How to restore cemetery stones

Basic Repairs is our section that walks you through repairs to tablet style grave markers. Broken tablets are some of the most common things found and asked about. This section will begin with simple single breaks and work up to multiple breaks that can resemble jigsaw puzzles. Many of our members have become quite skilled in this area. It did not happen overnight. It took lots of practice and patients, so don’t be overwhelmed. Because they all started out just like you with the very basics. This section will also show you these repairs being made in two different settings. In the field or outdoors, and indoors. Repair work in the field is the most common and practical setting for many reasons due to logistics and permissions. Repairs made indoors have the advantage of controlled conditions and the convenience of a workshop setting.

The basic repairs covered in this section are methods that should be taught to you in a hands on manner through a workshop or class. They can be much more complicated than we are able to express on this website. This section is designed as an introductory overview only.

How to restore cemetery stones

Because this section touches on what we are terming as “Bonding Agents”, meaning any product or material used to join grave markers together. These will also be addressed in other sections of the website under PRO VS CON and under SOURCES…Pro VS Con Results. Please go to these sections for a more in-depth look and understanding before attempting any of these procedures.

The following is a great tutorial on repairing broken tablets, mainly marble tablets, with a focus on repairing them with an approved epoxy. We feel this is a great place to start when it comes to repairing or mending broken tablets. More on this procedure and different ways to use epoxy products that are widely accepted across the rest of the country, will be addressed below this article.

REPAIRING BROKEN HEADSTONES

By CCUS members Lloyd Collins of Polk Cemetery Savers and Mark Morton of Gravestone Guardians of Ohio

Headstones in most of the cemeteries across the country have either been set in the ground, in slotted bases, and some rare cases in concrete. Over time, the ground has shifted, rodents have burrowed under the bases, or animals, using them as scratch poles, have pushed the headstones off of vertical or broken them off at or above ground level. Vandals have also caused damage by pushing the headstones over or breaking them in pieces. Whatever the reason, some of the headstones are broken, sometimes in many pieces. These headstones are predominately of a “Tablet’ design. It is to the benefit of these headstones to be cleaned, repaired, and reset so they stand vertical. The headstone can then shed water and breathe properly.

The repair of broken headstones is a task that should not be taken lightly. This task takes patience, skill, time, and the use of the proper tools and materials. Few headstones can be repaired in a day. Most will take days and some will take weeks before the headstone can be repaired with epoxy, voids filled, engraving restored through the infill, and reset to stand straight on its’ own in the cemetery. Every broken headstone is different and although the repair methods may be the same, the series of tasks will be different. This standard will attempt to provide basic methods and define a series of tasks that will be needed to repair two types of broken tablet headstones that are in two pieces, and a tablet headstone that is broken into many pieces that may or may not be attached to a slotted base. If the base of the headstone is still in its’ slotted base, but the top is in several pieces, the top will have to be repaired first and then attached to the bottom section.

Many of the stones that you will find in neglected cemeteries that have been broken or knocked off their base can weigh in excess of 300 pounds. Far more than you will be able to lift on your own. To repair or reset larger, heavier stones such as this Saving Graves recommends the use of a tripod hoist. The tripod has been used since Egyptian times to raise heavy objects, and can simplify your job. However, even with the aid of a tripod, it is important that you have enough help to ensure safety. Extreme caution is required when using a tripod. You need to be knowledgeable on rigging. Rigging heavy stones with inexperienced people can and will result in injuries. Think about the pendulum effect when lifting a stone, especially when you are working on an tilted surface. One suggestion is to have a local pipe fitter or welder conduct a class with a select group of volunteers and city workers to instruct us in how to SAFELY erect the lifting device and how to SAFELY rig a tombstone. That includes the use of steel toed boots, good leather gloves, etc. All rigging in future would be done only with members of that trained group.

Tripods for cemetery restoration use vary from the two wooden “A” frame type capable of lifting up to two tons to the three pole steel I-beams frame that will support five tons.

