No Halloween cemetery display would be complete without tombstones. I used to make mine out of cutout cardboard boxes, with painted fronts and letters. They did okay but definitely weren't very realistic. And one Halloween when the wind and rain started up, it pretty much destroyed them anyway. I wanted something better and the only ones I found in the stores were expensive and too small to be believable.|
This is when I discovered the technique of making these things out of extruded foam boards. The material is available at most any home store here in Utah (Home Depot, Lowes, etc.) in 4' x 8' sheets or sometimes 2' x 8' sheets. You can get varying thicknesses, most commonly 3/4", 1" and 2". Just make sure to get the Extruded Polystyrene foam and not plain Styrofoam. The difference is that this material is not small particles pressed together like styrofoam. It is a uniform material with a high compression strength that is great for this purpose. The two most common brands you will find are Dow (blue sheets) and Owens-Corning (pink sheets). Last I checked, Owens-Corning calls their product "Formular", and Dow is calling theirs "RS Styrofoam" although it is certainly not just regular Styrofoam. Regular Styrofoam (usually white sheets) would work for simple tombstones, but won't hold together cleanly at the edges when you cut it. You cannot carve the lettering as described below with Styrofoam, but the Dow "RS Styrofoam" (blue sheets) will work okay since it is actually extruded polystyrene.
The basic idea is to take a sheet of foam and cut out your tombstone. I use a handheld jigsaw, but there are also hot wire foam cutters available at craft stores like Michael's. If you use a saw like I do, or sandpaper later in finishing make sure to where a breathing mask to keep those little foam bits out of your lungs! Print out your epitaphs or wording on your computer and tape it to the front of the tombstone. Then you take a sharp exacto knife blade and carve out each of the letters with a V shape into the foam. This is the hardest and most time consuming part. You can use a Dremel tool to speed things up, but at the expense of quality and realism. After your done with the epitaph, the tombstone is painted to your liking.
I think the best place to start out is your local cemetery where you can get ideas of actual epitaphs, tombstone shapes, and finishes that you want to mimic. Of course this is the general process. For the specifics I will refer you to the best tutorial for tombstone making that I have found on the web, Moonlit Project. John Nelson has done a fantastic job at walking you through the process step by step, from start to finish. His tombstones are the most realistic you can find. Make sure to check out the tutorials on all three types; standard, ornate, and obelisk.
One question I have gotten is how do I anchor my tombstones so that they do not blow over by the wind. What I do is use a piece of CDX or plywood (3/8" thick) for the base that is painted black. I prefer this method to embedding PVC within the tombstone for rebar as I don't want to risk damaging the tombstone. I cut a rectangle out that is the width of the tombstone and several inches more than the depth of it. I paint it with a couple coats of black latex paint to protect it from moisture and also hide it. I attach the tombstone to the wood base with clear silicone, so that the tombstone front is flush or slightly overhangs the wood, and the rest the wood extends to the back.
I have drilled a single hole in the back of the base so that a large nail spike can be driven into the ground to hold the tombstone if the wind catches it. Be very careful when driving in the nail spike, you don't want to hit your foam tombstone. Click the photo thumbnail to the left for a picture of the back of one of my stones to illustrate. One drawback to this method is the extra storage space the attached base takes up, but the advantage is that you can set the stones out quickly and they will stand on their own so that you can adjust your layout before staking them into the ground. One tip: when removing them just grab the back of the wood base by the sides and rock back and forth to pull up and the nail spike will pop right out of the ground.