Long ago I wrote an article about headstone rubbing and posted it on the internet, since then my information has turned up on other websites.
In the spirit of updating information and revising things I searched the internet, spoke with headstone cleaners and other genealogists and this is what I have come up with.
Note--You will see some of the same information if you search the internet.
Gravestone rubbing has become very controversial. When I wrote my original article rubbing was a big deal. Since that time it has been found that doing rubbing's can do irreparable damage to the headstones. You will find that rubbing is often banned in cemeteries and in some states it is illegal. Fragile stones can be damaged when pressure is applied to the surface (as you would have to do to get a rubbing no matter how lightly you think you are being).
Be sure and check to see if rubbing is allowed in the cemetery and be aware in some places a permit is required.
In this day and age rubbing should not be done, better to take a photo.
Rather than do a rubbing take a photograph and think of other non-invasive methods you could use for gaining the information.
-Use a mirror to shine sunlight across the face of a stone, making the lettering stand out.
-Put distilled water on the stone, this will cause some lettering to stand out (and not leave minerals behind).
-Aluminum foil can be used like a mirror.
-Umbrella or hat for making a shadow (if photographing in the rain this will help protect your camera. Be sure and check your lens after each shot as you don't want raindrops ruining all your attempts)
Tips for photographing a headstone:
Don't trample the area around the headstone, this includes the flowers and other foliage. Always be sure you can read the headstone inscription through your viewfinder.
Make sure a few shots fill the frame. Get down level with the headstone and fill your viewfinder with the headstone. You want some close up and some wide angle showing the family plot. It is also wise to do a few surrounding shots for locating the headstone again.
Usually midday is a good time for taking a photo. The sunlight is not too bright and is hitting the headstone at an angle. A mirror might be helpful if you are there at other times of the day so you can reflect the sunlight on the headstone. Cloudy or overcast days can also be a good time to take photos of the headstones. It all depends on which way the headstone faces and if there are shady areas.
Highly polished headstones can be a nightmare to photograph as they can be almost mirror like. Angles are your best bet and be sure you can read it through your viewfinder.
The best time to take pictures of upright headstones is when the sun is a few degrees short of being directly overhead. This will create a bit of a shadow on the engraved letters, making them easier to read. In many older cemeteries the inscriptions on the headstones face east, so in those cases you may want to try and go during the mid to late morning hours. If the inscriptions face another direction, you will have to adjust the angles and see what looks best through the viewfinder.
For some headstones, especially porous ones, getting the face of the stone wet will make reading the inscription easier to read. Using a spray bottle filled with distilled water, spray the face of the stone.
I would stay away from using a flash as this will usually wash out a photo or add reflections. Be sure your auto-flash is turned off.
Never use things such as flour or other food products as they will penetrate into small pores and cracks. Flour when wet will expand causing damage to the headstone. Flour and food products can never be completely removed and will grow organisms causing damage to the headstone. And food products will bring creatures to lick or feast on the stone, causing damage. Shaving cream and tons of other products have chemicals that deteriorate the stone.If you reflect the sunlight at a bit of an angle to the face of the stone, you will also increase contrast with engraved inscriptions, making them easier to read.
You can also use a mirror (or any bright surface) to cast light in indentations-this makes the letters stand out more.
Try to shoot when the sun is at an angle and not directly hitting the front of the tombstone. This way the lighting will cast some shadows, and hopefully bring out hidden details.
In some instances (last resort), you may find that you have the urge to use something such as chalk to bring out the image. BUT chalk ends up injuring the surface and later on discoloration. I can't stress enough that you should NOT do a rubbing or put anything on the headstone. If you insist use CAUTION. Rubbing gently, apply a fine layer of white chalk to the face of the headstone. Be sure to use chalkboard chalk as it is softer and less likely to damage a stone than sidewalk chalk. Never use colored chalk as this may stain the stone. Be sure to rinse the chalk off the headstone when you are done.
I have heard some folks have used a product called Chalk-it Spray Chalk. But as with anything think it through before using it. The company state-It comes in colors and is generally safe to use on virtually any surface and simply washes away with water. Chalk-It is non-flammable, non-toxic and environmentally safe.
They recommend that before it is applied you test on a small area to make sure there will be no adverse affects.
I have heard of some folks using leaves, but in most cases is will turn the stone green and brown after being in the sun. Sometimes rubbing leaves will make things unreadable. I've also heard of people using dirt, but again dirt will stay in the pores and cracks. I can't stress enough that you should NOT put anything on the headstone.
Bottom line every time a rubbing is done damage occurs. Every time you put something other than distilled water on a headstone damage occurs.
If you are going to do a rubbing become educated and learn how to "rub responsibly."
Rub only stones that are in good condition and are solid. Don't rub deteriorating marble, sandstone or a headstone that is splitting, cracked, flaking, blistered or unstable in any manner. If there are any cracks or you see the headstone has been repaired in some way DO NOT do a rubbing.
Beware that deteriorating stones might have air pockets behind the face of the stone, which will cause the stone to collapse under the pressure from you doing a rubbing.
If you must clean the stone use a soft brush and DISTILLED/PLAIN water ONLY. Detergents, soaps, vinegar, bleach and cleaning solutions will destroy the headstones, as will wire or stiff brushes, sharp metal objects such as nail files, knives, gardening tools, etc. Stick to natural bristled soft brushes. There are some professional headstone cleaning products on the market, just make sure they are non-ionic.
Click here for more on chemical's and the damage they can cause.
What about lichen?
If the lichen is soft you can try soaking the headstone with distilled/plain water and then VERY GENTLY loosen the lichen with a wooden popsicle stick or plastic straw. If the lichen doesn't come off easily STOP and forget trying to remove it.
Don't use shaving cream on porous gravestones.
Shaving cream has chemicals, greasy emollients, which are sticky and this makes it very difficult to remove from the stone when you try to wash it off. Even with "elbow grease" (vigorous scrubbing) and TONS of rinsing, the cream fills in the pores of a porous stone and cannot all be removed. The result of leaving it there is that in time it will end up discoloring or damaging the stone.
Stay away from club soda and other soda for removing dirt. The soda will eat away the stone leaving the headstone damaged.
What should I use for doing a rubbing?
Make sure your paper (rice paper) covers the entire stone, some folks say using non-fusible medium weight interfacing is best. Attach paper or fabric with special headstone tape or masking tape. NEVER use scotch tape, duct tape or spray adhesives.
Make sure the color won't bleed through your paper or fabric....avoid magic markers, permanent markers or other permanent color material. Avoid waxes. There are special headstone paper for doing rubbings.
It is best to test a very small corner of the headstone first, to make sure you are not damaging the headstone right this minute, be aware you are probably damaging the stones future.
Don't use chalk, dirt, wax or graphite or other things you concoct on the headstone.