Introduction: Herb Graveyard

Picture of Herb Graveyard

Turn the unsightly bare earth of your herb garden into a charming old cemetery by planting mini gravestones!

This is a simple, if slightly morbid, way to make use of the patches of soil that are visible before your herbs have sprouted. It also provides attractive labels for the herbs once they are fully grown.

Creative property disclaimer:
The idea for this project came from a discussion with TangerineBadger many weeks ago. Thanks for the idea, TB!

Step 1: A Long Blather About Methods

Picture of A Long Blather About Methods
There are many different approaches you could take to making the gravestones in this project: modeling clay, building up layers of card or art foam, wood carving, actual stonemasonry, laser etching, 3D printing... The list goes on.

Depending on your resources and technical ability, not all of these will be possible. I appreciate that not everybody has access to a laser cutter or a 3D printer or the software experience required to design vector files for use with these machines. I chose to use a laser cutter to make my gravestones because:
  • (a) I had access to one,
  • (b) I believed it would give a result with a very high level of detail with minimal effort on my part, and
  • (c) it meant they would be reproducible so that I could refine the process or make more to give away as gifts.

I also believe that excellent results could be achieved using cheaper and more accessible methods, but possibly at the expense of time and effort. For example, you could quite easily sculpt little gravestones out of Sculpey, but it would likely take hours of carving and a very steady hand to get the fine details right. If you're more inclined toward woodwork, the same applies.

If you're comfortable using graphic design software but don't have access to a laser cutter, then I'd suggest one of two routes:

  • Option 1) Design the gravestones you want, then print out templates that you can use to hand-cut layers of a thin material such as wood or art foam. This way you can build up a single gravestone from multiple layers, much as I did. Bear in mind that this method will add material to your gravestone with each layer, rather than subtract it like a laser cutter will.
  • Option 2) Design the gravestones on your computer, then use an online fabrication service such as Ponoko or Shapeways to turn them into actual objects. This might seem extravagant, but there are now many competing services aimed at providing cheap 3D fabrication to the consumer market. All you have to do is send them your image files and choose your materials and they'll send you the finished item in the mail. Yes, we're living in the future. You think of stuff and strangers make it appear. That's the kind of crazy world we live in. Get used to this, because soon kids will think it's normal.

If you're going for Option 2, then you could choose either to print out layers of thin material (as in Option 1) or to print out an entire 3D object. The latter would require you to design the object in a 3D modeling program, which sounds scary but is not nearly as hard as you might think. Really, if you're comfortable designing 2D images using vector graphics, then it's only a small step to learn how to extrude those 2D images into simple 3D meshes.

The rest of this Instructable will deal with how to make gravestones using a laser cutter and acrylic sheets.

Suitable Software

For 2D design, I recommend using a vector-based program rather than a raster-based one: For 3D design, possibly in conjunction with the above 2D design programs:
  • Free:Blender (complicated, but extremely powerful), 123D (simple, but specifically designed with 3D printing in mind)
  • Not free:Maya, 3DS Max, AutoCAD, Rhino 3D. And boy, some of these are very not free.

Before anyone points it out, I realize that several of these software packages are made by Autodesk, the new parent corporation of Instructables. Have they asked me to actively advertise them? No. Am I more inclined to suggest their software because there's been so much talk about them here at Instructables recently? Maybe. Do they make a lot of very useful 3D design software? Definitely.

Step 2: What You'll Need

Picture of What You'll Need
  • 3/8" white acrylic sheet, suitable for laser engraving
  • Black and white acrylic paint
  • Computer-controlled laser cutter
  • Extractor fan and fire extinguisher
  • Paintbrush
  • Freshly planted herb garden

Step 3: Sketch Out Some Designs

Picture of Sketch Out Some Designs

Start by deciding which herbs you'd like to grow and doodling some rough ideas on paper.

I wanted each one of my gravestones to incorporate the shape of the actual herb it was marking, while also resembling something you might find in a real graveyard.

Step 4: Draw the Gravestones As Vector Images

Picture of Draw the Gravestones As Vector Images

Use your favourite vector image design software (I used Adobe Illustrator) to draw out your gravestones. As you do, think about how they will be etched by the laser cutter.

The laser cutter works by burning away a thin layer of material in a single plane on the surface of a sheet of acrylic. By burning away successive layers, you can gradually carve away a 3D object. This is quite a limited approach to 3D fabrication, as it cannot produce complex objects with overhanging features. What's more, it's very slow; each pass of the laser may take several minutes but only remove a tiny fraction of an inch of material depth.

