Cleaning Gravestones can prove to be a tedious and difficult job, however with the right
knowledge and materials it is possible.
Metallic brushes are entirely too harsh, and they also leave particles on the surface
of the stone that can rust.
Small, soft, slanted paintbrush - To clean debris and critters out of lettering or carvings
At least one large sponge
You may also want to bring a small spray bottle of water for gently cleaning dirt and
debris from the stone. The spray bottle, should contain only water
and not detergent or chemicals of any kind that would damage and further erode
the stone's material. You might want to use Photo Flo, a neutral PH detergent which
is made by Kodak and used in photo developing. It will clean the stone without
affecting the chemical balance of the stone. Mix one capfull per gallon of water. A 2
gallon garden spray bottle can normally do several stones if used properly. Wash
stone with solution, then rinse stone with clean water.
Towel or old rags
Used to kneel on or clean polished granite stones. Launder them first, but do NOT
use fabric softener. The softener will affect their ability to absorb liquids as well
as cutting down on the "magnetism" for dirt and dust.
Bring along a sample size of antibacterial waterless hand cleaners or wipes.
Cutting Tool - Hand-held grass clippers, scissors or a retractable razor knife for
trimming grass and/or weeds close to the stones. Do NOT use weed whacker type
trimmers as these can scar the stones. For site clearing/cleaning, a pair of pruning
shears or hedge clippers is also helpful for brush that is too thick to rip out or cut
with grass clippers, but not thick enough to bother with a chain saw.
Pencil and Notepad to record information about the stone or cemetery location.
In addition, you will want to also look at taking along the following safety items:
Drinking water - plan to bring at least several quarts of water with you for drinking ,
apart from the water you use for washing the stones.
Gloves - Both work gloves and rubber gloves.
First Aid kit
Bee and wasp spray
Antibacterial liquid soap and or waterless instant hand sanitizer
Protective hand lotion
IvyBlock (for poison ivy, oak and sumac)
ABOUT STAINS AND STAIN REMOVAL
Before you attempt to remove a stain, it is extremely important to know what
has caused it. If you don't know, it is highly recommended that you consult
a stone specialist Avoid using chemicals of any kind until you know which
chemical cleaner to use. Certain chemicals will react with the spilled material,
and could make the stain permanent. Removing stains from marble or granite
can prove difficult. These stones are porous materials, and If not thoroughly
sealed they we be susceptible to staining. The only way a stain can be removed
is to use a safe chemical that will pull it out of the stone and an absorbent material
that will soak up the stain. This chemical absorbent-material combination is
commonly referred to as a poultice.
Poultices are commonly powder or cloth materials that can be mixed with a
chemical and placed on top of the stain. Refer to the table below for some of
the more common poultice materials. Clays and diatomaceous earth are safe
and readily available, but do not use whiting or clays containing iron with an acidic
chemical; iron will react with the acid, and may cause rust staining. It is best to
purchase powders that are designed specifically for stone and tile. Consult a
stone restoration specialist or your stone supplier if in doubt.
Paper towels Cotton balls Gauze pads Clays such as attapulgite, kaolin, fuller's
earth Talc Chalk (whiting) Sepiolite Diatomaceous earth Methyl cellulose Flour
Saw dust How to apply a poultice
To apply a poultice, take the following steps:
1. Clean the stained area with water and stone soap. Remember to blot rather
2. Pre-wet the stained area with a little water. Distilled water is recommended.
3. Refer to the chart and determine which chemical to use for the stain.
4. Mix the poultice material with the selected chemical. Mix until a thick p
eanut-butter paste consistency is obtained.
5. Apply the paste to the stained area, overlapping the stain by at least ¼ .
Do not make the application too thick, or it will take a long time to dry.
6. Cover the paste with a plastic sandwich bag or food wrap. Tape the plastic
using a low-contact tape.
