One of the biggest challenges facing cemeteries today is how to properly clean and restore old headstones to their original beauty. Recommendations can run the gamut from, “Give them a good bleaching,” to wire brushing.
Others simply aren’t sure, preferring to leave the stones as they are rather than run the risk of further damage.
However, Karen Bouton, Saar Cemetery Project Coordinator and member of the South King County Genealogical Society, has spent many hours successfully restoring headstones in Saar Pioneer Cemetery with a simple, yet effective method that’s explained in her guest post below. (All photos were provided by Ms. Bouton).
Thinking about cleaning an old headstone?
I thought about it too and was scared to death that I would ruin the delicate sandstone material but since so many headstones in the Saar Pioneer Cemetery were quite unreadable, I had to do something.
The biggest challenge is that these stones are in a very fragile condition and the wrong cleaning process would damage them beyond repair. After spending a lot of time browsing through the tips from the Association For Gravestone Studies (AGS) and the Chicora Foundation, I realized several stones were best left alone but that others could be successfully cleaned without further damage.
However, I did not think it necessary to clean the black lichen out of the engraved lettering as I believed cleaning it would do more damage to the lettering. Plus, the lichen makes for easier inscription reading for visiting genealogists.
So how can these stones be restored? By using a cleaning solution found at local pool supply stores called Bio Guard ALGAL Backup Step 3.
I mixed ONE tablespoon of the chemical into a 12 ounce water squirt bottle. This one bottle alone cleaned nearly every headstone I worked on. I then used at least ten gallons of water for rinsing off EACH headstone.
Now while some cemeteries will have a water hose/pipe available, the Saar Cemetery does not. This meant I had to pack in the 10 gallons of water for each stone cleaned! However, I cannot stress enough how important it is to use this large amount of water. Once you start seeing the results, you’ll agree it’s worth it.
STEP ONE. Carefully dust off the loose material in and around the stone with a very soft cloth. I used a cloth diaper that worked well.
STEP TWO. Pour some water onto the area you want to clean. Note: It’s best to work only on one side at a time.
STEP THREE. Shake the 12 ounce squirt bottle and spray only a few squirts into the areas being cleaned. DO NOT leave the cleaning solution on for more than 30 seconds. After the 30 seconds, pour water onto the sprayed area, then pour some more. I then gently used the cloth diaper to work the water into the stone – the key word here being gentle.
On some really tough spots I had to spray the solution a second time before gently scrubbing with a very soft bristle brush (think soft toothbrush consistency) followed by some more rinsing. Keep in mind that even after dousing a headstone with water, the solution is still active on the stone so it’s important to use as much water as possible to rinse off as much as possible.
The stone will look cleaner at this time, but believe me, come back in a week and it will be several shades brighter. Sunshine will also help as it’s a natural cleaner.
If your cemetery has a lot of granite headstones, they won’t require as much work. Instead, a bit of water and a wipe with the clean cloth diaper will set them right. Oh why couldn’t they all have have been granite??
Have more questions? Contact Karen here.