Cemetery preservation & restoration is not an easy field of expertise. Making sure that your techniques are sound and approved by the community of experts is crucial and ensures it is being done properly in a, “do no harm” manner to the tombstones & monuments. This being said, in short, it’s all about the training and the methods. So the next question is, are the people you are hiring or have hired to work in your cemeteries qualified? There are no, “quick fix or DIY” methods that can be used that won’t harm or destroy the tombstone.
We realize the field of cemetery preservation can seem complicated to the average person and we also realize no one can expect you or your group to become as knowledgeable as we have become. We also realize it can be very hard to know who or what to trust. This is why we have strived to be as well schooled as possible in this field and as forthcoming with knowledge and facts as is possible. All of what we are presenting to you in this letter can be checked and verified. We feel this makes what we are telling you become very credible and will allow you to make a very well informed decision. We hope you will take this information and choose a cemetery conservator who follows the best practice guidelines, whether it is us or another reputable company or individual. Our first and foremost concern is always to do what is best for the cemetery and nothing else.
Word of mouth is certainly about the best way to go from the companies view point but, not always the best way to go from the client’s side of things. Always ask if they are NCPTT qualified & trained. And please don’t just take their word for it. Many in this business lie & say they are. Some go to the classes and conferences just so they can make this claim. The real proof will be in the methods they use and these methods can easily be checked against the following. This is what will distinguish the professional from the nonprofessional. It is not about how many years a company has been doing its work or if they claim a long list of satisfied customers. This does not mean they have been correct in their methods, nor does it mean that their former clientele know what is harmful and what is not.
These are not just somebody’s old tombstones. They are priceless artifacts for genealogists, researchers, and family to cherish and record for as long as the grass grows and the sun shines. What you do is very important to that being the case. PLEASE Respect the dead as well as the living.
What you should look for concerning qualifications & standards.
First, a strict adherence to “Preferred Best Practices” as set forth by the nation’s community of experts. Let me explain as briefly as I can the importance of choosing the correct methods. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training NCPTT, a division of The National Park Service, are the foremost experts in the field of preservation for all things historical from buildings to documents. They have become experts in the field of tombstone and cemetery preservation and hold annual conferences yearly on this subject, where they attract both private conservators as well as national cemetery conservators. Their mission and goal is to promote the most up to date preservation methods that, “do no harm”, which are the very methods adopted at Arlington National Cemetery. The following is a list of, “red flags”, which will tell you the person or company you have been using or that you are looking to hire, is not a follower of the above guidelines. People who use the following methods are doing irrevocable harm and damage to the cemetery.
Cleaning tombstones & monuments can be a valuable part of historic preservation for two main reasons. First, it removes harmful lichens that will eventually erode the stone overall & in turn damage the inscriptions & artistry beyond readable comprehension. & second, making a marker readable can be an invaluable source for genealogists & those wishing to make historical records. Cleaning a tombstone is easy enough if, “you use common sense practices” & follow the guidelines below.
The following is from a document released for distribution on May 23, 2011, is part of a forthcoming report of research undertaken
by the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training for the Department of
Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration.
Don’t remove the original surface “The original surface may be polished and smooth. The inscriptions are generally carved into the headstone. If the original surface is altered, the way the headstone subsequently weathers may be changed.
As the surface roughens, it will soil more easily. The inscriptions can be eroded away, making the headstone harder to read. Never aggressively scrub the surface, or use wire brushes or mechanical methods such as sanders or grinders to clean the surface.”
“can stain the surface or accelerate stone deterioration. Well‐ meaning but ill‐informed custodians of cemetery headstones do damage through poor selection of cleaning methods. This would include use of power‐washing equipment too close to the stone, not rinsing after application of cleaner, and using products in a greater strength than the manufacturer recommends.”
Use the gentlest, least invasive method
“Select cleaning methods and materials that, to the best of your knowledge, do not affect the headstone. Chemicals and physical treatments should be undertaken using the gentlest means possible to insure the longevity of the headstone and to minimize the need to replace the stone.”
Improper Cleaning Techniques
Cleaners…Bleaches & chemical products, industrial cleaners, & muriatic acids will make the stone white again, but will begin a near irreversible death cycle for the marble or sandstone tombstone. Whereas granites are nearly impossible to damage, but can have their polished finishes marred. Please never use an individual or company that uses these things.
Cleaning Methods…The golden rule has always been, “if you wouldn’t use it on the hood of your car, then don’t use it on a tombstone”. Well…I wouldn’t use a soft nylon brush on my car’s hood for fear of marring the paints finish, I would use a sponge, but the point is well taken all the same. So when it comes to a tombstone a soft nylon or natural bristle brush is the equivalent to a sponge for your car’s hood. ANYTHING else becomes progressively harsher like the grit grades of sandpaper. Wire brushes & power tools that use sanding & polishing wheels should never be used period. Anything mechanical is far too aggressive no matter how good the condition of the stone is. This goes double for sandblasters and power washers. This also includes scraper tools used to remove dirt and mosses. Scrapers should always be made of plastic or wood and never metal. Please never use an individual or company that uses these things.