Patricia Kneisler of Benicia, California is a civil engineer who works on restoring the 20 acre city-owned Benicia City Cemetery. Among the problems facing their efforts, “almost the entire cemetery is on a slope . 18” in 10′ is not uncommon. And erosion is a huge concern as years of indiscriminant Round-Up usage has left the slopes nearly bare of vegetation. That makes use of equipment such as rubber tired loaders, backhoes and cranes somewhat of a problem as driving them on that slope sure doesn’t help matters . and picking a load on a slope is something only an experienced operator should be doing. Then there is the sheer expense of using that kind of equipment. AND there is the “hurry up” factor. It’s a fact that when you use something that costs several hundred dollars an hour, you tend to “hurry up” to save money! And I think we’d all agree that that’s NO way to restore a cemetery.”

“So, being a civil engineer, I put my head to the problem. To my mind, tripods, engine lifts, etc. were either too dangerous on a slope, or too restrictive in their picking area. So a friend and I developed our own “little” design for what looks like a portable kid’s swing set. The rail along the top is actually a small crane beam that a trolley hoist can ride on. The four legs are made from steel pipe and adjust up to 2′ to compensate for the slope (a smaller sized pipe slides up and down inside each leg and can be pinned in several spots depending on the height you need). It stands a little over 6′ high and will be about 8′ to 10′ long (so we can rig base blocks out of our way completely when we dig out for new foundations). Yep . it’s a tad heavy! But it’s meant to bolt together in pieces. And once it’s up . well, it just stays up until whatever we’re working on is done . if that’s a month, so be it. We intend to use a “chain fall” with the trolley, and two cloth slings to pick the stones in sort of a “basket hitch”. Now all we have to do is get the city to pay us for the material to put it together. It’s probably overkill for a small cemetery . but Benicia is so large, we’ll use a device like this for years.”

Some manufactures such as the Granite City Tool Company offer sturdy, lightweight tripods of steel or aluminum construction that set up quickly for heavy lifting (1 to 3 tons) in areas with no overhead support, with independently adjustable legs that permit use on uneven ground and adjust on 6″ centers. A standard lashing kit prevents the legs from spreading on hard or soft surfaces and is included with every tripod.

Before getting started, there are three points that we need to look at:

1 Make sure that no metal is used in strapping the stone before attempting to move it with the tripod. This will cause additional damage to the stone and should be avoided. You should use canvas strapping for lifting the stone.

2 You will want to make sure before attempting to lift that the ground you have placed the tripod on is solid enough to hold the weight of the equipment without sinking into the ground.

3 You will want to make sure that the tripod is set up in such a way as to prevent the legs from spreading and causing the stone to drop while lifted.

Safe Solutions for hard to read tombstones

When you visit a cemetery, you are likely to come across some tombstones that are weathered, worn, and difficult (or impossible) to read. For years, some methods have been thought of as acceptable means for making the stone easier to read, such as making a rubbing of the tombstone or chalking the stones. We now know that these methods are, in fact, dangerous to the stones and often do more harm than good. In some areas, tombstone rubbings have been banned because of the damage they can cause to old, brittle, and fragile stones. But never fear; there are several excellent methods for reading these old stones that are safe and effective.

Rubbing, Chalking, and Other Bad Ideas

Tombstone rubbings have been popular for centuries, and are often still touted as a fun and interesting way to keep a visual record of a tombstone. But the truth is, it is harmful to tombstones and is currently being banned and outlawed in many different areas. Rubbing is, in itself, very abrasive to stones. It will eventually wear away the carving on stones and loosen bits of the stone causing flaking and breaking. Remember, even gentle rubbings cause decay. With photography what it is today, there is no reason to do a rubbing for recording or memorialising a tombstone. Photographs can provide a much greater and more artistic visual remembrance of any stone.

Chalking is, sadly, a method that is still being promoted by people in the field as being a safe way to read hard to read tombstones. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of knowledge about this subject. Chalk is very abrasive and can damage and stain stones. Some people think that the chalk will simply wash away, but there are instances of chalk staining stones which is still visible years after the fact.

