Introduction: Black Plague Memorial and Tombstone Tips
I've been making tombstones from foam for a few years and wanted to make a fairly large one. I originally planned on make a generic tombstone and using a leftover 5 foot skeleton with some angel or demon wings on it . As I started to build, I got the idea to make the skeleton look like a plague doctor and to make the tombstone appear to be a memorial to all those who lost their lives during the black plague of the 14th century (for those purists, yes, I am aware the plague doctor mask and overall look is from the 1600's). In addition, I made the tombstone much darker (it's darker than the pictures show) than I usually would have as I wanted it to look like it came out of a black and white horror movie from the 30's or 40's. The overall tombstone is about five and a half feet tall and come apart into three sections for storage.
In this Instructable, I will show the basic build and offer some general tips for building tombstones.
Life gets in the way of what we want to do sometimes, so I put this Instructable together pretty quickly. If I said something confusing or you have a question, please use the comment section. Happy belated Halloween!
Step 1: Basic Supplies and Tips
Here are some basics of tombstone building:
I suggest using a dust mask at all times, but I usually choose to wear a face mask with vapor cartridges since I cut a lot with hot wires/tools. From my research, this is especially important with XPS foam. Working in a well ventilated area is also a good practice.
People usually use EPS (white, compressed tiny beads of foam) or XPS (pink/blue, formed foam). EPS is cheaper, but is a little harder to carve finer details into and usually has a texture from the tiny beads. I used XPS for this project because it's a little sturdier and I had some on hand (it's difficult to get in Southern California).
Hot wires/tools specifically for foam cutting are great. They are not totally necessary, but assist in making many things easier or better such as shaping, certain cutting, engraving, etc. Regular knives can be used, but also make things a bit messier. The photo I've added shows some hot tools (scroll table, hot knife, hot wire tool, and a hot engraver). You'll also see some regular knives and a rasp (for shaping and texturing). Other items to help to achieve shapes and/or textures are sandpaper, a large wire brush (hit the foam or drag the bristles on it), serrated knives, heat gun. etcetera. In one of the photos, I've shown a piece of XPS foam with heat from a heat gun applied. The left side is textured solely by heat and the right side was sprayed with a little water prior to applying heat. The water heats up and creates great little cracks and holes if that's what you're looking for (e.g. weathered stone).
As stated, I often use a hot engraver to do lettering. Another option is a Dremel with a router attachment or, if you have a steady hand, a wood burning tool. An X-acto knife is helpful during this process as well, especially for finer details.
In addition, if I'm attaching a smooth item to a tombstone, I might add a little Spackle here and there to add to it's texture if I'm trying to match it with a stone look. Spackle will also be used to fill in any undesirable holes or seams.
Some people use 3M spray adhesive, Gorilla Glue, and products specifically for foam. Most of these have disadvantages such as cost, lack of good adhesion, expansion, or the fact it eats away the foam over time. I've found the best, and by far cheapest, adhesive is Glidden's Gripper primer (pictured).
I also suggest inserting toothpicks or wooden skewers through pieces of foam to hold certain pieces together to improve its structural integrity.
Luckily, I have small needle like pieces of metal from a toy dart gun I use to hold small pieces in place. These can easily be removed when the glue is dry. Toothpicks can work for this, but leave larger holes. This is easily fixed with Spackle.
Step 2: More Tips
First, don't use spray paint unless you want the look of foam that been "eaten" away. You must protect it with other coatings before spray paint can be used.
In my opinion, gray DRYLOK is indispensable. It gives good coverage, has a slightly sandy texture and lasts in all types of weather. It looks good just by itself, but there are other things to do for a more realistic look. Watered down black paint can be applied over it to darken the whole tombstone or use it sparingly for a stained look in certain areas, such as lettering, cracks, and/or areas that you want to have the appearance of being "stained" by rain. Staining can also be done with greens, yellow and whites if you want the areas to look like they're stained by moss. I've also used paint sponges with blacks and whites to create a more realist stone look. A very important step if you're looking for realism is to dry brush white or off-white onto either the entire tombstone or just the edges. To do this, remove most of the white paint from your brush then lightly brush the areas where you want to apply the paint. On the Black Plague stone, I actually tried a different technique because I wanted a fairly dark look. I used some black "oops paint" (cheap paint someone had mixed, but didn't pick up from the store) and mixed it with the DRYLOK to make a extremely dark gray. Once dry, I dry brushed with the regular gray DRYLOK.
As stated, you can used watered down paint for mossy looks or you can also glue craft moss to the tombstone; however, one of the best techniques is to drizzle watered green paint onto the tombstone while sprinkling some fine play sand on the area. This can take a little time to master, but will reward you with a very realistic texture and look of moss/lichens. Here's a link to where I learned the technique Carpet Moss Tutorial.
I will show you in the next part of the Instructable, but always have a way to anchor you tombstones. Some people start with a base of wood or attach a wooden stake to the stone. I typically like to insert (or sandwich between two pieces of foam) a piece of pvc pipe. I can then put a wooden dowel or piece of re bar into the ground and place the pvc over it.
Make your tombstone interesting by placing items you make on them or store bought items on them. For example, with the Black Plague tombstone, I made a bell to place on it. I also had an embellishment from an old headboard I placed on the base and a small cherub I bought at a thrift store that I placed above the bell. You can put whatever YOU want on yours!
Have fun and don't worry about messing up! It's a tombstone. There really is no right or wrong. If you cut something wrong or do something you didn't want to, try to determine if there is a way to "fix" it. Did you cut off a piece of foam you didn't want to? Well, make it look like that's where the tombstone is damaged.
