Introduction: Portable Cemetery

For this year's Halloween, I'm building a new cemetery! The old one got badly damaged and has been sent to the Great Haunt in the Sky. I have learned a few very important lessons with the previous one, and the most important feature had to be ease of transportation.

So here's my basic idea: a tomb that also serves as a storage box for a set of headstones. I calculated the size of the tomb so I could build it out of one complete sheet of plywood. I am going to make twelve tombstones; seven large ones and five small ones.

For the tombstones, and decorations on the tomb, I will use extruded polystyrene foam. This is much stronger and easier to work with than expanded polystyrene foam (the stuff with the white beads).


  • 20 mm extruded polystyrene foam
  • PU wood glue
  • Band saw
  • Hot wire cutter
  • Dremel
  • House paint
  • Acrylic caulk
  • Liquid joint compound
  • Fine sand
  • Acrylic paint and brushes
  • Cheap sponges
  • 5 mm plywood
  • 35x35 mm lumber
  • 28x70 mm lumber
  • Trim molding
  • Metal carrying handles
  • 20 mm PVC pipes
  • Matte outdoor varnish

Step 1: Basic Tombstone Shapes

I built two different sizes of tombstones. The large ones are 50x80 cm, the small ones 50x30 cm. This has to do with the size of the storage box, and the styrofoam sheets (wich are 60x120 cm). I took out sketchbook and started doodling away, until I had a collection of basic tombstone shapes.

The stones consist of two layers of foam, making them 4 cm thick in total. I cut out the shapes on my bandsaw, using a 24 TPI blade. The foam got glued together with PU-based wood glue. Make sure you test it on a piece of foam first, because some types of glue contain solvents that dissolve polystyrene!

Step 2: Names

Next, I put some names on the tombstones. I just picked some random movie character names: Zed (from Pulp Fiction), Jack Sparrow, John Kramer, Uncle Fester, ... For the small tombstones, I used children's names from horror movies: Georgie, Chucky, Samara, ...

I printed out the names and transferred them to the foam. I tried carbon paper first, but that didn't work. Luckily, by tracing the text with a ballpoint pen and using a bit of force, the outline is carved into the foam a bit, and then it can be traced with a pen.

I cut out the letters with a Dremel and chainsaw sharpening bits. Low to medium speed is recommended for this, otherwise the foam will melt and you end up with pieces of molten plastic in the letters. For fine details, I used a diamond engraving bit.

It worked fine, but it was hard to keep a consistent depth. For that, a plunge router attachment for my Dremel would be perfect.

Step 3: More Decorations and Details

Jack Sparrow's stone definitely needed a Jolly Roger! I simply drew this on a piece of foam, freehanded, and cut it out. Next, I shaped it with my Dremel. Some other decorations included crosses, ghostly faces, a puzzle piece for John Kramer's stone, and Gothic arches for Quasimodo. Let your imagination run wild!

I also cut some nice decorative profiles in some of the edges. For this, I used a hot wire cutter with thick wires. The wire can be bent into shape, so it's possible to cut all sorts of forms.

Step 4: Cracks and Damage

The stones shouldn't look too new, so I added some cracks and damaged corners. This was done with a wood burning tool.

Very important, when using a wood burning tool on polystyrene, always work outdoor or in a well ventilated area and wear a respirator. The fumes are very bad for you!

Step 5: Keep Them Standing

A hotly debated topic on various Halloween forums is how to keep styrofoam tombstones standing. After all, they are quite light and are tipped over by even the slightest wind. I did two things.

First, I glued a few short pieces of PVC pipe, embedded in a piece of foam, to the back of the tombstones. Bamboo sticks or pieces of rebar can be inserted in the pipes to secure the stones in place.

Second, I put a strip of scrap wood on the bottom of each stone with a few screws and glue. This makes the stones bottom heavy, and thus more stable, and it also protects the fragile foam from damage.

Step 6: Painting

With all the cutting and carving done, it's time to start painting! For this I used a mixture called "Scenic dope". It consists of house paint, acrylic caulk and joint compound. It's very thick and sticky, and perfect for coating styrofoam props. It's a bit more flexible than Monster Mud, another mixture that's often used for this. I added some fine sand to give it a stone-like texture.

The ratio is 1 liter of paint, 4 tubes of caulk and 0,5 liter of liquid joint compound. The caulk has to be acrylic caulk, not silicone! If you use silicone caulk, it won't mix. The sand was added until I was happy with the consistency.

I used the cheapest paintbrush I could find, because afterwards it would definitely be ruined, this mixture isn't kind to brushes. The paint was put on with a dabbing motion to avoid brush strokes, and worked into all nooks and crannies. Two coats of paint were put on to get good coverage.

Step 7: More Painting!

The base coat has a dull, gray color, so it needs more detail! I started by mixing a darker gray color with a little bit of purple in it, and then using a sponge and a lot of water to apply a wash over the stones. This breaks up the monotonous gray surface. The letters and cracks were also painted with a darker gray color.

The final step, and that's what really makes a huge difference, is a light white drybrushing. Drybrushing means you put some paint on a brush, and then wipe most of it off again, so there's only a little bit of paint left, and then you lightly brush over the surface. This works especially well on a rough surface, and gives it a realistic stone look.

After all the paint had dried, I gave all the stones a matte clearcoat.

Step 8: The Tomb

The next part of the portable cemetery is a tomb, that also serves as a box for storing and transporting the stones. The box is approximately 120 x 60 x 45 cm; I measured it so it could be cut out of a single sheet of plywood.

The bottom is a 60x120 cm piece of plywood, reinforced with a frame made from 35x35 mm lumber I reclaimed from some old props. The sides are attached to the bottom frame, and the corners are reinforced with more 35x35 mm lumber. The lid is made the exact same way as the bottom.

Step 9: Detailing the Tomb

With 28 x 70 mm lumber, I made two borders around the box, one at the top and one on the bottom, and finished them with some trim molding. I used a hand saw and a mitre box to cut them at 45° angles. For the top of the box, I put on an extra horizontal border to make sure the lid would fit nicely. The pictures explain it a lot better than I can :-)

On the sides, I cut out some Gothic arches from styrofoam, and glued them in place with PU wood glue. I wanted to add more decorations, such as skulls, but unfortunately, time was against me. On the lid, I made a large cross.

To make sure the tombstones in the box won't get damaged during transport, I also padded the inside with some cheap 20 mm thick styrofoam (EPS, the white beady stuff).

Step 10: Painting and Finishing

Painting was done the exact same way as the tombstones. First, two coats of gray scenic dope, then a dark gray wash, and finally some white drybrushing and a clearcoat.

I also screwed on four metal carrying handles, so it's easier to carry the tomb, and I put a strip of rubber window gasket under the lid to keep moisture out. All twelve of my stones fit inside, and the entire box fits in my car!

I did want to add much more details, such as moss, but I was working on so many things at once I simply didn't have the time for it. I do hope to upgrade all my props next year!

Halloween Contest 2017

Participated in the
Halloween Contest 2017