(1) Water can help but if the stone is splotchy in color or an old box tomb it
will not work in that case. It will also not work well in low light such as
the shade of trees.
(2) Get your picture when the sun is shining across the face of the
inscription. Since most stones face east early in the morning is better. Be
careful to avoid casting your shadow on the stone though. A planned approach
is to go in the morning for eastern facing stones and go back at 2 in the
afternoon for western facing stones. that is about all of them as 99.9%
of the stone face one of those directions.
(3) Take a tall mirror and hold that so the reflection of the sun shows up
across the face of the stone. This takes one person holding & pointing the
mirror and one to photograph. Another form of this is to shine a bright
flash light across the face of the stone from an angle to bring out the
Preferred but the stones must be dry for this to work.
(4) Purchase a box or two of sidewalk pastel chalk at Wal-Mart and use it this way.
first on very dirty stones use a soft brush and brush away the lichen or soil
stains. (a) Next lay the chalk stick on its side and glide the chalk over the inscription until
at lest the recessed inscription is covered. (b) Next take a flat kitchen sponge and smooth that over the
flat surface using a couple of circular strokes slowly applied. Remember - do not over do it
- probably no more than two strokes. If you continue you will leave chalk
residue inside the inscription thus defeating your purpose. Since chalk
residue left in the inscription works against you blow it out or brush it out
with a small broom. If you did it right it should look like this: (this was a
gray-blue color chalk)
IN Memory of Peter Greenberry Williams, Infant son of Samuel N. & Sarah
P. Williams. was born 10th of June 1838 & departed this life 5th of oct
1839, aged 15 months & 25 days
Bynum-Williams Cemetery-Maury Co Tn using gray-blue pastel chalk.
Never rub a stick of chalk over lettering that protrudes above the stone.
That could break off the lettering. In this case rub the chalk into the
sponge and then rub that lightly over the lettering.
Use the lighter colors and pastel chalks and throw away the dark brilliant
colors as they show up strange looking in the photos. White is the better
color but only a few white sticks are included in the mix of a box so use the
white sticks first, then pastels (whitish blues, grays, browns etc) and then
go for another box at $1.97 per box. One box should cover about 50 stones
depending on the style stones. Remember we are talking about old stones here.
Modern Granite markers need nothing but a good photographer.
A better sponge can be made by modifying an old sanding sponge. Take one that
is a cheaply made Chinese version that is well used and grind off or tear off the sanding grit and underlying black
coat. NEVER USE A NEW/RAW SANDING GRIT SPONGE ON A STONE, you will destroy
its patination and do permanent harm! Below the black coating is
left a very flat, soft & smooth foam surface that provides a great medium to
smooth in the chalk on the inscription. If you are having a hard time grinding
off the grit layer lay the sponge on rough concrete and rub it in a circular
motion fiercely and that should peel it off. Use the cheap sanding blocks from
China at $.30 cents each. For those the grit & coating peels off easily on
rough concrete such as your driveway or the side of your brick home.
Remember if you get the grit off, but leave the smooth black undercoating on
the sponge it will work, but just not as well as it tends not to smooth in the
chalk as much, but with the grit gone it will not harm the stone. Also
will not work on wet stones. The stone must be dry or the sponge absorbs the
This is a great method on old box tombs that are hard to read:
Nelson Cem in Giles Co. using pastel yellow-green chalk to highlight the
inscription. Notice in this case I applied the chalk only to the inscription
and not over the entire area of the inscription. That was just to save time.
Really it looks better to cover the area evenly and have an even look. Our aim
is to bring out the inscription and not create beauty. It does not do that
so only chalk where you have to. Done
correctly the look should be almost natural and not loud or bold. I repeat do
not use the bright phosphoric colors such as bright reds or bright orange etc.
These are not historic looking and will show up in photos as dull looking, and
to me is just ugly. The chalk easily washes off with the first rain and leaves
no residue. The only precautionary note is this chalking method is not a
procedure that should be applied regularly on a stone, just as any cleaning
process. Over many times it could wear the stone to some degree more than
You can use the shaving cream method. I have never used that. It is expensive
& time consuming and requires a soft plastic smoothing trial to force the
cream into the inscription. The left over residue if not washed away can harm
the stone too. It sets up a acid based chemical residue that can do harm and
also fertilize growing things to form on the stone surface rendering the stone
worse for reading over time.
I hesitated for many years in presenting the
above procedure. There are so many folks out there who are callous and
insist on altering any presentation given to them or they don't bother
to understand or follow instructions properly. This could do a lot of harm to the old soft stones.
Examples of that is using a magic marker inside an inscription to make it
Samuel Crockett 1772 -1827 in the Andrew Crockett Cemetery. This is a
distorted inscription by a black magic marker or paint inside the
inscription. Cannot read the birth year at all looks like 1732. Maybe they
even took a router and clumsily re-cut the lettering again in a very rough
way. Who knows. This is so ugly and never looks right again in a shallow
Remember some of these old stones are softer than a bar of soap. You will find
that out by breaking one of them if you are not careful. Remember be a jeweler
and work with softly applied precision and never be rough and forceful in dealing
with tombstones. If you have a handshake like a Philadelphia Lawyer chances
are you are too strong to use this method. This procedure is a delicate art & difficult when dealing with an
pound stone. I am convinced there are folks among us who are incapable of
that by their nature. But what ever you do follow this additional advise :
Do not use
wire brushes on stones except to clean the joints prior to epoxy gluing them
Do not use sanding mediums (blocks, paper, etc.) on stones.
A good test to tell if a brush is soft enough is to rub the bristles across
the back of your hand. If it hurts don't use it on the stone.
Never use anything with acids or alkali on a stone. For instance never
use Muriatic Acid or Lye.
Clorox and other bleaches leave a residue that will breakdown into harmful
substances unless flushed away thoroughly with water immediately after use.
Also never touch the inside of an inscription. All the above procedures
touch only the surface of the stone. If you see a big flake of lichen covering
the inscription just whisk it way with your finger or the soft brush.
Caution: Do not find yourself downwind of the chalking process. There is a
dusty residue stirred up in the process of gliding the chalk over the stone.
You can get C.O.P.D. in the long run if you breath chalk dust enough.