7. Allow the paste to sit for 12–24 hours.
8. Remove the plastic cover and check to see if the paste has dried. If it has
not, allow it to sit uncovered until thoroughly dry.
9. Once it is dry, remove the paste by scraping and rinse the area.
10. Examine the stain. If it still remains, but is somewhat lighter, re-poultice
until it is gone. If the stain refuses to disappear completely, it is time to give
up, replace the tile or call a stone specialist.
Stain removal can be very difficult, and care must be taken when using a
(The above information from The National Training Center for Stone and
Practice on a rock at home, or check with a local monuments store to see if
you can practice on one of their tombstones, before going to the cemetery.
In the case of cemeteries located on private property, remember that you are
doing rubbings on someone else's property. It is ALWAYS advised to gain
permission by attempting to speak with the property owner, and explain want
you want to do, BEFORE you begin. If you do not get permission, please
respect the wishes of the cemetery and ask if you can take a photograph to
record the information and condition of the stone. If you find that a gravestone
is severely damaged, please notify the property owner or supervisor of the
AT THE CEMETERY
Before starting, all surfaces of the stone should be checked. If there is any
question as to the stone's condition, do not attempt to clean it, as the surface
could be irreparably damaged in the process.
Start with a test patch of your proposed cleaning technique on an area of the
structure that is least visible.
The stone surface should be thoroughly pre-soaked with water.
Thoroughly wash with plain water the pre-wetted stone with natural, soft bristled
(natural or nylon), wooden-handled brushes of various sizes. The use of plastic
handles is not recommended, as colors from the handles may leave material
on the stone that will be very difficult to remove.
Wire brushes, metal instruments and abrasive pads may give you instant
satisfaction but, if you clean with anything that is harder than the stone, you
risk scratching the face of the stone and causing more damage in the long run.
Be thorough. Wash all surfaces. Scrub the stone from the bottom up to avoid
further streaking and staining. Always watch carefully to make sure that none
of the stone’s surface is eroding as you scrub. Rinse thoroughly, with lots of
Keep the stone wet at all times; really wet. Where a garden hose is not available,
be sure to bring plenty of jugs of water and keep dousing the stone as you work
and, most importantly, flush the stone well when done.
Remove bird droppings, dirt moss, lichen etc. from the stone if possible. This
will insure clear and sharp copy. If lichen is a problem, you can scrape with a
wooden or plastic scraper. Tongue blades or craft sticks work well. Also,
inexpensive plastic putty scrapers from home stores work well. Remember, no
metal. If you have any trouble getting any of these materials off the stone,
STOP and be sure that you do not cause any damage the stone in your attempt
to clean it.
If used, do not allow detergent solutions to dry on the stone while cleaning.
Some stains in porous stones cannot be removed. Do not expect the stones to
appear new after cleaning.
Do not clean marble, limestone, or sandstone more than once every 18 months.
These types of stone may occasionally be rinsed with clean water to remove bird
droppings and other accretions. Granite can be cleaned as needed.
Keep a record of the cleaning, including date of cleaning, materials used and any
change in condition since last cleaning (such as missing parts, graffiti, and other
damage). These records should be kept at a central location where the condition
of the stone can be monitored over time. Saving Graves will be happy to store
this information as a part of a cemetery protection association listing.
To clear up a common misconception, lichens do not eat the rock, rather they
naturally grow on stone surfaces that are available to them, whether these surfaces
are naturally occurring or are artifacts of human activity. You will not be helping
to preserve the stones by removing the lichen. The gray and orange patches
formed by lichens on gravestones give a distinctive character to an old cemetery.
These attractive "time-stains" not only enhance the appearance of the churchyard
but are often of some rarity for which, like many other organisms, the cemetery is
a wildlife sanctuary. Many lichens require a particular type of stone on which to
live and, in many lowland districts, the cemetery may be the only undisturbed
location in the area for many of these types of stones.