The most prevalent of these mechanical devise cleaning methods is the Nyalox wheel. The Nyalox wheel is an auto body tool used to take off rust and paint and to prep a metal surface plainly and simply. It was never manufactured or intended to be used in cemetery preservation or restoration. It would be the equivalent to you using a dremel to clean your teeth as opposed to a toothbrush. I’m sure your teeth will be very white and most of the discoloring and stains will now be gone. But, how long do you think your teeth will last now that you have taken off all the enamel? This method is not by any means a national standard. It is a cooked up short cut invented by people & companies from Indiana who want to make a buck by wowing you with shiny white stones. It has ABSOLUTELY no historical or preservation basis or value and has been condemned repeatedly by the community of experts as one of the worst practices being used in cemeteries today.
The reason why this is a bad procedure is simply this. Aggressive cleaning methods with power tools remove the outer skin of the old tombstone & open up the stones pores. Stone has one geological makeup when it is in the quarry and develops another when it has been placed above ground and is exposed to the elements. When you aggressively clean a stone that is not freshly quarried, you harm it greatly. This is equivalent to removing you body’s immune system. Once this is done, every harmful element is welcomed into the now defenseless stone. The result will be pitting, softening, and fading of the inscription as the stone begins to break down internally and externally. And at that point, the question must be asked, “what are we trying to save or preserve if we use destructive methods such as these? Please never use an individual or company that uses Nyalox wheels.
What power wheel cleaning looks like with a Nyalox wheel on a drill. Notice the dust all around that resembles powdered sugar. This stone has just had its protective skin removed and is now laid bare to the elements. They are also doing this to veteran’s markers.
Unfortunately for us all, there are companies & individuals who are practicing this polishing method as a way to clean & try to make a tombstone appear brand new. They are going for instant gratification in an effort to impress others with hugely dramatic results. In the end, this will be but a fleeting moment of glory & an eternity of irreversible damage. PLEASE don’t practice this method or promote others that do.
Bad or Outdated Mortars & Infills
Mortar mixes that contain Portland cements are barely passable and are outdated technologies. These mortars have a much greater chance of failure and a much greater chance of damaging the stone. The reason why this is a bad procedure is simply this. Mortars and infills should ALWAYS be softer than the two surfaces they bind together. Portland cements are some of the hardest known to man and should not be used even in small proportions. Good lime mortars should be sought out and used in their stead. Lime mortars are what are used in most all historic preservation and are now fairly easy to find and access through reputable historic preservation material suppliers.
Epoxies are a much larger subject and a subject too large and detailed for this letter due to the fact that there are so many in the market place. Epoxies should be acceptable according to industry and preservation standards. These epoxy types will only come from specific industry suppliers. In short, they will not be found at the local hardware or construction material store. Putties, caulks, glues, and other such things found in these stores are cheap DIY type solutions that will eventually fail and cause further damage to the stone. Please never use an individual or company that uses these types of products.
Bases and Concrete
Tombstones should NEVER be placed directly into concrete. Concrete is quite frankly the worst thing to have in a cemetery and only belongs there if it is being used to construct a base. Old tombstones are basically placed in the cemetery in two ways. One is a simple tablet set where the tombstone slab is simply set in the ground like a fence post and tamped level. Or two, the tablet was meant to be in some sort of base, either mounted to with pins or set in a slot cut in the base. If original bases are salvageable, then it is a simple matter of mortaring the stone back in its base. If the original base is gone or damaged beyond repair, then a new base needs to be cast. This also applies for a tombstone that was originally tablet set, “if it is weathered or damaged beyond repair to the point it can no longer be tablet set as it was originally intended”. In short, if having the bottom 3rd of the tombstone cannot be accomplished, then it should now be placed in a slotted base to preserve the stone and its inscription. Too many companies come in and either jam these stones in puddles of concrete or create mass concrete pad type footers and simply cram the tombstone in them. This is a favorite technique used by many monument companies. In the end the freeze thaw cycles will cause the softer tombstone to break against and away from the concrete it was placed in. All that will be left are further broken tombstones and large concrete pads and a lot of money wasted for something that was doomed to fail from the beginning.
Bad and harmful concrete work done by a supposedly reputable monument company. They charged $10,000 to irreversibly damage this cemetery.
When choosing a cemetery conservator always
Ask to see a list of materials and methods they use to clean tombstones and monuments.
Ask to see a list of what they mix and use as mortars and infills.
Ask SPECIFICALLY if they use power tools or use Nyalox wheels.
If you hire a company that uses these techniques to improve the looks of your cemetery, looks are all you are improving and those will be temporary. If you are hiring a company that uses these techniques to restore a cemetery, you aren’t restoring anything, you are allowing someone to come in & destroy the cemetery in the short run. We strongly encourage you to choose a cemetery conservator who follows the best practice guidelines, whether it is us or another reputable company or individual. Do not be taken in by a company that wants to present the argument, “we are not preservationists, we are restorationists” This is a cheap argument. Preservation and restoration is really the same thing, it is only a black and white difference between a good method and a harmful method. These rules and procedural suggestions go double for most monument companies. Monument companies are often the biggest culprits of damage to old tombstones and monuments. They are mostly singular minded and insistent on using modern monument techniques that are fine for new stones but, harmful to old stones. They do not want to learn proper repair methods because it is too time consuming or too fastidious. They want to make a quick buck, get in, get out, and sell you a new stone.
The Long Term Effects of the Nyalox Wheel
This is what tombstones can & should look like when a proper biocide is used to clean them with. 13 years later these stones have remained very legible, white & clean with no pitting or fading inscriptions. They will last another 100 years or more.