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Lead Lettering on Stone House Signs and Headstones

Updated on February 9, 2013

An Introduction to Old Time Lead Lettering.

House sign makers and stone engravers of all kinds should be interested in the old methods of engraving stone.

One method seldom seen or used today is Lead lettering.

Lead lettering is a technique that has been in use for perhaps four hundred years or more. Used primarily on headstones and memorial stones it was also used on the house signs denoting a trade or prosperous craftsman living in or working from a particular building or workshop.

Why Lead Letters?

The reason for it's early popularity was the absence of long lasting exterior paints to highlight the letters, and the ability of lead lettering to endure years of weathering and still remain clear readable.

Lead lettering usually came in one of two forms.

Beaten and hammered smooth - and raised in-relief.

It has always been considered the most desirable and prestigious method of lettering. Leading lettering was and still is a highly skilled and labour intensive craft. For this reason the addition of lead lettering to a headstone or house sign was a message to those reading the inscription that the subject of the sign, be he a tradesman advertising his craft or a dear departed relative was a prosperous and substantial individual, or the member of a wealthy and worthy family.

As you can see, lead letters stand the test of time!
As you can see, lead letters stand the test of time!

Two Methods of Lead Lettering.

The method for each of the two techniques was similar. The lettering would be set out on the face of the stone in pencil. Each individual letter cutter would have his own favourite and self designed fonts. The inscription would then be cut out, incised into the stone using a hammer and chisel in the same way that lettering being v-cut into the stone would have been done.

However here the letter cutter would not need to finish the letter carving so cleanly, in fact a slightly rough finish within the letter would aid the grip of the lead. Then using an Archimedes drill or a hand driven band drill and sharpened steel drill, he would drill three to six tiny holes spaced evenly in each letter.

On this photo you can see the drill hole on the blown part of the letter "Y".

Working the Lead.

The lead was a soft malleable type supplied in sheets. Working one letter at a time the lead would be cut with metal cutters into small strips of a size that would match each letter. Each strip would be left attached to the main sheet by a tiny uncut nib and twisted to line up with the letter.

Each small strip would be twisted to a shape suiting the letter at hand. S's would be twisted to an S shape, P's twist into a rough P shape and so on. M's and W's would be filled with three strips still joined at the hip.

In turn each letter would have it's strip of lead hammered into it using a wooden mallet. Each hole would grip the lead as it was hammered into it creating a key that would hold the lead in place over decades and sometimes centuries

Raised in-relief lead lettering
Raised in-relief lead lettering

Flush or Raised Lettering?

If the finish of the inscription was to be flush lettering, the letter cutter would keep hammering until the lead was flat. The face of the stone would then be sanded down with a flat bock of soft abrasive sandstone. This would remove excess lead, smooth the face of the lettering and at the same time blacken the lead.

If the lettering was intended to be raised in relief the lead used would be of thicker grade. The lead still hammered into each letter but the surface of the lead left proud. Then in turn each letter would be cut to it's correct shape with a sharp steel chisel and paring knife. An incredibly skilled and time consuming task.

For this reason, lead lettering raised in relief was rightly considered the most desirable and prestigious method of all, and the most expensive!

This photo shows very old "raised in-relief" lead work still there after two hundred years!.

Letter Cutters Today

For those interested in pursuing the subject!

Lead Lettering Today.

Lead lettering on headstones was common until thirty or forty years ago. When I was an apprentice forty years ago, the defining sound of our memorial masons workshop was the ringing, resounding bell like hammering of the letter cutters. Whenever I wander down memory lane I can still hear the echo's of the old timers hammering out their song.

Today it is a rare sound. However some letter cutters still preserve the old craft. Learning the skills to make lead lettering will never be easy, acquiring all of the skills necessary is a dauntingly long journey. Learning to draw the letters and set out an inscription with an artists eye and the precision of a draughtsman, and acquiring the carving skills with hammer and chisel to cut out the letters in stone is an achievement in itself. Only then can you start to learn how to work with lead.

It takes many years of practice and training and dedication. Letter cutters who can create lead lettering today are no longer the tradesmen journeymen of my youth, but are considered as artists and sculptures who specialise in lettering. Most can make a living, none get rich, they ply their craft from a love of the old skills and should always be applauded, respected and valued for the skilled artisans they really are.

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