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Science Fair Project: Can I make my own gravestone rubbings?

You will have to visit an old cemetery and rub the gravestones! It will be a piece of art as well as a piece of history. Be careful of Halloween ghosts and goblins.

If you remember that when you were young you put a piece of scrap of paper over a coin and brought up the coin's design by covering the paper with pencil strokes. This technique can be used to reproduce the relief design of any surface. It is employed by artists today to made original prints. Using this technique to make a print of the carving on a gravestone is called gravestone rubbing.

A gravestone rubbing is an excellent document, accurately reproducing, life-size, the design and surface condition of the stone. Rubbings are, therefore, useful as records. Some rubbings are works of art in their own right and are in the collections of galleries and museums. The Association for Gravestone Studies offers an introduction to gravestone rubbing because the increasing popularity of the activity without guidance is a threat to the stones. In addition, getting to know the stones through rubbing will encourage respectful interest in them and result in strong community support for their care.

You will need some materials as follows:

1. Masking tape.

2. Scissors for cutting your paper.

3. Bottle of water and soft brush for gently cleaning dust and bird droppings from the stone. Absorbent cloth for drying the stone. Soft wood stick for removing lichen.

4. An average weight wrapping paper works well and is cheap. Rice paper or vellum tissue is excellent. Tough, thin paper considerably larger in size than the area to be rubbed. Art supply stores have a number of papers to choose from. To find the paper you prefer to work with will require experimenting with an assortment of papers. Recommended are cigarette paper, model airplane paper, and acid-free tissue used by art museums for packing art objects.

5. Rubbing wax or lumberman's chalk. Rubbing wax is available in many art supply stores. Lumberman's chalk is found in most hardware stores. If you use chalk you may want to spray your finished rubbing to prevent smearing. Art stores carry fixing spray.

6. Writing paper and a pencil, for noting data about the stone.

7. Paper clips for attaching these notes to your rubbings. Tube(s) of oil paint. A roll of paper towels. An applicator. A piece of felt can also serve as an applicator.

8. A palette. A small piece of wood or plastic will serve satisfactorily.

9. Container for carrying everything. Plastic bag for disposals.

10. Thin rubber gloves to protect the rubbing hand from paint.

11. Cardboard tubes for storing rubbings.

Suggested procedures…

1. Study the stone. Determine whether or not it is sound. A stone with cracks, an eroded surface, or a hollow sound when lightly thumped with a finger should not be rubbed. A stone that is cut in high relief cannot be successfully rubbed using this technique. Sharp protuberances such as the nose on a carved face are especially hazardous as these protrusions tend to break the paper and allow paint to penetrate onto the stone.

2. Clean the stone, carefully. This rubbing technique is very sensitive and will show any particles of dirt, lichen, or erosion. Avoid eroding surfaces. Avoid stones with more than a few small spots of lichen. Do not use anything but water to wash the stone. Experiments have shown that a chemical added to the water can result in damage that sometimes becomes apparent years later.

3. Record data. If you are eager and enthusiastic to make your rubbing, you may be tempted to record the data after you finish your rubbing. However, experience will probably teach you that an interruption such as rain or fatigue, or simple memory failure will eventually result in your failing to make the notes if you wait. I suggest you record the location, name of the deceased, death date, the stone carver and the date the rubbing is made. If you do not rub the whole stone, you may want to transcribe the inscription.

4. Cover the area to be rubbed with paper and secure it firmly to the stone with masking tape. To protect the stone, the paper must be considerably larger than the area to be rubbed.

5. Using your finger, rub the paper against the stone, indenting the paper where the stone is incised. This is a laborious process and one that is often omitted, but it is worth the labor. Omitting this procedure insures that the quality of the rubbing will be inferior.

6. Apply paint to the applicator. Wrap a small section of nylon around the index finger of your rubbing hand. Squeeze a pea-size dab of oil paint onto the pallet. Using the covered finger, rub this dab into the applicator (the nylon covered finger or the felt or the dauber).

7. Test the paint on the applicator by rubbing it onto a paper towel. Experience is needed to determine whether there is too much or too little paint on the applicator, and whether it is evenly spread. 8. Carefully, rub the applicator over the incised surface of the paper. As you rub, the image of the carving will appear. With experience, you can emphasize certain areas of your rubbing, making them darker or lighter. Colors can be used, and mixed. One dab of paint may be enough to rub an entire stone--or it may not, in which case you will add paint to the applicator. One piece of nylon is usually adequate for rubbing a stone, but it may wear, causing streaks as you rub, and need replacement. Experimenting and patience are the required ingredients for proceeding with the rubbing process. This is where you can be creative, and where each person's work differs from anyone else's.

9. When you are satisfied, remove the rubbing and place it in a safe place, out of the wind and away from the threat of moisture. Attach your notes to it with a paper clip.

10. Clean up trash. Collect your rubbish such as the used masking tape, paper towels, and anything else you want to discard and put them in your trash bag. Try to leave the yard neater than you found it. 11. After it is dry, roll your rubbing onto a cardboard tube for storage.

12. You may want to mount your rubbing on museum board. I suggest you do this with dry mounting tissue. This tissue is available in photo supply stores, which can also give you directions for its use. Or you can have the job done by a professional framer. If you decide to do the mounting yourself, you should first mount a practice rubbing, or a blank sheet of rubbing paper. It is very discouraging to spoil one's work at this stage.

13. If you mount your rubbing, it is possible to clean it up using an eraser. The eraser on a pencil will do.

14. Sign your rubbing and, using the data you recorded, label it by name of deceased, date, location, etc.

15. Spray your rubbing using Krylon Acrylic spray coating or similar available at art supply stores, will protect the finished product from smudging and from dust.

16. You will want to record the name of the deceased, death date, location of the graveyard and the date the rubbing was taken.

17. If you rub only the ornamental carving rather than the whole stone, you may want to copy the stone's full inscription for your record.

18. As you practice and improve your skill, you will probably try other techniques and materials, eventually choosing for yourself those which best suit your rubbing style and your taste.

19. Do not use questionable methods on the gravestones. 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.

20. Many rubbers are not careful, For this reason, some cemetery associations do not allow stone rubbing. Some require the rubbers to register. You will want to respect the graveyard's requirements and leave the stones and the area as you found them.

21. If you have done several different rubbings from stones in the nineteenth century and stones in the twentieth century, you may wish to compare the fidelity and the quality of the reproductions. The conventional wisdom might be that the older stones will not reproduce as well. However you do not know this as a scientific fact unless you make the test.

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