Friday 18 May 2012

Lead lettering

How are letters put on gravestones? The answer may seem obvious: they are carved. However, the Victorians took the process a stage further with lead lettering. It provided elegant, raised-relief text in a contrasting colour, but it was an expensive option. 

First, the lettering did have to be carved into the stone, although the finish would be rougher than where carving alone was used. Tiny holes would then be drilled into each letter, to anchor the lead. Individually-cut lead strips were shaped and securely hammered into the stone with a wooden mallet. For raised lettering, the lead was then carefully cut to shape with a chisel and paring knife. 

The time-consuming, expensive process lost popularity over the course of the last century. Original work has had to contend not only with weathering but also with metal thieves. Examples do survive, though: this one in Nunhead Cemetery shows both the quality of the end result and, in the damaged N, the carefully-drilled holes which once anchored the missing lead. 


Anonymous said...

This will remind me to pay closer attention to inscriptions on stone, as lead letters will imply something about the affluence and claims of prestige of the customer.

Because the application of lead letters is such a simple process (no clever technology to shape the letters) it calls for great skill and artistic ability on the part of the letter maker.

I am still mystified as to how the fixing spikes are formed to fit the holes...

CarolineLD said...

I don't think they are - as far as I can tell, the lead is soft enough to go into the holes when it's pressed and hammered. It's quite an amazing process.

Kay G. said...

The amazing Victorians, I admire them very much.