Additionally, there are those who think using flour or shaving cream are good methods for making stones more readable. Flour is harmful because it can penetrate into small pores of the stone, and when wet, the flour will swell and can cause flaking of the stone. Also, it is food for micro-organisms that can then live and grow in the stone, causing expansion and cracking. Shaving cream is dangerous because of the chemicals it is made up of which will deteroriate the stones, much like acid rain.

How to restore cemetery stones

  1. Restoring a Bronze Plaque/Headstone
  2. Maintaining a Bronze Plaque/Headstone
  3. Additional Tips and Advice

Reg asked: How do I clean bronze headstones? I am trying to polish my relative’s headstones. Any suggestions?

Most bronze headstones consist of multiple materials. A bronze plaque is placed on a granite or marble base that is set level on the ground. If the plaque is laying horizontal, it is more affected from weathering. The protective coating that is originally applied wears away and leaves the bronze exposed to the elements. The plaque can be restored using the products and steps below.

Restoring a Bronze Plaque/Headstone

You Will Need:

  • Steel wire brush
  • 220 grit wet/dry sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Scrub brush
  • Distilled water
  • Soft towels
  • Leather dye
  • Small artist brush (1/4”)
  • Clear spray lacquer
  • Canned air

Steps to Restore a Bronze Headstone:

  1. Choose a warm, dry day to do this process. If the area has sprinklers or gets watered, check the timing to ensure it will have enough time to dry.
  2. Use the stainless steel brush to brush away dirt and corrosion that may be present on the surface. Move the brush in a variety of directions. It may remove some of the coloring, but that will be replaced in a later step.
  3. Place a strip of sandpaper on the sanding block. Make it as tight as possible.
  4. Following the lines on the stone, sand the tops of the letters using a back and forth motion. It will take some effort. You want to sand until the letters become brighter.
  5. Use a folded piece of sandpaper to blend in any dents or chipped areas.
  6. Mix a small amount of Ivory liquid dishsoap with water.
  7. Use the scrub brush to apply the soapy water to the surface.
  8. Scrub to remove any dust or residue from the brushing and sanding that was completed earlier.
  9. Rinse with water.
  10. Complete a second rinse with distilled water to make the surface as chemical free as possible.
  11. Dry with a clean, soft cloth.
  12. Allow the surface to air dry completely.
  13. Next, you will darken the background with leather dye. Choose brown, black or a mixture. It may take several coats to achieve the final desired look.
  14. Use the artist brush to apply the dye to the background and the sides of the lettering. Try to avoid getting it on the tops of the letters.
  15. Let the dye dry completely.
  16. Resand the tops of the lettering again to remove any dye that may have gotten on the tops and fix any blemishes that were missed the first time.
  17. Brush any dust away with a soft brush or canned air.
  18. Finally, spray a coating of lacquer over the surface of the plaque. Go over the plaque several times, using a different direction each time.
  19. Protect the area from any blowing dust or debris (grass clippings, leaves, etc.) while the lacquer dries.
  20. Maintain the beauty of your memorial with the steps below.

How to restore cemetery stones

While no substance can last forever, there are ways to keep a headstone or grave marker looking respectable, clean and enduring for decades and even centuries to come.

Every year, at Hart Monuments , we get questions by family members who have recently visited the cemetery and noticed signs of damage or weathering of their loved one’s memorial markers.

Often, there are simple things that can be done to preserve and restore a stone, bench, plaque, or mausoleum to its proper condition. When a more drastic approach is needed, professional restoration can make even the hardest-hit memorial look fantastic.

How to restore cemetery stones

Preparation

The first and most important step in any restoration project is to understand what needs to be done without increasing any damage to the stone or to the other memorials around it. If you have any concerns about damaging a headstone or other element of the cemetery, take a step back and consult with a restoration professional. A small amount of caution now can save a lot of work down the line. Your local cemetery usually has a list of preferred experts.

A headstone or gravemarker can be cleaned as long as care is taken. Remember, many of the original stones in American cemeteries are very fragile. Take care to first inspect the stone for cracks, flaking or physical deterioration. Many cleaning agents and procedures can do long-term damage, especially to a stone that is unstable. If you are uncertain as to whether or not a stone is in a suitable condition for cleaning, consult a professional.

