Simple foamboard insulation tombstones

What good would a creepy Halloween setting be without a nice eerie graveyard? A place of (un)rest for your Groundbreaker Corpses to call home is almost necessity. Gravestones have become a staple for home haunts across the country, but at a retail cost of about $15-$30 each, even a small family cemetery can be overwhelming for the budget minded Home Haunter. There is however, another solution.

Sheets of (blue or pink) foamboard insulation make a perfect medium for some inexpensive, yet realistic headstones. At a current (2010) cost of about $17.00, a 2′ x 8′ sheet of 2″ thick foam will yield about 4-8 tombstones. That’s a substantial savings over the store-bought alternatives. In addition to the savings, homemade tombstones give you the benefit creating your own, unique designs.

The idea of using sheets of foamboard for tombstones is not new. Home haunters have been doing this for years, and there are a number of good tutorials available on the web, that cover this project. Still, I will cover the entire process for the benefit of those not already familiar with it. For those of you who are familiar with the basics, I invite you to skim through this how-to for tips or tricks that may be helpful for your own projects. So without further ado, let’s get this project started.

The first step to any project is planning and prep. You should have at least a general idea on the style of tombstone you want to create. Simple designs can be just as, if not more, effective in creating a good spooky atmosphere and they are usually, much easier to create. If you don’t have any clue what you would like to create, try a Google image search for “old gravestones”. There are thousands of good images on the web to give you some inspiration.

Once you’ve got your design figured out, it’s time to get your tools and materials prepared. Here’s what we’ll need:

  • Foamboard insulation
  • Gorilla Glue (optional depending on design)
  • Metal yard stick
  • X-acto knife with a few new blades
  • Hack saw blade
  • 100 grit sandpaper
  • Sharpie marker and a ball point pen
  • Acrylic paints; black, white, other colors as desired
Cutting the curved lines of the outline with a hack saw blade
Cutting the curved lines of the outline with a hack saw blade

Once you’ve got your design planned out, and your tools and materials at hand, it’s time to get to work. Cut a piece of foam to the desired size, and then draw and cut the outline of your stone. I use the X-acto and the metal yard stick to cut straight lines. Since the X-acto knife cannot cut all of the way through the foam, I use a freshly sharpened Swiss Army knife to complete the cut. For the curved cuts, I prefer a Hack saw blade. Once you have the outline cut, smooth out any rough spots with the sandpaper.

With the outline of the stone completed, it is now time to work on the facial details. This includes text, images and any other decorative additions. Here is where the amount of detail you choose, and the methods used to carve into the foam, will determine the amount of work you will have to put into creating your stone. Before I go further, let me touch base on the three most common ways to carve tombstone details into your foam.

  • Dremel– The Dremel or Rotary Tool is a valuable asset for carving details into foamboard. With the addition of the Multipurpose Cutting Guide attachment for the Dremel and the #125 High Speed Cutter bit, quick work can be made out of any text. There is however, a downside to using a Rotary Tool for carving foam; it makes a HUGE mess. Tiny fragments of foam go everywhere. This is a method that is best done outside with no wind, and a face mask, safety goggles, and a ShopVac are a must for this method.
  • Versa-Tool– The Versa-Tool is basically a Wood Burning tool with exchangeable bits. Coupled with an in-line dimmer (available at Lowes or Home Depot for about $10) the Versa-Tool allows you to melt away areas of foam with ease. The dimmer gives the user control of the heat output, allowing for great control over the rate at which the foam is melted. This is a great method for those of you with confident and steady hands, but will take some practice (keep your foam scraps handy for testing your dimmer settings too). This method is not without it’s downsides as well. Melting foam emits toxic fumes, so this method MUST be done in a very well ventilated area (preferably outside with a light breeze).
  • X-acto Knife– The X-acto knife is a must have for this project, and it has obvious advantages over the aforementioned methods for carving details as well. Perfect lettering can be easily achieved by using printed materials as templates, simply cutting through the paper and into the foam. Vector based images and hundreds of different fonts are easily added with little or no drawing ability whatsoever. With the X-actoKnife, the mess is minimal and there are no dangerous fumes, so this method can be used in the comfort of your home during the winter months. As with the others, there is also a downside to using this method. Depending on the amount of detail you seek to achieve, this method can be very time consuming. You will want to give your eyes, hands, and back frequent breaks.

