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 X-Acto 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. (Note this is a cached version under the Wayback Machine web archive as the original is no longer online). John Nelson has done a fantastic job at walking you through the process step by step, from start to finish. Make sure to check out the tutorials on all three types; standard, ornate, and obelisk.
Here are my thoughts on painting tombstones after doing this for a while:
Most of my stones were painted with standard latex house paint. My technique for coloring is just to experiment first, usually by mixing some of the latex paints I have to come up with something different than what I already have. No real direct formula for doing so, just try to emulate the vision of what you have in your mind, or just try to mimic another stone or finish you have seen and like.
Once I have settled on a base color I like, I paint the entire stone and let it dry. At this point the tombstone is pretty plain and not too interesting, but then you start to layer different colors on it. I use different colors, maybe dark greens for mossy water stains, or grey or black, but you can vary other colors for interesting effects too, such as reds, yellows, or blues. The trick is to water down the latex paint a bit so that it is easier to work with and more transparent as you want your layering of these different colors to be subtle. Also with the accent paints watered down, you can brush or smear them on with a rag and then wipe them off with a clean damp rag if you donbt like it. Usually I will dab some of the watered down paint on, let it sit a few minutes and then pull some of it off with a dry rag. Let it dry and then go back and repeat with more, or a different color. Just donbt worry about working too fast. Best to take it slow and let the stone evolve as you study it at each phase. If you use any kind of spray paint on the foam, be sure you have first protected the stone with 2 coats of a latex base paint. That should seal all the foam so that the spray paint aerosol wonbt eat away your foam. Do not spray paint the raw foam as it will dissolve it (unless that is the effect you are going for, and then be careful and test this on a scrap piece first). That being said, I have painted some stones with spray paint, but again only after first sealing it with latex paint. After applying 2 coats of latex and dry, I used one of those granite spray paints on one of them. On some more recent ones I tried a different technique. I painted a base color to seal the foam, and then used a spray bottle of water to heavily coat the front of the stone laying flat, and then spray it with some black spray paint. Leave it for just a minute and then blot up the paint and water with a rag. It leaves a pretty blotchy but effective random look. You could use other colors too. The Singleton stone (below) is a good example of this. It was base coated in latex and then the spray bottle with water, followed by black spray paint technique.
Lastly after the stone is pretty much done, I like to use some watered down black or brown to darken the lettering on the stone. The added contrast makes the epitaphs easier to read. I also apply some around the base of the tombstone to give it a dirty/aged look. But remember if you get too much on you can blot or wipe some back off with a rag.
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.