There are differing views as to whether lichens damage the stone on which they
are growing or whether they protect it. There is evidence that the acid substances
produced by lichens can attack the stone, but this effect is limited to a very thin
layer immediately under the lichen. Any small cracks present or caused by this
process will probably be infiltrated by the fine root-like hairs (fungal hyphae) of
the lichen and this may cause more damage. It has, however, been argued that
any damage caused by these processes is less than would be brought about
by the weather if the lichen was not present. The tough, rather thick, lichen can
protect the underlying stone from the weathering effects of wind, rain and frost.
On some soft stones in exposed sites the lichens may eventually cover raised
areas where the surrounding stone has been eroded away by natural weathering.
In some circumstances it may be necessary to remove lichens and various
methods have been used with success. You'll never get a crustose lichen off a
rock and keep the rock's surface intact. Lichens cause differential weathering
on the rock which is visible as stains. On basic rocks the lichens will stain the
rocks by their acids. The lichens also shield the rock from radiation which can
lead to differences in color even on acidic rocks. If the purpose is to enable an
inscription to be read, other ways of doing this should be tried first before the
removal of the lichens. These methods, to increase the clarity of an inscription,
include wetting or looking at it in the twilight with a torch shone along the inscription
on a gravestone at a low angle. This will enable many worn inscriptions to be read.
If it is deemed that cleaning is essential, only the minimum area necessary should
be treated. This may be done by physically rubbing the lichens from the surface.
Where this is done on a smooth stone the result may be unsightly as it is almost
impossible to remove many crusty lichens from the lettering of the inscription.
The lichens remaining in the lettering and cracks will probably regrow but rare
lichens may have been lost from the surface. Another physical method that
has been used is to cover the area to be cleaned with black polythene. It may
take some months for the lichens to die but they may then be removed with
A homemade poultice an be produced using Dry porcelain clay mixed to a
peanut-butter consistency with equal parts of water and glycerin. Small quantities
of glycerin are available at most pharmacies; for larger quantities, search the
Internet for soap-making supplies, floral supplies, etc. or check your Yellow
Pages for "soapmaking supplies"; the large craft stores might carry it as well
(Michaels, Hobby Lobby, etc.) Just be sure to stay away from "glycerin
melt-and-pour" soap base. You'll need straight glycerin (you'll mostly likely
find "vegetable" glycerin). Please be sure NOT to ask for NITRO-GLYCERIN.
You will have every law enforcement agency in the country checking your
personal history and watching your every move.
The Association for Gravestone Studies suggests that Calcium Hypochlorite
(e.g., Chlorine, "HTH," "Shock Treatment") is effective for the removal of
biological growth. It is a granular product that is not to be confused with "liquid
chlorine" or sodium hypochlorite. Calcium hypochlorite is available from
swimming pool suppliers. A suggested cleaning solution is one ounce calcium
hypochlorite to one gallon hot water. Please keep in mind that this product
should be used only when a waterhose with a good water pressure (e.g.,
55 psi) is available. Any water pressure over 40 psi has the potential to cause
significant damage to a stone, depending on the condition of the stone.
We recommend alternatives to this method if at all possible.
Whatever method is used care should be taken to treat as small an area as
possible and not allow the chemicals to drip onto adjacent parts of the stone
or statue. Before commencing try to get an experienced lichenologist to check
that there are no rare lichens present. Remember, before you kill them, that
these lichens may have been growing on the stone for many years.
Please note this practice has been regulated or banned in some states and
in many cemeteries (particularly in colonial graveyards) due to the damage
it can cause to the stone. 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 cemeteries now ask for
permits before you are allowed to do rubbings. Common courtesy tells us
that we should first ask for permission from the cemetery or graveyard
superintendent or sexton prior to doing rubbings or taking photographs.
We strongly advise to check this information out in advance, if at all
possible. How can we expect the general public to respect
our cemeteries if we ourselves don't abide by the rules and regulations?
Diane Siniard Send your questions (and thanks) directly to Diane.
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