving the tombstone inscription such as photographs or foil casts as an alternative to the potentially damaging tombstone rubbing.
  • Practice makes perfect! Before going to the cemetery, contact a local monuments store to see if you can practice rubbings on one of their tombstones.
  • Check local laws before visiting the cemetery. Some countries don't even allow tombstones to be photographed without the permission of the cemetery keeper.
  • Be sure to pick up any trash and leave the cemetery just as you found it.
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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "How to Do a Tombstone Rubbing." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, September 8). How to Do a Tombstone Rubbing. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "How to Do a Tombstone Rubbing." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 5, 2023).