I have been making styrofoam tombstones for years and this was the first year we were able to refine the process so we figured we would share. The Tombtorial started out as a small workshop with family, followed by a post to reddit with the results. Everyone there wanted a tutorial so here we go.
You can of course change any steps along the way. And I have been doing this for long enough, that I have acquired the tools to make this easier so feel free to improvise where you need to.
Step 1: Design & Planning
I am a Graphic Designer by trade, so the first step for me was to open up Illustrator and start sorting out how the tombstone would look. We try to keep the designs within a 2x2 foot area so we can maximize a sheet of styrofoam. This tombstone was designed at 18" wide by 24" tall.
I did some research online and found a tombstone shape I liked and used that as my base. From there you can embellish it to your hearts content. I knew mine was going to be named Barry M. Deep, so I started designing a skull and shovel crossbones logo for it. Did that make it into the final design? No. Why not? Mostly cause I'm lazy, but I also was running out of time. For my more complicated tombstones, I have even used google Sketchup to get a better idea of what should pop up or what should be recessed. The more ups and downs you have in your design, the more drama you add to your piece.
When choosing fonts, be careful of super thin or super ornate fonts. You absolutely can use them, but depending on your application, they may not be a good choice. I knew that the name was going to be 3-dimensional, so I went with a bold sans serif font. But for the rest, I chose a lighter sans serif font because that was going to be cut into the styrofoam.
From here, I emailed a pdf to my local copy shop and had them print it out on their large format laser printer. It is much more affordable than you would think. This only cost me $3. When sending the file over, you need to make sure you have a second page or an additional area off to the side that has the text in reverse. Later in the Tombtorial, we will be using the reversed text to actually transfer the image from the printout to the styrofoam, and it needs to be reversed.
Step 2: Preparation & Tools
There are some tools you will definitely need. There are definitely some tools that work better than what I used, but below is a list of the tools I used and some links to the products I used as well. I am a fan of Home Depot, so that is my go to store around here, but you can grab the products from whatever is closest or cheapest for you.
Sharpie (It sounds stupid, but these are IMMENSELY helpful)
Paint Brushes (You will need an assortment. 2" flat brushes down to art brushes with a stiff bristle.)
Plywood (anything cheap around 1/4")
2" Pink Styrofoam
1/2" Pink Styrofoam (Optional but helpful)
1/2" PVC Pipe
Clear spray paint
Dremel with bits
Black, green and brown latex or acrylic paints (Joanns is good for some quick and cheap paints)
Solar Powered walkway light (If you want to have the lighting element)
Heavy things (For squishing everything together while glue is drying.)
Pens or Pencils
Cutting mat (Helpful but not necessary)
Step 3: Cutting
First step is to cut the shape out of the large format print out. Tape the shape to the 2" Styrofoam and then using the sharpie, trace the shape of the tombstone down onto your foam. Using a jigsaw and some earmuffs, remember kids, safety first, cut the shape out of the styrofoam. It's not a race, so take your time do the best you can. These are also supposed to be weathered outdoor tombstones, so if there is a few oops moments, don't worry about it. When I trace down the shape, I use the edge of the printout as a stencil. That way you can see the straight line and know exactly where the line is supposed to go. I use a jigsaw here but if you have a wire foam cutter that could work as well. If you don't have anything as fancy as any of that, you can also use a long razor like one of these, to cut through it. The edges will be a smidgen rougher, but it will be fine.
Once you cut your first shape out. Pat yourself on the back and then do it again. You will need two of these. Tape down the stencil again and trace it out. Don't try and trace your piece you just cut.
Now that you have two, lets do it again. This time use the 1/2" styrofoam. I cut the inside out of the template, since it will be like a frame. See the photo and you'll understand what I am saying. YEA! Now do it again for the overhang at the top.
Step 4: Ironing Your Typography
For years I have used a horrible method of trying to use pressure and determination to transfer the image of my type onto the styrofoam. Don't do that. It sucks. I found a technique from the internet, where you use an iron and the reverse type. You just need to make absolutely certain that you have a print out from a laser printer. The iron reheats the toner and transfers onto the foam. It can give you great detail and only takes a few minutes.
Cut the type out of the paper and tape it down. Using the iron, move from one side to the other, checking as you go. If you heat it up too much and let it sit, it just sticks the paper to the foam and you will need to sand it off and start over. Also, if you transfer it down and realize it is off center or crooked, you can just use a bit of sand paper or a sanding sponge and sand off the transfer
The transfer also sometimes doesn't completely transfer over, so if you have a pen nearby, you can see where it is supposed to go and fill in the blanks. I used a combination of the cutting bit that came with my dremel, a small engraving bit and the smallest drill bit that would fit into my dremel to get the different cuts on my tombstone.
I knew that the name (Barry M. Deep) was going to be dimensional, so I transferred that text onto the 1/2" foam. From there, I used my dremel and a cutting bit to cut the letters out of the foam. I actually mounted my dremel upside down to my work bench so I could have better control of what I was cutting and seeing. You can see in one of the above pics what I am talking about.
Step 5: Assembly
I actually ran out of foam board glue when I was making this. And I didn't feel like running out, so I used gorilla glue for all of this. Next you need to make the cuts for the pipes to sit in that will be the support for the tombstone to stand in your yard. I measured in about 4 inches from each side and 12 inches up. Using the Dremel and a cutting bit, you need to remove the material that is there to make the channel for the pipes. I made my cuts too deep, so make sure your depth on your Dremel is set to be half the width of your pipe. But Gorilla glue expands a lot so it helped fill in the space.
