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Rubbings Enthusiast

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Rubbings are a fairly easy and inexpensive hobby. They are also a way to learn about history. All you need is a piece of paper, some charcoal or a pencil.

Some people take rubbings of tombstones to capture the beautiful artwork or learn about their family history. Others take rubbings of brass medallions, coins or even tree bark to capture the delicate designs and patterns.

If you enjoy history or like to hear stories about your ancestors, rubbings might help you to understand more. If you enjoy patterns that are found in nature, like tree bark, this might also be a hobby to consider.

Seventeenth and 18th century gravestones are a unique resource. They are hand-carved and often display information about birth dates, birthplaces, marriage, death, religious affiliation, military campaigns, and family relationships. This information sometimes can only be found on the gravestones.

Over the last century, making rubbings of artifacts became quite popular. Sometimes with all of the handling and rubbing, the wear and tear can be seen on the brass objects. If you visit a museum, there will often be exact copies made in a synthetic material so that people can continue the hobby without damaging the objects.

If you will be working with a tombstone, there are some things to keep in mind. Pat Dupes-Matsumoto is knowledgeable about brass rubbings and gravestone rubbings.

"I learned that one can actually destroy some stones by taking rubbings from them. I discovered that some stones in some parts of the country are actually hollow, and the pressure of making a rubbing can cause the stone to disintegrate," she says.

"Others are made of soft porous material that can crumble and erode if scrubbed. Spraying shaving cream on a stone for contrast will cause a harmful chemical reaction to the surface of the stone. Even a weak Ivory liquid and water solution can do harm to some surfaces."

She warns beginners to be careful about the advice they accept. "Unfortunately, I have seen instructions on the Internet and elsewhere that urge the use of a soft bristle brush to remove lichen, moss or droppings. The damage that can be done from the bristles to soft stone is immediate, obvious and beyond repair."

It's important to remember to respect monuments, historical relics or nature. If these things are destroyed, there will be no way to bring them back to their original state.

To do rubbings responsibly and respectfully, you need basic research skills. You also need people skills. Dupes-Matsumoto suggests getting permission before doing any rubbings in any cemetery. "Cemeteries are places that compel great emotion. Don't make your rubbings while services are going on nearby," she says.

"Respect the privacy of other visitors. Moderate your activity and voices in accordance with the setting. Remember that the gravestone you are copying represents someone who was very important to others. Treat it delicately and do no harm."

She notes there are always ways around these dangers. "If there is doubt that it can be rubbed safely, take a photograph instead. Report any damage that you find so that the management can make safe repairs," she says.

"Take no souvenirs other than the rubbing. Even if the stone is that of one of your ancestors, it is doubtful that you are, or will be, his or her only survivor. Leave it as you found it for the enjoyment of the other descendants."

Jeff de Boer is an artist. For one particular exhibit, he created a brass piece of an armored mouse.

"People who attended were able to take home a free piece of artwork from the exhibit after they made a rubbing of the displayed work. I was on hand to sign the pieces and talk to people about my art," he says.

"My claim to fame is the mouse armor that I have designed. I am the only person in the history of mankind and on Earth right now that can say that they have created such a piece."

Careers that relate to rubbings include an archeologist, museum curator, genealogist or artist.

Joel Gazis-Sax, a rubbings enthusiast, says, "Know your stones. If you cannot tell the difference between granite and marble, don't attempt to do a rubbing."

He notes, "Industrial granite is a very strong stone which takes 400 years to wear down a 16th of an inch. Marble and limestone wear much more easily."

He also notes that the state of Vermont, for one, has outlawed tombstone rubbing because cemetery caretakers noticed appreciable wear on stones which were favored by rubbers.

Getting Started

To begin making a rubbing, you need:

  • Masking tape to fix the paper to the object
  • Scissors to cut the paper
  • White paper -- the blank canvas that will display the pattern of your choice
  • Rubbing wax, black crayon or charcoal to transfer the original pattern to your paper

These supplies can be purchased at a craft or hobby store, and shouldn't break the bank. Start-up materials shouldn't cost any more than $30. To save money, you can probably ask for some of these items around your home or school.

The technique is quite easy to follow. First, you should find a stone or object which you find to be interesting. Cut the paper to the desired size, making sure it's big enough to capture the entire pattern.

Tape the paper to the stone or affix it to the object you will be working on. Usually, you should start rubbing at the outer edge and work your way in. Depending on how you want your final product to look, darken the design to your liking. Remove the paper and enjoy your work!

This hobby might also be a good way to get to know an older relative or to spend some time with friends sharing some relaxing time and stories. If you are interested in learning about your family history, ask a grandparent or aunt or uncle to show you where some of your ancestors are buried.

If it's nature that you want to learn more about, this is an excuse to take a trip to the great outdoors and enjoy the world that we live in -- and sometimes take for granted.


How to Make a Gravestone Rubbing
Find out how to preserve a little history with grave rubbings

Ashmolean Museum
See some examples of brass rubbings

Rubbings of Maya Sculpture
The story of one woman's attempts to preserve an art form

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