Shade your 2D vector images according to the different depths at which you want to etch them. In my images, I used darker shades of grey to indicate where I wanted more material to be etched away (except for the cilantro stone, where I deviated from this scheme for the sake of contrast).

Step 5: Break the Gravestones Up Into Layers

Picture of Break the Gravestones Up Into Layers

Next, make several copies of your image and re-color them so that each one corresponds to a single pass of the laser cutter. These images should be opaque black on a white background. These images will actually be used by the cutter as rasters rather than vectors, so any part that is filled in black will be etched away on a single pass, not just the edges.

E.g. If you want to etch an area to six units of depth, that area should appear black in six of these images.

This is a bit of a mind puzzle and requires some careful thinking about what you want to cut out and where.

Your final image should show the outline of the gravestones. Save this as an unfilled hairline-width path. It will be used to tell the laser cutter where to cut completely through the acrylic rather than just etching the surface.

Step 6: Bring Out the Laser

Picture of Bring Out the Laser

Fire up the laser cutter, turn on the extraction fans and have the fire extinguisher at the ready. If you don't know how to use the laser cutter safely, find someone who does and bother them until they agree to help.

Place your acrylic in the laser cutter, align it to where the images will etch and start etching!

Between passes of the laser, check to see how deeply the material has been etched. I found that the white acrylic I used was very resistant to deep etching, so I actually had to etch each individual layer six times. This took a looooong time.

Be careful not to move the acrylic sheet in between passes of the laser, or the successive passes will not be aligned.

Once you're happy that everything has been etched away correctly, do a final pass using the vector outline image you made earlier. This should be done on the appropriate laser mode to burn right through the material.

Remove your neatly cut little gravestones and turn off the laser cutter. Don't forget to empty out the debris bed and give the lenses and mirrors a clean with the appropriate wipes and cleaner.

Step 7: Paint the Gravestones

Picture of Paint the Gravestones

Using watered down acrylic paint, hand-paint the gravestones to give them that aged stone look. I started with a wash of very watered-down black acrylic paint to bring out the details, then built it up from there.

Step 8: The Finished Gravestones

Picture of The Finished Gravestones

Mmmm, lovely. Stand back and be proud of your gravestones for a while. When you're done, go and plant them!

Step 9: Individual Close-ups

Picture of Individual Close-ups

Oh, OK. Take a little bit more time to examine them all in detail.

Step 10: Plant Them in the Ground

Picture of Plant Them in the Ground

Replace your current herb markers with your new gravestones. Alternatively, plot out a brand new herb garden in the shape of a series of tiny graves...


Ladydaisey3 (author)2018-01-20

How much do you charge for these to be made exactly as described in this post? Im ready to order now!

MelinaG4 (author)2017-04-28

I have already contacted you on Etsy as well, as i saw a comment somewhere that they are for sale now! Please do contact me, as I am interested in buying for a friends birthday in May! Thank you :)

MelissaE46 (author)2017-04-27

Are you selling these yet? Or selling casting rights? The world needs these!

lhelms1 (author)2011-09-01

Methinks you'd do well selling these on Etsy. I'd be first in line!

elisemesnard (author)lhelms12016-03-23


mrwerley (author)2015-08-28

You're getting a lot of attention on gardening related Facebook pages and blogs. Nicely done. I hope you, or someone, markets something like this.

gravehearted (author)2015-08-23

these are amazing! I just saw the photo floating around on Facebook and am so glad I google searched and was able to figure out how you made them. Thank you for sharing.

Nicole Barley (author)2012-09-13

OMG! You have to sell these! I would absolutely LOVE these when I get my own house! Although you should make them customizable so you can use with any plant. I love the cilantro headstone the most. The detail is gorgeous and the description is brilliant. Although I hate cilantro because it tastes like soap to me so I'd love to use that template (design and descrip) with other herbs! Brilliant idea! Truly brilliant! :D

Lindie (author)2012-04-20

I love this!

becca_katisonly1 (author)2012-03-09

just too cute I love it

domestic_engineer (author)2012-03-08

I write for the geek crafts blog, and I just included your cool herb headstones!

askjerry (author)2011-08-14

I love it... and since we have a 35W Epilog (grin) I'll end up making these.

Here is a thought... after making your complete set, use casting silicone to make a mold... then crank out a bunch using ALUMILITE. You can pre-paint the mold, pour in the alumilite... and in 90 seconds have a complete set.

Might be a way for you to make some money. (I may actually do this and sell them here in Texas at the craft fairs... but I'll make my own designs so as not to infringe on yours.)

Very creative and excellent idea!!!


Here is the process you would use... a simple one piece mold.