Use proper cleaning products and techniques to preserve to the future stability of the headstone. So, what products are safe for cleaning? Let’s start with what to avoid. One of the first thoughts that people may have is to use bleach. Unfortunately, while it can make a stone look whiter and pristine, bleach can cause irreversible damage by eating away the surface of the stone, exposing it to even further decay. Also, bleaching will leave a residue on the grave marker that cannot be rinsed off. Some commercial cleaners such as Ivory Soap and Fantastik Spray can leave the same result. Other cleaners to avoid include Naval Jelly, muriatic acid, and Lime Away. Any acidic cleaner can do permanent damage.

Safe cleaners include “non-ionic” detergents that are safe for limestone, marble, and sandstone. These can be found online and at photo supply stores and preservation stores. Some of the brands include Triton-X 100, Igepal, and Vulpex. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully and make sure that the stone is fully wetted before applying any cleaner. Use only cotton cloth and soft bristle brushes (think soft toothbrush) to prevent lifting any stone material. As you clean the stone, scrub gently and work your way from the bottom to the top to prevent streak marks. Rinse the stone often and thoroughly with clean water. Never let any detergent dry onto the stone.

For stubborn stains and marks, ammonia can be used sparingly. Be sure to dilute the ammonia with at least four cups of water per cup of ammonia. This can be very effective on lichens. For black algae, calcium hypochlorite (found online or at a swimming pool supply store) can be effective.

Re-Setting a Headstone

Quite often, the most noticeable part of a restoration effort involves the re-setting of headstones.

Over time headstones can shift out of plumb or even fall over. Whether caused by shifting ground, harsh winds and ice or even vandalism, even the heaviest stones can move from their original positions.

To avoid doing more damage as well as personal injury, re-setting grave markers or headstones is something that should be attempted only by trained professionals. Professional restorers are familiar with the techniques as well as the local rules for each cemetery and can navigate any obstacles that may arise during the restoration process. For example, most cemeteries have strict guidelines for the length, width, and depth of the base on which each headstone sits.

A professional team or restoration experts will start the re-setting process by first removing the headstone from its current base. The stone is raised carefully so as not put undue pressure on it which might cause further damage. Once lifted from its place, the stone will be laid flat and usually transported to the restoration shop for a thorough cleaning and repair. Once the stone has been properly reconditioned and repaired, it will be re-aligned on its new base in the cemetery.

With proper care, a grave marker can be a beautiful homage to your loved ones that can last for generations.

How to restore cemetery stones

How to restore cemetery stones

If you have any questions about cleaning your memorial, feel free to call us for advice at one of our custom memorial showrooms: 585-589-6500 . We know the requirements of every cemetery in the Rochester metropolitan (Hart Monument) , Greece ( ROC Memorials & Monuments ) greater Batavia ( Oakley Monument ) and Albion ( Brigden Memorials ) areas, plus many in surrounding communities.

You can probably find information on how to remove your child’s appendix, but are you willing to try and risk their life? It is no different with a 100-year old stone that can’t be replaced. Are you willing to try, only to make matters worse? Here are some photographs of failed attempts to save a few dollars.

How to restore cemetery stonesThis is a shameful way to treat a monument. Inappropriate adhesives have been used without taking care to either achieve a good, tight alignment of the stone fragments or clean up the excess material. In addition, the continuous joints will create new failure lines.

How to restore cemetery stonesThis stone could have been easily repaired by a conservator, but a “do-it-yourselfer” smeared a thick epoxy paste all over the stone in an effort to “glue” it together. The effort has disfigured the stone and has created a repair that, when it fails, will cause even more harm to the stone than the original break.

How to restore cemetery stonesAn effort was made to repair this stone using a liquid epoxy which has run down over the stone and yellowed with exposure to ultraviolet light. Like the example above, this stone will soon fail, causing additional damage.

