Monday, September 22, 2014

I Can't Read Anything ... Oh, Now I Can

Please Note: I am not an expert and I do not claim to be one. What I present here is what I know and what I have experienced.

Nothing done to tombstone.
A while before planning our August road trip tombstone reading methods became a hot topic. What to do and what not to do. One alternative that was mentioned I had not heard of before. No one else from my local genealogy groups had heard of it either. Aluminum Foil Impressions.

So for our recent road trip, I brought along with me some lightweight aluminum foil and a clean, soft, fluffy makeup brush to give this method a try.

And you know what? It works, most of the time.
Nothing done to tombstone.

Cautions to Remember First

Of course, the best thing to do is as little as possible to a tombstone. Remember, DO NO HARM.

So if you have a troublesome tombstone, first try reading/taking a picture at different angles or at different times of day. (I know sometimes that one isn't possible.) You can also try bouncing light or shining light onto the carving while taking pictures.

If the "no touch" methods don't work, try plain water sprayed onto the carving. Plain water will do no damage. Take a photo just after wetting the stone and a while later when it is partially dried. Using just water often does the trick.

Plain water sprayed onto carving. Almost readable in this case.
Oh, if the stone is dirty use a lot of care and caution if you clean it. Do not scrub! Lightly, gently brush with a soft cloth or a soft (natural or poly) brush. Never use a metal brush or abrasive material. Never scrub hard. You can lightly brush off loose material but do not scrub live lichen off -- you may accidentally take a chunk of stone off with it.

Use just water and a light touch to remove splatters from birds, bugs, etc. Never use cleaning chemicals. Though it seems solid, stone is porous -- some more than others. Cleaning chemicals are more than likely to be acidic and will, if not immediately, eventually damage the stone. I know there are some commercial solutions that have been mentioned as okay for use with tombstones because they are pH neutral. But remember, you likely need to have the cemetery's permission to use these.

Old methods used in the past that you often hear about are: shaving cream, flour, cornstarch, powder, charcoal/chalk. BUT ALL OF THESE CAN DO DAMAGE AND SHOULD NOT BE USED. Shaving cream is acidic; flour/cornstarch contain starch that converts to sugar and feeds the lichen and "what nots" encouraging further growth; and charcoal/chalk does not clean off well and can stain the stone permanently.

So if doing nothing or plain water and/or light has not helped ... AND if the stone of the tombstone is not flaking or deteriorating then you can try an aluminum foil impression. Two caveats though. One, old tombstones made of slate are really, really fragile and it is best not to do any kind of impression/rubbing on them. Two, be aware some cemeteries and localities have banned tombstone rubbings to protect fragile tombstones. Do your research to keep yourself out of trouble.

So how is it done?

An aluminum foil impression is done by placing a sheet of foil on the carved surface. Since the foil can be bent around the surface, most often no tape, rubber bands or string is needed to secure it to the stone. (Have an extra pair of hands around in case the wind is not in your favor.) Then a clean, soft, fluffy brush (like a makeup brush) is used to gently impress the carving onto the foil. Usually, this puts less stress on the surface of the tombstone than a traditional wax rubbing because far less pressure is needed to make the impression. The downside is that a foil rubbing is fragile and saving it for posterity can be difficult. But viewing/photographing the foil on the tombstone at different angles and even shining/bouncing light at different angles against the foil while taking pictures can greatly aid in reading the carvings. So it is worth trying if the tombstone is not in danger and if you have the okay,

An Aluminum Foil Impression -- Now I can read it!
And without the caretaker's help we would never
have located this very small Quaker stone.
I don't know how many times we walked past it.
Thank you, Thank you.
Light and angles also aid reading.
This was a cloudy day with stone facing up.

As you can see from the photos sometimes the foil was not quite wide enough. In a couple cases, I did have to use more than one strip of foil on a tombstone. The wider-width aluminum foil is more often than not made of a heavier thickness foil and I have not yet tried it on a tombstone to see if it gives similar results.

Does it always work?

Unfortunately, there are tombstones that are too far gone and they still refuse to yield their stories. I had one where I only got a partial impression. At another cemetery, a very small tombstone's carving was completely erased by time. The aluminum foil impression did not even yield a single bump or divot in the stone.

So how does it compare to a traditional wax rubbing?

A wax rubbing involves placing a sheet of paper, cloth or Pellon interfacing (not the iron-on version) over the carved surface. Usually with this method the paper/material needs to be secured so it does not shift. Whatever method used should not damage the stone or leave residual matter that leads to damaging the stone. Sometimes just having another set of hands available to hold the material can solve the shifting problem.

Once the material is secure, colored wax is gently rubbed over the material sitting on top of the carved surface to transfer the impression. Some have used pencil lead or chalk/charcoal but both rub-off the material easily. (Test on a non-tombstone surface to ensure there is no bleed-through that damages the stone. If you plan to use fixative spray, do not spray the paper/material while on or near the tombstones. The spray overcast will be carried by the wind onto other tombstones and damage them.) Wax, be it a cake of tombstone wax or a child’s thick width crayon, is more durable. With this method you need to use a gentle touch and be sure not to leave any marks on the stone. Again, test on a non-tombstone surface to ensure the wax does not bleed through the paper/material you have chosen. Depending on the material used, this method is more easily preserved.

Muslin is a bit thin but can be used.
Interfacing, not too thin or thick, works great.

Parting Thoughts

I made the mistake of leaving home without the Pellon interfacing. I thought I would not have a problem finding some at one of those large grocery/home store. I forgot how far north I was traveling and the best I could find was muslin material. For me it was a little thin to use but it worked pretty well in a pinch. When we changed locations I was able to find a craft store and get some Pellon interfacing which I feel works really well. I don't get the thinnest nor the thickest version but at the moment I can't remember what weight I used.

Note: With regards to the tombstone for Seneca Rider, we have visited this tombstone several times since the mid-1990s. The crack has been worse and has been better. I have photographs of it when you could still piece together/make out, "Age 91 years." Between my photographs and now the rubbing, this stone will be preserved in one way or another.

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