Basic Tombstones Tutorial
There are a few simple steps involved in creating relatively realistic looking tombstones. The tools required are just as simple. Finishing techniques are where you can separate yourself from the cheap dull looking department store stones. Now we’ll go through the steps to create stones that will inevitably have people asking where you bought them.
Foam insulation board. White, pink or blue (We’ll go into the difference later)
Cutting blade (We’ll go into different types and uses)
burning tool i.e. soldering iron (depending on technique may not be required)
Paint at least 2 different colours/shades
Inspiration. Don’t be afraid of this one. It’s one of your best tools
Propane blow torch
2” drywall trowel
metal weights (not dumbbells but small chunks of steel/lead)
Beverage of choice.
Okay so we’ll start with the differing types of foam board. I listed 3 possible types but really there are only 2 since the pink and blue are essentially the same.
White foam boards are the bead type of foam. easy enough to work with but not really rugged enough for an outdoor application without a good protective layer. Now having said this I do still have some white foam stones that have held up for a few years now.
Pink/blue foam is an closed cell foam not the bead style which makes it a more durable foam. This does in turn make it only slightly more difficult to cut but only because it can dull blades quicker.
This my preferred foam board for it’s durability and if you use a soldering iron for the lettering it negates some of the cutting required.
The thickness of foam board available differs based on your climate. Milder climate area’s such as Southern California may find it difficult to get foam in thicknesses greater than 1” where as northern climates 1.5”-2” is quite common. If greater thicknesses are required than what is available you can glue sheets together. I recommend Gorilla Glue or No More Nails, be careful here and read the label, No More Nail comes in a foam friendly version and an eat the foam version. Don’t mix them up.
Okay now that we have our materials and we’re ready to go. Where do we start? There are a couple of ways to start. With the tombstone shape or the epitaph. I like to start with the shape since I have a collection of epitaphs (yes I’ll post some links).
The shape of a tombstone lends a lot to it’s character so take your time and select a shape that you like and if this is one of your first, one that you can cut easily. More complex shapes can be done after you’re more comfortable working with foam. Some shapes to consider would be a simple rectangle. A little on the boring side right? Well it doesn’t have to be. With a little weathering and some adornments it can be a great shape for a stone.
Another take would be a rectangle with a peaked roof. As you can see in this example I have made the peak twice the thickness of of the main body and used pool noodles for side pillars…..but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Cutting out the shape can be done many ways. For the simple shapes above I use a regular wood crosscut saw. If I’m doing multiple stones at once I’ll cut simple shapes with my table saw using a plywood blade. There are also foam cutting/burning tools you can buy that are made just for this purpose. These tools are also perfect for cutting more complex shapes where I tend to reach for my handy hacksaw blade….yes blade not the whole saw. I use a work glove and hold the hacksaw blade perpendicular to the foam and begin cutting. You can get very precise cuts with a little patience.
CAUTION! The use of any of the mentioned tool should only be attempted after reading all of the manufacturers instructions lest you have a a few digits less to complete the project.
Now that you have a basic stone shape you need to come up with something witty/spooky to put on it. An epitaph can be anything from RIP to a poem. It really all depends on you. At the end of this post I’ll list some links.
There are many ways to carve out the lettering for the epitaph. They can be cut out using a dremel tool, an exato knife, a burning tool and I’m sure there are other ways as well. The two methods I have used are a soldering iron and a precision razor.
Using a razor to cut out the lettering is very precise but can take a bit of time. The epitaph above took me about 1.5 hours to carve but there was greater precision than using a burning tool. Using this technique also allows for some effects that are difficult to achieve with a burning tool such as beveling the edges of the lettering. This is done by holding the blade at an approximate 45deg angle to the work surface. This method does create a lot of small foam pieces that get everywhere and by the magic of static electricity stick to everything.
CAUTION should be exercised when using any sharp tool. Best if you keep the bleeding for the props on Halloween.
A burning tool such as a soldering iron can also be used to create the lettering. The example above isn’t lettering but does show that some degree of detail can still be achieved with this method. For this tool I like to hold the tool 90deg to the work surface. A burning tool is faster than a blade but some loss of precision is there. Another con to this method is that it produces toxic smoke and should only be done in a well ventilated area or outside.
I haven’t tried this method yet but I am told and it makes sense that it could be one of the best ways to carve lettering and fine detail since depending on the bit used you can get fine detail like a blade but the speed of a burning tool. Just like the blade it will create a lot of small and abnormally statically charged pieces that will stick to you.
Some would take the stone that they have created at this point and go directly to paint but lets just take a moment and see if we can mess up some of that great work we’ve done so far. Remember the Celtic cross? Well here it is again. Nice enough and I have a good 5-6 hours of work into it but it just seems like it’s a little too nice. Like those store bought stones. This next part may make some cringe but I find it near mandatory to break things soooooo.
Now that’s better. It has a little character now.
The way I did the one below was to heat up a 2” dry wall trowel with my propane torch until red hot and then use it like a knife to draw the crack and slash chunks out. If you try this remember to take a step back after EVERY cut. It’s easy to get carried away and have a stone that looks like Freddy Kruger got to it.
In order to get the rough stone texture around the upper level I turned the red hot dry wall trowel by laying the flat edge on the foam and slowly dragging it across. This melted the foam in the irregular pattern you see here.
CAUTION should be used with a red hot trowel as it will not only cut but permanently brand you.
Other ways that I have used to punish my stones is to score the corner or edge with the shape I want to remove. Then snap it off. This method will create a more realistic broken edge than cutting off a section but you still retain control over where the break happens.
Now you may be wondering how I plan where the breaks crack etc are on a stone? Well that’s simple. I don’t. I have no preconceived idea of the finished look. I look at the stone and decide where the first damaged spot should be. Damage that area. Stand back and look again to see where the next spot should be. Repeat until when I stand back, I’m happy with the overall look.
All of my stones start with a full coverage base coat and then anywhere from one to four layers of aging colours that can be applied a few different ways. The base coat and aging coats are usually complimentary but contrasting in shade. For example I usually use a medium to dark gray as the base coat and then use lighter gray to white for accent/aging.
Dry brushing is pretty much what it sounds like. Take your brush pickup a little paint then remove most of it on a rag or paper towel. Next lightly apply the accent colour. The method for the brush stroke is again up for interpretation. In the example above I used a very light long stroke with black but then came back with a lighter gray than the base coat and used a stippling motion. I again stippled on a mossy green.
This tombstone got a different treatment. I used the same base coat and again stippled on the moss green. Now instead of using dry brushing I fully and quickly covered the tombstone with a LATEX paint (must be a water soluble paint). Next I used a water spray bottle (the kind a hairdresser would have) and sprayed areas that I wanted to wash away and run. This left the stone with a great water weathered look. This method can also be done with a garden hose with a FINE mist. One word of warning. If you want a lot of the white left be sparing with the water. The stone to the left I used about 5oz of water from the spray bottle. The outcome will not happen right away but could take up o 20 minutes before the paint stops running and reveals the final look.
Some like their stones to be relatively intact and clean. I prefer an older feel to mine and that would usually involve moss. I primarily use two types of fake moss that can be found at most craft stores. Spanish moss and green moss. Again the application of the moss is completely done by feel. I find if I try to plan where it goes it will end up looking unnatural but if I start and just see how it turns out. It look more natural. Again like distressing take frequent steps back to to ensure you don’t end up with a hairy mossy lump.
Proudly display you stones and relax.
I DIDN’T SAY SLACK OFF! You have more stone to get to. They’re not going to make themselves.
Just kidding. Now you have stone that will be the envy of every grave grabber in your cemetery.