We live in a “do-it-yourself” world, but we must also realize that there are some things we just can’t do ourselves — some things take special training, experience, skills, tools, and materials. These photos provide clear examples of the damage that can be done by “do-it-yourselfers.” Stones that are beautiful and that have lasted decades can be ruined in only minutes by well-meaning, but poorly skilled and ill-prepared “do-it-yourselfers.”

Does this mean that there is nothing I can do to help preserve my family’s monuments?

NO! What it means is that some jobs require professionals. There are still lots of things you can do to ensure your family cemetery is appropriately cared for.

For example, is it carefully and respectfully maintained? Is the grass mowed in a way that protects the monuments and prevents damage? Is debris removed from the cemetery? Are trees trimmed and maintained to ensure that they don’t damage stones? Is the cemetery protected from vandals? If the cemetery is owned by someone else, have you spoken to them and worked out an arrangement to allow descendents to periodically visit and maintain the cemetery? Have you and your family members raised the money to fence the cemetery, clearly marking its location? Is the cemetery recorded at your local county clerk of court? Have you recorded and photographed all of the markers in the cemetery?

We also have pages on our web site that explain cleaning stones and resetting tilted or some broken markers.

This link will take you to an article (in .pdf) that will help you secure your cemetery gates against theft.

How to restore cemetery stones

  1. Restoring a Bronze Plaque/Headstone
  2. Maintaining a Bronze Plaque/Headstone
  3. Additional Tips and Advice

Reg asked: How do I clean bronze headstones? I am trying to polish my relative’s headstones. Any suggestions?

Most bronze headstones consist of multiple materials. A bronze plaque is placed on a granite or marble base that is set level on the ground. If the plaque is laying horizontal, it is more affected from weathering. The protective coating that is originally applied wears away and leaves the bronze exposed to the elements. The plaque can be restored using the products and steps below.

Restoring a Bronze Plaque/Headstone

You Will Need:

  • Steel wire brush
  • 220 grit wet/dry sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Scrub brush
  • Distilled water
  • Soft towels
  • Leather dye
  • Small artist brush (1/4”)
  • Clear spray lacquer
  • Canned air

Steps to Restore a Bronze Headstone:

  1. Choose a warm, dry day to do this process. If the area has sprinklers or gets watered, check the timing to ensure it will have enough time to dry.
  2. Use the stainless steel brush to brush away dirt and corrosion that may be present on the surface. Move the brush in a variety of directions. It may remove some of the coloring, but that will be replaced in a later step.
  3. Place a strip of sandpaper on the sanding block. Make it as tight as possible.
  4. Following the lines on the stone, sand the tops of the letters using a back and forth motion. It will take some effort. You want to sand until the letters become brighter.
  5. Use a folded piece of sandpaper to blend in any dents or chipped areas.
  6. Mix a small amount of Ivory liquid dishsoap with water.
  7. Use the scrub brush to apply the soapy water to the surface.
  8. Scrub to remove any dust or residue from the brushing and sanding that was completed earlier.
  9. Rinse with water.
  10. Complete a second rinse with distilled water to make the surface as chemical free as possible.
  11. Dry with a clean, soft cloth.
  12. Allow the surface to air dry completely.
  13. Next, you will darken the background with leather dye. Choose brown, black or a mixture. It may take several coats to achieve the final desired look.
  14. Use the artist brush to apply the dye to the background and the sides of the lettering. Try to avoid getting it on the tops of the letters.
  15. Let the dye dry completely.
  16. Resand the tops of the lettering again to remove any dye that may have gotten on the tops and fix any blemishes that were missed the first time.
  17. Brush any dust away with a soft brush or canned air.
  18. Finally, spray a coating of lacquer over the surface of the plaque. Go over the plaque several times, using a different direction each time.
  19. Protect the area from any blowing dust or debris (grass clippings, leaves, etc.) while the lacquer dries.
  20. Maintain the beauty of your memorial with the steps below.

Resetting Ground Supported Headstones : Resetting Volume 3

Jason Church: Hello and welcome to historic Chalmette National Cemetery. My name is Jason Church. I’m a materials conservator with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. In this video, we’re going to cover the tips and techniques needed to raise and realign ground supported grave markers such as these historic stones for veterans here at Chalmette. Before we get started, let’s take a quick moment to listen to our park ranger give us a little history of the site.

