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Tombstones can make a great addition to your Halloween decorations. In this project, I show you how to make decorative tombstones from plain sheets of Styrofoam. Carved details are made by melting lines in the foam with a hot glue gun. Then paint is applied to give it the appearance of weathered stone.

Project Steps

Safety Warning

Some foams can produce noxious fumes when heated, so you should always work in a very well-ventilated area. Do not put your face near the wire while cutting. Also, use the lowest temperature setting that will cut the foam. Turn off the foam cutter when it is not in use; this will help to reduce the amount of gases that are produced.

In a well-ventilated area, you should be able to cut Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene) with a hot wire cutter without experiencing any negative health effects. However, if you experience irritated eyes or lungs, or dizziness, turn off the cutter immediately and step outside until the symptoms go away. If the symptoms happen again, then you need better ventilation.

Decide on a Shape For the Tombstones

There are a lot of different kinds of tombstones. Each time period and country had its own styles. A quick image search will give you a lot of examples to choose from. However, there isn’t usually a lot of variation within any individual cemetery. Most cemeteries have will have predominantly two or three styles with minor variations.

The most common style is a simple, rectangular slab with a rounded top. Various kinds of crosses are the next most popular design. Obelisks are also common. Older headstones might have a large center arch with two smaller arches on either side. Many tombstones are just a slab that is partially buried in the ground. Others will have a small raised platform or base.

Trace the Outline With a Marker

Use a marker to outline the overall shape of the tombstone. If you have small curved features, it can help to trace a bowl. For larger curved features, such as the classic top curve on a tombstone, you may want to make a string compass.

Cut Out the Body of the Tombstone

Next, you need to cut out the rough shape of the tombstone. This is easiest to do with a hot wire foam cutter. It is possible to use a small knife or saw to cut it out, but these will usually not give you a clean cut.

As stated earlier, any time that you are melting foam, you should work is a very well-ventilated area.

Trace the Carving Details Onto the Face

Now you need to mark the lines for the carvings on your tombstone. All tombstones will have a name and a date; they may also have a description of the person or how they died. Many tombstones will also have decorative designs carved around the outside of the slab.

Trace all the carved lines with a permanent marker. If you are making a lot of detailed carvings, you may want to sketch out a rough version with a light colored marker and then go back over it with a darker color for the final design.

Carve the Details With a Soldering Iron or a Hot Glue Gun

The easiest way to carve the lines is with a soldering iron or a hot glue gun. You can cut them out with a knife, but that method takes much longer.

Take your hot glue gun (or soldering iron) and slowly drag it across each of the lines, applying gentle pressure as you go. The styrofoam will melt and leave a shallow groove where the line was. To make the lines deeper, apply more pressure and move the hot glue gun more slowly across the surface.

The carving process is easier if you have a hot glue gun or soldering iron with adjustable output. If your’s is not adjustable, you can make it adjustable with an external circuit. Here is an Instructable that shows how to make an adjustable power outlet. This is basically a light dimmer that is hooked up to an outlet. It lets you adjust the power for any resistive load, such as the heating element. It can also work for most hot wire foam cutters, but the output isn’t linear. The transformer doesn’t work as well with the chopped off sine wave that is created by the dimmer circuit, so you have to adjust the dimmer to about 80 percent before the wire starts to heat up.

Apply a Base Coat of Paint

Once the carved features are complete, you are ready to start painting. First you need to apply a uniform base coat over the whole tombstone. A light gray works pretty well for a generic stone color. Don’t worry if the color is a little too light. We will darken the color when we apply the weathering effects.

When you are done applying the base coat, let the tombstone sit until the paint is completely dry.

Apply Weathering Effects: Darken the Stone

You can make your tombstone appear older by painting it in a way that makes it look weathered. Stone that has spent a lot of time outside will collect dirt and mold, darkening the stone. To simulate this, we need to apply a darker color paint.

You can use dark gray or black paint. I decided to use a very dark brown, because it looks more like dirt staining. I got this color by mixing dark red paint and dark green paint. By using two colors of paint, I was able to adjust the color of the staining. That way each tombstone looks a little different.

When you apply the paint, do not cover the whole surface — weathering is always uneven. Focus on edges and carving details. The areas where water drips when it rains will be the darkest. Let the paint sit for a few minutes, then wipe it off with a paper towel. This will leave paint behind in the cracks and crevices where it would normally collect. Repeat this process one or more times to darken the details, then let the paint dry.

Apply Weathering Effects: Carving Drips

Tombstones that collect a lot of dirt and mold can develop dark spots under the carved lettering and designs. Rain water collects in the grooves of the carved details and slowly drips onto the stone below. This darkens the stone below the letters (especially the vertical lines). Sometimes it can even give the appearance that the letters are melting.

To duplicate this effect, take the darkening paint that you used in the last step and brush a small amount of it into the letters. Then use a paper towel or a sponge brush to wipe the paint off the surrounding stone face. You should now have paint in the letters but not around them. Let this sit for a few minutes, then take a small paint brush and gently brush the paint in the letters down onto the stone face below them. Don’t overdo it; you just want a gentle fading of color below the letters. When you are happy with how it looks, lay the tombstone on its back and let the remaining paint dry completely.

Apply Weathering Effects: Add Moss and Lichen

In areas that get a lot of rain, tombstones will also grow moss and lichen. Mosses add patches of green and lichen adds spots of yellow. To add these, we need to add spots of green and yellow paint.

These paints should be applied with stippling. Get a small amount of paint on just the very tip of the brush, then gently tap the end of the brush straight down on the face of the tombstone. This should make a bunch of very small dots of color. Apply these spots of color sporadically around the tombstone. Let the paint sit for a minute, then gently dab the spots with a paper towel. Add moss and lichen in moderation.

Set Up the Tombstones in Your Yard

Once all the paint has dried, you are ready to set up the tombstones in your yard. There are several ways that you can fix them in place.

If you have tall grass, the tombstones may be able to stand up on their own. Just separate a strip of grass and place the tombstone in the middle. You can push a small stick into the ground and lean the tombstone against it or attach it with tape. You can tape them to something heavy like a brick. You can pin them to the dirt with large nails or steel wire. Use whatever you have at hand.

Set up the tombstones in rows. Space the rows about six feet apart; this will make it look more like an actual cemetery.