I made my tombstones from Dow brand foam insulation board. This material is used as insulation on houses between the siding and the walls. It comes in 4' X 8' sheets, and several thicknesses. The thickest I could find was 3/4" (One of the disadvantages of living in the warm southwest!), but I have been told they come in thickness up to 2". You can buy this material at your local building supply store or look under 'Insulation' in the Yellow Pages. I bought mine at Home Depot for about $9.00 per sheet. Since my sheet was only 3/4" thick, I glued 2 sheets together to make 1 1/2" thick tombstones for 1997. In 1998, I layered 3 thickness for a few thicker tombstones. When using more than 2 layers, use foam scraps around the edges for the inside layers. This reduces the amount of foam you need to use.
I usually use a utility knife to cut each sheet in half lengthwise. That gives me 2 - 2' X 8' sheets, which are much easier to fit into my car! Most of my tombstones then are 2 feet wide and varying heights.
You can cut the foam with any thin, sharp blade. Someone on theHalloween-L list suggested I use an electric steak carving knife! Some others use a coping saw. However I have found a neat tool called the Wonder Cutter. You can find it in the craft section of Target, K-mart, or Wal-Mart. It uses 2 D-cell batteries to heat up a thin wire. The wire cuts through the foam like butter! However, it can only cut about 4 inches in from the edge of the foam, so only use it to shape the edges of your tombstone (instead of cutting a sheet of foam in half, for example).
I decided to cut my tombstones to shape first, before gluing them. This way I don't have to cut through the glue, and I can glue right up to the edge of the foam. The problem with this is making the shapes match up on the different layers of foam board. I have discovered that you can use small nails to basically 'tack' the foam board together. Then cut all the pieces to shape at once, remove the nails, and glue the pieces together. If the nails are thin enough, the holes won't be noticeable. Otherwise, fill them in with wood putty. You can also us spray adhesive to temporarily bond the foam pieces. Make sure the brand you buy has instructions for temporary bonds.
Use Liquid Nails brand construction adhesive to permanently glue the foam board together. You can buy it at the hardware store in a tube designed for use in a caulk gun. Make sure it is waterproof, and can be used on foam board without eating the foam. Don't worry if the glue isn't recommended for outdoor use, unless your tombstones will be outside all year!
What shape should you use for your tombstones? The best way to find out is... take a trip to a cemetery! You can find many ideas for shapes of tombstones. Vary the sizes and shapes and don't make your tombstones too small. Mine are 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. This leaves more room for epitaphs in nice large letters. In the future, I plan to try some of the larger "monument" style tombstones. For these markers, I'll use the foam board like plywood. Instead of layering the foam, I'll use it to build a box-like structure that's hollow on the inside, instead of solid all the way through.
If you have any cracks or gouges, fill them in with wood putty. Fill in the nail holes too, if they are too noticeable.
Tip: dip your putty knife in water to smooth out the wood putty. Or dip your finger in water and lightly smooth out the putty.
Tip: You can use 120 grit sandpaper to smooth the wood putty and shape the foam. Don't press too hard on the foam, or it will come away in chunks.
You'll want your tombstones to say something. Clickhere for some epitaphs from the members of the Halloween-L list.
There are several ways to put epitaphs on your tombstones. You can always paint or draw them. Someone on the Halloween-L list prints the epitaphs on transparencies and tacks them to the tombstones. That way they can change them every year. I prefer carving, although it does require a bit more work.
In 1997, I carved my epitaphs using a sharp utility knife (the kind with a blade similar to a razor blade). First I wrote the epitaph onto the foam with a marker. Then I used the knife to cut out a v-shaped groove into the foam, in the shape of the letter. However, I later decided to use a dremel tool to carve the epitaphs.
Use a computer to print out your epitaph in a large font. I used the Garamond font on Microsoft Powerpoint at a size of about 142 to 198. Then I glued the epitaph to the foam with a light coating of spray adhesive.
Tip: When buying spray adhesive, check the instructions on the can to see if you can use it for temporary bonds.
I bought a dremel tool, 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch router bits, and a drywall cutting kit for the dremel tool. The cutting kit included some drywall cutting bits, and a handy guide for holding the tool perpendicular to the wall. The guide also allowed me to vary the depth of the cutting bit.
I set the depth to about 1/8 inch and cut right through the paper into the foam, tracing out the letters. I used the 1/4 inch bit for the larger areas of the letters and the 1/8 inch bit for the finer detail. Peel off the paper when you are done.
Now it's time to paint your stones. I used exterior latex gray paint. (I used spray paint my first time, but canned paint is cheaper and easier to find).
Tip: Buy cans of mixed paint mistakes at the hardware or paint store. It's cheap!
Make sure that the paint is water based! Oil based paint will eat away at the foam (some more than others). Some people on the Halloween-L list suggested that the oil-based paint ate just enough of the foam to give it a nice weathered look. When I tried this, I discovered that the blue foam showed through, where the paint ate the foam. So I sprayed more paint on. And it ate more and the blue showed through. And so on. I stopped before it ate away all my tombstone. Since I used spray paint, instead of brushing it on, my results may have differed. You may have better results.