Nathan Hall: Hello, my name is Nathan Hall. I am a park ranger here at Chalmette Battle Field which is one of six units of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. All together they tell the story of life in Southern Louisiana based around the culture and the history and the ecology around the Mississippi River. This site specifically is the original site. It became a national park in 1939. It commemorates the last major battle of the War of 1812, a largely forgotten war in American History. But when you come here you learn it has a lot of significance.

We’re a mixed group of a hundred years worth of New Orleanians from French Creole to Spanish speaking Canary Islanders to Native Americans, free African-Americans, pirates and privateers and criminals, state troops from Tennessee, and the US Army and Marines all came together defeated twice as many of the best trained and equipped army in the world at the time, the British army, to give the Americans a big victory at the end of a war that hadn’t gone very well for them up to that point.

We have now over 15,000 soldiers from wars, from the Civil War up to and including Vietnam and even a few people who served in the War of 1812 and were re-interred from other places and ceremonially placed here as well.

Jason Church: Grave markers may need to be reset for a variety of reasons. Here at Chalmette we have issues with the stones sinking and leaning due to the high water table, occasional flooding, and other natural disasters. The techniques that we will cover in this video are applicable to any grave marker that is ground supported. That is to say that it has no other base and is held upright only by the pressure of the Earth.

Before we get started with our raising and realigning, we should first run the line levels and measure out for the row we are working on. When resetting in an organized cemetery such as Chalmette, it’s important not only to bring the stone up to proper height but to keep it inline with the other stones in its rows and aisles. Masonry string and a line level is used for this. Here at Chalmette the average height for the stones is 22 inches above grave. That is the height we need to set the string to.

The first thing that needs to be done is to remove a small amount of dirt from around the stone. How much needs to be removed depends on the severity of the stone’s lean. It is important to decrease any stress from the stone before trying to lift it. When moving dirt be careful not to touch the stone with the shovel at any time as this will cause damage to the fragile stone. Also it is a good idea to place a tarp or piece of plywood down to put the dirt on. This will keep the side of the cemetery looking good after the reset.

To lift the stones, we’ll use a rolling aluminum gantry with a one ton chain hoist. When using any overhead equipment a hard hat should be worn. We are using a nylon strap to lift the stone. A simple basket hitch is all that’s need to lift the stone. If the strap starts to slip, stop. Lower the stone and redo the strap. Slippage could scar the stone. When gently raising the stone, one person should stay with the stone at all times while another one works the chain hoist. Be careful that the chain or hook do not strike the stone. Once the stone is raised from the hole, it can be moved out of the way or laid flat on the ground. Here at the National Cemetery where many stones will be reset in a row, we can pull several at one time. Once you are done with the gantry it should be rolled out of the way. Hardhats can now be removed if needed.

The hole that was left once the stone is removed needs to be widened and taken deeper to allow for gravel. To check the depth of your hole as you work, subtract the total height of the stone from the amount of the stone that goes above grave. Add about 4 inches to this to allow for the gravel that will be packed under the stone. When you reach the depth that you want, tamp the soil down before adding about 4 inches of gravel. Once the gravel has been added, tamp the hole again.

The stone can now be placed back in the hole. This can be done manually or by using the gantry and strap. If you’re moving the stone manually, make sure at least 2 people are there to move the heavy stone.

Now that the stone is back in the hole and at proper height, we’ll use this post level to monitor that the stone stays plumb and level while we place gravel around it. Make sure that you do not contact the grave marker with the shovel or while tamping. It’s recommended to only tamp with a wooden 2×4 to avoid any damage to the stone. The gravel around and underneath the stone will help with drainage and to hold the stone tight, slowing future settling. When selecting gravel make sure to use a small sharp grave. This will hold the stone in place. Tumbled or round gravel should be avoided as it may help the stone to move in a freestyle situation. Once the stone has been tamped in, leaving a few inches of room to add sand, soil, or the original sod back around the stone. Once the stone is properly reset it should be cleaned.