Cut your pipes so they extend about 1/4" beyond the bottom of the foam. Cover the channels you made in your glue and insert the pipes. Cover the rest of the area with the glue and sandwich it between the two sheets.
For the dimensional letters, I poured some glue onto a sheet of paper and dipped the letters one at a time into the glue and then stuck them onto the front. Give everything a little wiggle as you put them together so that it spreads the glue around to make for a better fit. That gave me some wiggle room to get the spacing right and also ensured the best coverage.
Using 2x4s or some planks of wood or something flat, lay them across the tombstone and add heavy things to them. This will keep it all together as it dries. Have a beer and let it dry. Gorilla glue will be dry in about 4 hours and foam board glue needs 24 hours.
Step 6: Wood Base
Another online tutorial showed me a great way to finish the bottoms of these. If you cut your plywood to be about 1/4" larger than the base of your tombstone, you will end up with a wonderful finished base that adds some stability and a buffer between the ground and the fragile foam.
I wasn't too careful with my measuring here. I just traced the shape of the base onto the wood, then added a 1/2" to it. That 1/2" equates out to being 1/4" of overhang on each side. From there I measured where the holes should go on the botom and drilled the two holes for the pvc to come through the bottom of the wood.
I sanded the wood down a bit on the edges just for aesthetics and then glued it all together. I found using ratchet straps is a great way to keep good pressure on the piece. You will need to use some scraps under where the straps touch the foam otherwise you will end up with indents in your design. I also found that by adding a small piece of foam in the middle under the wood base, you get good pressure on the center and it helps level it out.
Speaking of leveling. Make sure the bottom of your piece is flat. Otherwise you end up with a nice slanty tombstone. Not that I have done that before. …I absolutely have done that before.
Step 7: Refining & Electronics
Once everything is glued together, I sand all the edges so they are even with one another. I used a hand sander with a 60 grit sand paper and then a sanding sponge to help make it a bit more organic and refined. Then I use the home depot brand 30 minute latex caulk to fill in the gaps. There are also seems on the foam that need to be filled in. I go to each corner where the foam meets and use the caulk to make it look like the whole thing was made from one solid chunk of foam. I also put a bead of caulk at the bottom where the foam and the wood meet and underneath where the pipe and the wood come together.
This is also where you want to do any distressing to the tombstone. I put some big cracks into the sides and added a small skull. The cracks were drawn on using a pen and then cut out using an exacto and a utility knife. You will also want to rough up the edges a bit. Remember, this has been outside for years so it won't be shiny and new.
The lights aren't necessary here but they are cool. I bought THIS yard light kit for about $15 from Harbor Freight. They are always having sales and sending out coupons, so never pay full price for anything from that place. It came with 10 solar powered path lights. I pulled the light and solar panel part out and moderately took it apart. Basically, I clipped off the old LED and soldered wires onto where the LED attached. The wires had connectors I could use to disconnect it if need be. I then soldered up to blue LEDs to some wires and ran it all through the tombstone. I had to do some extra cutting into the tombstone to make the wires get to the right spot. But then I just used the caulk to fill in the holes. Don't forget to put a little bit of tape over these LEDs. You don't want to accidentally paint over them.
Step 8: Paint & Weathering
The whole thing starts with two coats of the drylock. For me, I accidentally bought the white stuff, so I asked home depot to color it up for me. Two rounds of darkening and it was good to go. I also added a bunch of dirt to the pain to give it more texture.
Coat the whole thing from head to toe with the drylock. For the little areas, make sure you use your smaller art brush to really shove that drylock into all the little spots. Give that 24 hours to dry between each coat.
Next is your weathering. I took a mason jar with a lid and mixed up some brown and black acrylic. Once I had a nice color that wasn't just completely black, you add a lot of water to make it runny. I mixed it up in the mason jar so that I can reseal it and keep using it over and over again. Otherwise you have to throw away your mix. The key here is to add lots of the runny paint in a lot of different coats. Patience. You need patience. It goes on dark and dries lighter. Thats ok too, you can build up the color over time. Do a few layers and let it dry full to see how it looks. Make sure you are letting it drip down from the right areas too. It's gonna bead up on the high spots and the drip down from there and the cracks.
Next you want to use more black, but a little watered down to get into the deep recesses of the cracks and between the letters. This isn't as watered down as the previous weathering. This is almost full strength paint. In a lot of places, I would paint in the black and then wet the brush and just smudge it around. That made it feel much more organic. It also gives it the drama and contrast you would expect in a creepy tombstone. Don't forget to move around your tombstone and to flip it around a bit to make sure you get to every angle.
Next you can add your color. I only added green to this, but you could add green, brown and even some whites to make it pop. I used more of a dry brush technique here. I would put on just a little bit of the green and then smudge it around using the brush or my hands or a paper towel. You don't want to go crazy with it here. just enough to get the point across and add some color.
Step 9: Finishing
Spray a coating of clear spray paint sealant on the whole thing and you are good to go.
Get a wood dowel that fits into the pipes we inserted into the foam and cut them so they are about 4 inches longer than the pipes. Hammer those into the ground and a slight angle in towards each other. What that does, is add pressure to the pipes so that they are actually held in place rather than just sitting over them. The above quick illustration shows you what I mean. Just make sure the bottom of them, where they go into the ground, is the same width apart as they pipes in the tombstone.
Good luck & Happy Halloween!