PenfoldPlant (author)askjerry2011-08-24

That's a great idea. If I put these into mass production, then I imagine I'll go down the molding/casting route rather than etching each one individually. Thanks for the tip!

domestic_engineer (author)2011-08-22

i really love this. the basil is just AWESOME! what does the parsley say? I'm guessing it's Latin.

I'm definitely going to try to make these, sans laser cutter. :)

The Latin inscription on the parsley reads, "Parsley is a green decoration for dinners."

Let me know how yours turn out!

ubugmj (author)2011-08-16

This is great, but will not attempt to even make.

PenfoldPlant (author)ubugmj2011-08-23

Thanks, ubugmj!

HoldOnTight (author)2011-08-15

Super results1 I wish I had a laser cutter! I guess this project is not for me... I'm a perfectionist and I don't want to put too much time into achieving the same level of quality.

PenfoldPlant (author)HoldOnTight2011-08-23

That's why I recommend checking out sites like ponoko that let you upload files to be laser cut. But yes, I know what you mean. I'm sure there'll be laser cutters appearing as prizes on here every so often, though ;-)

CrabTerl (author)2011-08-15

open office draw is a free software that works fine with (my) zing laser cutter.
With a little explanations this allows to let friends and relatives to design by their own.

PenfoldPlant (author)CrabTerl2011-08-23

Cool, I use Open Office but I haven't explored their Draw program much. I'll have to look into it.

madworm (author)2011-08-14

I like the concept, but the chosen target (cilantro) is one of the herbs that actually deserves to die, rot and be buried forever. If somebody planted this stuff on my grave, I'd wake up again and make sure the area stayed clear of this weed.

PenfoldPlant (author)madworm2011-08-14

You're clearly mistaken. Cilantro is unarguably delicious.

madworm (author)PenfoldPlant2011-08-14

I'm glad you can tolerate the "taste". A lot of Thai food is unfortunately completely wasted by this stuff.

Me it reminds of stinking bugs.

Madrigorne (author)madworm2011-08-15

I will never make you eat any, I shall keep it for myself - and for those who also would like some. You, however may have all the raw tomatoes and cooked spinach you can handle. I only like the tomatoes cooked, and the spinach raw - and they may both have cilantro in my portion.

poza (author)2011-08-14

in this 100 degree heat we've had for 4 weeks now, i could use these to mark were my plants ~used~ to grow! great idea!

maltesergr8 (author)2011-08-14

One word comes to mind... Brilliant!!

PenfoldPlant (author)maltesergr82011-08-14

Thanks, I'm quite pleased with how the designs turned out.

It just occurred to me that these gravestones could also be used to mark the passing of favorite pets, such as a hamster or even a fox.

Lunarius (author)2011-08-14

Brilliant instructable and idea, and might I say? Gorgeous designs. I'm especially fond of Basil!

PenfoldPlant (author)Lunarius2011-08-14

Thanks, I'm quite pleased with how the designs turned out.

It just occurred to me that these gravestones could also be used to mark the passing of favorite pets, such as a hamster or even a fox.

aje127 (author)2011-08-14

How Brilliant!!! I totally love this. I wish I had access to a laser etcher thingy. I would so buy these should you ever decide to sell them online!!!

PenfoldPlant (author)aje1272011-08-14

There's a chance I'll try selling these at some point, but I really recommend checking out some of the laser-etching and 3D printing services available online (e.g., as these would allow you to design and produce your own.

Glad you enjoyed them!

boysie (author)2011-08-13

This is a very cool idea. Fully doing this when I next go home.

PenfoldPlant (author)boysie2011-08-14

Great! We'll fill the world's herb gardens with tiny graves.

TangerineBadger (author)2011-08-12

Aw, thanks for the credit. You did an amazing job out of a very throw-away idea.

Excellent execution!

Glad you liked them! Feel free to throw away more ideas in my direction...

EaglesNest (author)2011-08-11

I love it! Cute and creepy, like Casper the friendly ghost :)

PenfoldPlant (author)EaglesNest2011-08-14

Ha, I hadn't thought of it like that! Thanks!

jessandstavro (author)2011-08-11

Charming project!

Thanks guys!

mikeasaurus (author)2011-08-11

creepy, and awesome!

PenfoldPlant (author)mikeasaurus2011-08-14

You'd be surprised how often I hear that.

javajunkie1976 (author)2011-08-12

I work on a Halloween haunt that gets a lot of little kids and the one thing that we always need is humorous tombstones. This is perfect!!!

About This Instructable




Bio: Artist in Residence at Pier 9, currently exploring a vast array of new tools with which to injure myself.
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