For the record, My method of choice is the X-acto, and I plan to add a short video “how-to” that covers it in the comming months.

Now that we have our chosen method of carving the details into our stone, It’s time to get to work. Draw any details that you will be adding onto the foam with your sharpie marker. If you are using printed templates, now is the time to prepare them so that we can line up other details such as borders or recessed areas as necessary.

TIP: Use a small “J” shaped piece of wire coat hangar as an easy way to trace a uniform border around curvy sections of the stone. Place the long section  of the “J” against the side of the stone, while the short end scratches a line into the face.

Aged tombstone before painting
Aged tombstone before painting

Once the details are carved into your stone,  It will be time to add some aging. I always find this to be the most difficult part of the process. To destroy all the time and hard work that we’ve put into detailing this piece of artwork, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Rest assured, the end justifies the means. The first thing that I do is to break up the edges. Dragging the blade of my Swiss Army knife up and down along the edges, chunks of foam break away leaving a surface that, once painted, has a very believable “broken rock” appearance. Next is the facial cracks. These are accomplished simply by slicing into the foam with my Swiss Army knife while randomly jerking the blade in different directions. Cracks should generally get deeper as they get closer to the outer edges of the stone. You’ll want your cracks to be believable, so dont be aftaid to put them right through some of the detailing and lettering. Another common sign of wear seen in old tombstones is broken out sections of closed letters. Pick out the closed sections of a few random letters or numbers, especially the smaller ones, and ones with cracks across them. I also like to really dig out a few of the cracks when they reach the edge, giving the appearance of the damage travelling all the way through the stone. The final step in the aging process is to add some age spots. While this is optional, I believe it adds to to final look of the stone. With black acrylic spray paint, randomly spray light to medium spots of paint where you want these “age spots”. The spray paint will react with, and eat into the foam. The heavier the spray paint, the more it will eat, so you may want to test this on some scraps first. You should also be aware that this reaction will also give off toxic fumes, so it’s best to do this outdoors and leave it outside to dry.

Now that the structure of our stone is complete, it’s time for some paint. The colors you use to paint the stone will vary based on the outcome you are looking to get. If you want a lighter stone, you may decide to start with a white or light gray, then add dry brushing and/or washes of darker colors. If you are looking for a darker stone, then the opposite might apply. Try out the different techniques to find what works for you.

Note: A wash is a paint that has been thinned out with water. Washes will dry much lighter that one might expect, and leave only a thin layer of color with much of the original color showing through. This generally creates a dirty or dusty look. Dry Brushing is the art of painting with a brush with very little paint on it. The brush is dipped in the desired color, then most of the paint is then brushed back off onto the pallette. This allows for a very fine layer of paint to be added to the surface of the stone, without filling in the details like the cracks and lettering.

We’re almost there. One last detail I like to add, at least to most of my stones, is moss. Moss and tombstones go together like Hot Dogs and mustard. There are a few different options for moss, and I really dont want to get into them all. Personally I use a faux grass mixture designed for miniature landscape modeling. It’s available at Michael’s as well as any model railroading shops. Don’t let the price fool you on this stuff a $3.00 bag will go a long way. I used a 3oz. cup of this stuff for one stone. Brush on a layer of waterproof glue, then sprinkle on the “moss”. Tip the stone up on is side, and knock away the excess onto a piece of newspaper for re-use.

The finished product. Ain't she a beauty?
The finished product. Ain't she a beauty?

So there you have it. Now get out there and make yourself a graveyard. If you used my Tutorial to help with your tombstones, feel free to send us a link to your photo and we’ll show it off here.

Until Next,

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