Another painting tip: the Dow blue board I was using had a plastic film on the surface. Be sure to peel this off. Otherwise, it may come loose later and peel off your paint job.
So now you have a gray tombstone. Doesn't look very realistic, does it? Here is a great idea I got from the Halloween-L archives. It lets you create a speckle-stone paint job, a lot cheaper than those faux stone paint kits, and more weatherproof too. You will need one spray can each of Rustoleum black, white and gray. It is important to get Rustoleum! This brand has a special spray tip that we will modify. Looking at the spray tip, you will see three pieces. The first one is the big piece that you press down on. The second is the small round piece that fits in the side. The third is a small, round, red piece that fits inside the second piece. This third piece has the hole that the paint comes out of. Pull the entire tip off the top of the spray can (point it away from you and do it outside!). Using a straight pin, pry the small red piece out. Carefully push the rest of the assembly back onto the spray can (point it away from you and do it outside!). By removing this one piece, you will allow the paint to splatter a bit when it comes out of the hole. By holding the spray can about 3 feet from the tombstone, you can get a speckle pattern that looks like real stone. If you can't find Rustoleum, or the Rustoleum spray cans don't have this kind of tip in your area, use a very small drill bit (1/16 inch) to enlarge the spray hole, Do this by hand, or with a pair of pliers! Do not try to use your power drill! . Or use a safety pin or large needle. You may need to experiment with different size holes.
Tip: If you have several cans of the same color, you can try different sizes on different spray tips. Then you can exchange the tips that work best amongst the cans. Save the best tips when you discard the empty cans!
Experiment with combinations of black, white, and gray. You may want to try brown and tan to get a different effect. Do this outside with old clothes and gloves; it will be messy! Also, you may want to buy a pistol grip that fits onto the spray can. It really makes it easier on the fingers. You can get it in the paint section of the hardware store or discount store.
After I set-up my tombstones, I noticed that the carved epitaphs were hard to read. In 1998 I painted the inside of some of the carved letters with a darker gray paint. Following a suggestion, I found that a charcoal art pencil worked well too.
O.K. Now your tombstone is finished. All you need to do is mount it in your cemetery. There are several ways to do this. If you are gluing several layers of foam together to make your tombstone, you can insert a length of 1/2-inch PVC pipe into the center. This is the stuff they use for lawn irrigation systems. It's cheap (about 60-90 cents for a 10-foot length) and usually plentiful at your building supply store. It comes in different ratings for different pressures. Get the cheapest stuff you can find.
Carve a groove out of the foam, on the sides that will be glued together, big enough for the pipe. You can use a dremel tool with a router bit, or just use a utility knife. Then cut the pipe so that it will fit entirely inside the tombstone, with none sticking out the bottom. Glue the entire thing together. When you are ready to mount the tombstone, pound a length of 1/2-inch steel rebar into the ground (Ask for rebar at the building supply store. It's a steel rod used for reinforcing concrete.). Slide the tombstone down over it, so the rebar fits into the PVC pipe. Your tombstone is now mounted.
The advantage of this method is that it saves wear and tear on the tombstone, and is impossible to blow over. The disadvantage is that it is as easy to remove the tombstone as it is to mount it. Some of your carefully made tombstones may "grow legs" and walk away! You may want to take some perforated steel straps (again, from the building supply store), and glue them between the layers of the foam, leaving a few inches protruding from the bottom. Then bend the straps at right angles, so they will be parallel to the ground. Push some long nails or metal spikes through some of the holes in the strap, and into the ground at different angles.
If your tombstone includes a PVC pipe inside, you can drill a hole through the back of the tombstone, near the bottom, and into the PVC pipe. After sliding the tombstone over the rebar, thread a screw through the PVC and up against the rebar. The screw can be very short, so the head of the screw is recessed below the surface of the tombstone. This makes it difficult (but not impossible) to pull the tombstone off the rebar. Loosen the screw to remove the tombstone.
Below you can see 2 pictures of one of this year's half-constructed tombstones. The one on the left shows the PVC pipe in the center. Scraps of foam are glued around the edges and in the center of the tombstone. The picture on the right shows the 3rd layer of foam on the tombstone, with the pipe in the center. It's weighted down until the glue dries (The best use I've found for those weights so far!).
I lit one of my tombstones with a jack-o-lantern. I cut a rectangle out of the back of the jack-o-lantern and placed it in front of the tombstone. The candle inside the jack-o-lantern cast a nice flickering glow over the tombstone. If your tombstones have carved epitaphs, shine lights at an angle across the tombstones. This will bring out the epitaphs nicely.
There you have it! Your own miniature cemetery!
Instructions and graphics used with approval from
Tip from webmaster: See our article on Halloween Tombstone Names
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Eyes of Halloween -How to build Halloween Tombstones