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The art of lead lettering a fading trade

Dan O'Reilly
The art of lead lettering a fading trade
Eric Schop is among the few remaining monument lead letter restorers in Ontario. -

Eric Schop is one of the few remaining specialists in what is becoming a rapidly dwindling art and trade.

As part of his work for Orillia-based Sanderson Monument, a firm founded in 1872 and still owned and operated by the same family, he restores the old-fashioned lead lettering which was once hand-crafted on to monuments and gravestones.

It’s a specialty trade not taught in colleges or training institutes and he is one of the few people left in the business.

"It’s no longer used," says Schop, explaining lead lettering has been long been replaced by the Monu-Cad Windows CAD system which uses a stencil sandblast process.

But there is still a small concentrated demand for restoring lead lettering or adding matching text on veterans’ monuments or older gravestones, such as in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, one of the company’s consistent and longest clients, he says.

Lead lettering is a time consuming process which usually involves obtaining a rubbing of the inscription and then creating a stencil in the shop — although Schop can and has created stencils on site. The stencil is then glued to the monument and sand blasted by another employee.

"I then bang the lead, which is on a spool, into the slots and redraw the letters using a pencil. The final step is chipping away the excess lead with a hammer and chisel."

Some of his lead lettering has included a statute above a Toronto high school doorway, the memorial at Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital which had been damaged by vandals and a Brampton cemetery monument where the family wanted text added. That particular project took two days.

Schop has been doing lead lettering for about 20 years of the 42 years he has worked for Sanderson. He was taught the skill by fellow employees after an outside contractor retired.

Now the company’s production manager and its monument designer, the 58-year-old Schop has been working for Sanderson since he was 16.

"I wasn’t very happy at high school, but I did have some drawing ability and one of their employees suggested I apply."

His resume includes cutting replica flowers into monuments and onsite cemetery lettering. An example of the later task is adding the name of a deceased person who was predeceased by their spouse. "This (the onsite work) avoids having to remove the gravestone."

Now that lead lettering is no longer used on new gravestones and only rarely applied in certain restorations, Schop is uncertain about the future of the trade. "I’m the only one here that does this. I guess I am a dying breed."

At the same time, he has no immediate thoughts of retiring and Sanderson sales manager Scott Sanderson says the lead lettering business will continue.

"Eventually, we have to train someone how to do it," says Sanderson.

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