Wooden grave markers have been used since early times. They were an European tradition which was brought to the Americas. Wooden markers were used more often than any other type of marker in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because wood was plentiful, inexpensive, and widely available. Most families could not afford "concrete" or marble headstones so they used wooden ones which were cheap and plentiful. Woodworkers preferred to use cypress, cedar, or heart pine: types of wood that are generally rot resistant. Wooden markers were never much valued and some historians dismiss them as gravediggers markers. Often times the gravediggers made not only the coffin but made the marker as well. Wooden markers found now are mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they were used until the 1940's. Few survive today due to weathering, replacement or fire.
Definitions of wooden markers:
Headboard: narrow, having the proportions of a headstone, typically 6 inches wide, 16 inches high and 1½ inches thick. Family members may have made them, but most often they were made by artisians. Some were painted and were available complete, lettered or plain.
Footboard: narrow, having the proportions of a headstone, typically 6 inches wide, 16 inches high and 1½ inches thick. Family members may have made them, but most often they were made by artisians. Some were painted and were available complete, lettered or plain.
Head and Shoulders: rounded at the top and having the same proportions and deminsions as the headboards and footboards.
Graveboards: Often called fat lightwood markers these were made from the stumps and roots of various trees.
Other types of markers
Fieldstones. The earliest markers for graves were natural fieldstone, some unmarked and others decorated or incised using a metal awl. Typical motifs for the carving included a symbol and the deceased's name and age.
Granite. Granite is a hard stone and traditionally has required great skill to carve by hand. Modern methods of carving include using computer-controlled rotary bits and sandblasting over a rubber stencil, leaving the letters, numbers and emblems exposed on the stone. The blaster can create virtually any kind of artwork or epitaph.
Iron. Iron grave markers and decorations were popular during the Victorian era in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, often being produced by specialist foundries or the local blacksmith. Many cast iron headstones have lasted for generations while wrought ironwork often only survives in a rusted or eroded state.
Marble and limestone. Both limestone and marble take carving well. Marble is a recrystallised form of limestone. Both marble and limestone slowly dissolve when exposed to the mild acid in rainwater which can make inscriptions unreadable over time. Marble replaced sandstone as a popular material from the early 1800s.
Sandstone. Sandstone is durable yet soft enough to carve easily. Some sandstone markers are so well preserved that individual chisel marks can be discerned in the carving, while others have delaminated and crumbled into dust. Delamination occurs when moisture gets between the layers that make up the sandstone. As it freezes and expands the layers flake off. In the 1600s sandstone replaced fieldstones in Colonial America.
Slate. Slate can have a pleasing texture but is slightly porous and prone to delamination. It takes lettering well, often highlighted with white paint or gilding.
White Bronze. Actually sand cast zinc, but called white bronze for marketing purposes. Almost all, if not all, zinc grave markers were made by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, between 1874 and 1914. They are in cemeteries of the period all across the United States and Canada. They were sold as more durable than marble, about 1/3 less expensive and progressive.