How to Do Brass-Rubbings
Brass Rubbing is Fun
If ever you visit the United Kingdom, brass rubbing is a great activity that most of the family can share and enjoy together. It is a good way of spending time in some of the famous churches and cathedrals and learning 'hands on' about some of their long and interesting history in medieval times, including the types of lives and even the clothes that people wore in those far off days.
We learned that brass rubbing had been a fashionable Victorian pastime and soon found that it was still very popular. Brass rubbings make a great memento of a visit to a church and can be hung, framed or placed on a strong background material to make interesting wall-hangings.
What is brass rubbing?
Brass rubbing is reproducing on paper the designs on commemorative brass plaques that are found in many churches in Britain. These brasses were originally set into the stone floors and marked burial places, also adding to the decorations of the church. We found they mainly date from between the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
We took our materials when we visited the Continent in the holidays, but were most disappointed; monumental brasses seemed to be uniquely British.
Only a few materials are needed.
- Large sheets or rolls of paper that are big enough to more than cover the brass chosen. Different grades and colours of paper or materials are available.
- Wax crayons; we bought black and gold of a brand called "Summit Wax."
- Masking tape that is easily removable and does not leave sticky marks behind.
- A soft hearth brush and small pan are useful for cleaning the site.
- A flat cushion to kneel on as the work is on the floor.
Wear suitable clothing that allows comfortable movement. Remember that in cold weather some churches are unheated and it can be very difficult kneeling or sitting on a stone floor for a long period of time in icy conditions. Coats, hats and fingerless mittens or glove are recommended.
How to Make a Rubbing
Brass rubbings in the old style were great fun, especially as dusk drew on and everything became quiet and eerie. The new style of making the rubbings can be just as educational.
Old Style Rubbings:
- Gently brush the rubbing with a soft hearth brush or similar, to remove any small pieces of gravel, grit and dust.
- Spread a sheet of paper such as butchers paper, so that it completely covers the brass (or latton, as it is known) and keep it in place with masking tape.
- Rub the paper gently with the wax crayon or heel-ball of your colour choice. Using the side of the crayon makes a wider rubbing on a large brass. The method is similar to the way a child makes a rubbing of a coin. Enjoy seeing the image being re-created.
- When your rubbings are completed, remove the tape and roll the paper carefully so that it is not crumpled.
- Make sure you clean up and take all your rubbish with you. Then you will be welcome next time you visit.
Some of our rubbings were life-size and were left behind in one of our moves; the two shown here have not been mounted. Some people cut the figures away from the background before mounting, although we rather liked the idea of a little of the surrounding stone floor showing through.
Monumental Brass Society: We had wondered if rubbing would be detrimental to the brasses, but the Monumental Brass Society stated that most brasses could be rubbed without causing damage. They did warn that it was important before beginning to rub a brass to check that the pitch that held the brass to the stone floor had not perished as this left a space between the brass and the stone. They recommended that this could be discovered by gently tapping the brass in various places and listening for a hollow sound. If this occurred people intending to make a rubbing were requested to not rub this particular brass as the pressure might stress the material and cause cracks to appear in the brass.
Some time between our visit in 1970 and our return in 1974 there were new rules. In 1974 we could no longer rub the original brasses in most churches as so many people had become enthusiasts that the brasses were being worn away, partly due to the carelessness of some of those making the rubbings. However, there were still a few smaller churches where we were welcome. We liked to be in the actual home of the brasses and to share in the atmosphere of prayer and dedication over so many centuries that can be almost tangible, and as we worked think about how God has guided so many people and shared in their joys and sorrow as they lifted up their hearts to Him in prayer and song in these beautiful buildings.
New Style Rubbings: By 1974 brass rubbing centres had appeared in many parts of the UK. They provided replicas of the original brasses and these were to be used instead. We could understand the need, but some aspects of the new style of rubbings were a little disappointing. Some of the replicas were not to scale while some centres offered replicas that could be rubbed, but the originals were in different churches so could not be seen in the centres. Now there were special rolls of heavy duty black paper available, too, and wax crayons of silver or gold were popular.
One centre is at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. It has over a hundred replicas from several churches and cathedrals in Britain. For a fee, starting at £4.50, you can choose the replica you wish to work on, obtain paper and wax and be shown how to make the rubbing. They do make good souvenirs and even original gifts for friends and family back home.
Two of Our Favourite Places
We had two favourite villages where we liked to do rubbings; they were St. Mary's Church, Burwell, in the Diocese of Ely, and St. Mary Magdalene, Cobham, Kent. The first was my husband's mother's village and the second was hidden away quite near where we were living.
St. Mary's Church, Burwell: This is a fine, large medieval building in the perpendicular style, about half-way between Cambridge and Newmarket. It is set in the fens and can be seen from quite a distance away. While the lower part is Norman, most dates from the 1600s. It was build of clunch, a local material by the Master Mason Reginald Ely, who had first worked on King's College Chapel. Locals joke that he just practised on the Chapel and that this is his finest work.Inside, slender pillars reach to a carved ceiling; the church is high and light with a beautiful rose window and tall, plain glass but elegant windows.
We did two rubbings of John de Warboys, the last Abbot of Ramsey, in Huntingdonshire. As John Lawrence, he had been elected Abbot in 1507 and took the name of his native place, Warboys. As was the custom, he had the brass made during his lifetime, wearing the robes of the Abbot. After the dissolution of the Monasteries, which he supported, Henry VIII rewarded him with a handsome pension. During this time, part of the brass was removed, turned over, re-engraved and replaced showing the robes of his new office. This makes the brass rather unique. He died in 1553.
St. Mary Magdalene, Cobham, Kent: This delightful village church has more memorial brasses than any other church in Kent: there are nineteen altogether. Originally they were in different parts of the church but were later brought together into the thirteenth century chancel. One is of Sir John de Cobham, who died in 1407. The rubbing below is of William Tanner who died in 1418. He had been the first Master of the Collegiate foundation. Again, they are wonderful, historical memorials that have so much to tell about the history of the church and the village it continues to serve today.
Questions & Answers
Is it possible to do a rubbing of a headstone? The writing is almost impossible to read so I thought doing a rubbing might help. What type of paper should I use for a rubbing of a headstone?
Doing a rubbing of a headstone could possibly help to decipher the wording; it would certainly be worth attempting. The paper would need to be pliable and moisture resistant, yet strong enough not to tear. You could try keeping it in place with masking or packaging tape.Helpful 3
I have a collection of nine brass rubbings that I did about 50 years ago. They are a bit yellowed, and have never mounted. I am thinking of putting them up somewhere. How do I mount them?
It depends on the size of the rubbings. We framed a couple of smaller ones, and the very small went into a scrapbook of our trip. Some of the full-sized ones we gave away, but for two very large ones we used wall-paper glue and stuck them onto large sheets of - I think it was masonite - that we had first painted, so it made a good background. However, it was fairly thin, so putting screw 'eyes' and wire to hang it was not an option, so we ended up screwing it to the wall!Helpful 2
Have you ever tried making your own brasses and then rubbing them? Take a piece of traditional thick linoleum ( becoming more popular again ) and use art cutting tools to inscribe a figure or design. Then tape a piece of paper over your design and rub it with colored wax crayons. You can cut out and stick several of these rubbings together as a larger composition.
Well, that sounds like fun, but it's not really brass is it? Part of the interest in brass-rubbing is the historical aspect. There are so many stories from centuries back behind the brasses and it's so good to find out about them to give the activity extra impetus.