Step 3: The Black Plague Memorial
Most of the foam I used for this project was two inches thick. I started with a base that was cut to 36" X 24". I then used my hot wire scroll table to cut a more ornate edge. This technique requires a thicker wire which can be shaped. Alternatively, if you don't have this option, you can cut a beveled edge with a regular knife. This can be done by marking a straight line on the top and side of the foam along it's edge. As you cut, ensure the knife stays along both lines.
Since I wanted to save on foam, this was going to be like an empty box. I glued several scrap pieces of foam together and drill a one inch whole through them and the base where I glued the PVC pipe.
Next, I created a rectangular box which was centered on the base, Approximately two inches or so from the sides. Use glue and wooden skewers to hold the sides together and to attach the foam to the base.
I then cut and added a top which would hang over each edge approximately 1/4 inch. As you can see, I messed up when I tried to add the "routed" edge (see the wavy, unevenness?). This was a mistake which was easily fixed by hitting and scraping the area with a wire brush later on. Ta Da! No more mistake, just a weathered tombstone.
Step 4: The Black Plague Memorial
I created another box to go on top of the base I just created. After centering it on top, I marked around the inside edge then cut that portion from the top of the base section.
Pieces of foam were added to the inside of the base which will be inserted into the hole in the base.
I then added some border pieces around the inserted section which would give the appearance it was all one piece. This border was also added around the box on top of the initial base.
If you look closely, I also added a finishing detail under the overhang. It's just a thin strip of foam.
I printed out the lettering I want to use then centered and taped it to the foam. I use an X-acto knife and cut through the paper then into the foam to create the outline of the letters. I then used my engraver to cut into the lettering. Another option, which takes longer, is to cut around the letter/numbers as I did for the dates. This could also be created by cutting individual letters/numbers and then gluing them to the foam.
Step 5: The Black Plague Memorial
The next step was to create the top section as you see it. I had the idea of adding a bell, so I created a frame added a little interest to the top with a couple of pieces which were "routed".
After centering the top section on the middle section previously built, I traced around the legs then cut those sections from the top of the middle section. I placed some trim around the legs where I wan't them to stop once inserted into the middle section.
Embellishments such as the recycled wooden scrolls, the cherub and more trim were added. Scrapes, cracks, and broken off pieces were added where I saw fit.
All holes and seams get filled with Spackle and sanded if necessary. I mixed gray DRYLOK with some very dark gray paint and covered the entire tombstone. Regular gray DRYLOK was dry brushed on after the initial coat dried. If you didn't read previously, I attempted to paint this to look more like it came from a 30's or 40's horror movie. It's dark and I didn't bother with moss or any staining I would normally have done.
Step 6: The Bell
Not the best bell, but I was pressed for time to get this done for Halloween. I glued sections of foam together then cut and shaped it into a bell. The bottom half inch piece and the one it's attached to are just rings so it looks hollow from the bottom. A small piece of foam on a skewer was added for the striker.
I coated this with the Glidden Gripper primer then spray painted it with Rust-O-Leum Oil Rubbed Bronze. I then took copper acrylic paint from the craft store and dry brushed it.
After some experimenting, I settled on a mixture of Bahama Blue and Foliage Green acrylic paint to create a patina.
I created a small cylinder of foam and painted it the same way to act as a buffer between the bell and the stone. It was all attached with Gripper and a wooden skewer.
Step 7: Plague Doctor Mask, Wings & Hat
I took the head off of a 5' plastic skeleton and after some estimation, shaped a piece of foam to look like a beak. I then cut EVA foam (not something I typically use) to fit around the face/head. This was all attached with hot glue. I used Spackle to smooth out the edges where they met with the pink foam.
After drawing the size and shape of the wings, I doubled up the foam to cut two identical pieces. Half inch foam was used for this. I think cut two pieces for the top of the wings and glued them onto the main wing. Next, I cut out the feathers in the middle individually and sliced them in half. This allowed me to use them for both sides and to create a tiered effect. I used to thick wooden skewers to join the wings and I used zip ties to attach this portion to the skeleton once it was painted in the manner as the tombstone.
I didn't take any pics of the hat being made but the base is a circular piece of poster foam board. I cut and shaped the top, hollowed out the base a bit to fit the skulls head, and glued it to the foam board before it was all hot glued to the skull.
The skull was re-attached to the skull and everything got painted the same way as the tombstone.
Step 8: Finished Black Plague Memorial Tombstone
The tombstone was placed on a piece of re bar in the yard then the left leg of the skeleton was zip tied to a piece of re bar behind the tombstone. The skeleton was place in a manner to appear it was all one carved tombstone. As a last minute add-on, I painted up a cheap fake rose and positioned it as if the plague doctor is placing it on the memorial.
I added a short video so you could see it action. I apologize for the quality.
I put this together pretty quickly, so if I said something confusing or you have a question, please use the comment section.
Thanks for reading.
Third Prize in the
Halloween Decor Contest 2016
6 years ago
I'd like to thank everyone who chose to vote for my Instructable in the 2016 Halloween Decor Contest. I only solicited two votes from family members, so I was EXTREMELY surprised when I became a finalist. I hope you enjoy making your own tombstones in the future. Thanks again!
6 years ago
Everything in that display looks amazing. I especially love the storm trooper. I hope that you will write up Instructables on all this stuff. It is really good.
Reply 6 years ago
Thanks for the kind words. The house was a hit with all the trick-or-treaters this year.