Intro: Tiny Tombstone Cemetery
Is there anything more evocative of the spookiness of Halloween than a graveyard? The rows of tombstones serving as a memento more, reminding us that while we live now, all men and women will one day be but memories. The fresh graves making us think that maybe, just maybe, something might claw through the disturbed earth and seek our living flesh. The chill that follows isn't only from the cool fall air...
But that might be a bit much! Who has the space for an acre of lawn to create a full-sized cemetery in today's economy? What about a tiny cemetery (for tiny people, naturally) that takes up very little space, and stores easily?
I'll show you how to make a few (or many) tiny tombstones that are about the size of your hand, and then you can make your own tiny tombstone cemetery.
Step 1: Materials
There are a lot of ways to make the tiny tombstones. Here is what you will need at a minimum:
Some rigid foam insulation
Some way to cut it.
Some way to paint it
I've described several ways to make tombstones below, so here is a more detailed list if you want to follow along. Pink rigid foam insulation, 1 inch thick
Utility or craft knife
dremel (with cutting attachment and cutting bit)
expensive cnc router with hearing and eye protection
Step 2: (optional) Preparing Your Foam Blanks.
You may have some rigid foam scraps lying around, or be able to beg them from people doing home improvement projects, which is great because making a tiny tombstone is a perfect way to use that waste material that would otherwise be lost. That's what I did for many of mine.
But if you aren't so lucky, or you want a LOT of tombstones in your graveyard, you'll need to go get a sheet of rigid foam insulation and prepare it to make your graveyard. A full-size sheet is probably overkill unless you are planning on making dozens or hundreds, but if that is all they have then you can ask them to cut it in half or smaller on the premises to make it easier to transport.
Mark your sheet into strips however wide you want your tombstones to be. Mine are roughly 50mm (2 inches) wide. If you have a table saw or circular saw, you can cut it with that, which is fast and leaves a very smooth and finished edge on the side.
It is just as easy and fast to cut it with a craft knife, though. Score along the line you marked, and then press along the cut while supporting the foam on the sides. It will snap cleanly, leaving a relatively clean edge.
You can also cut with a handsaw or even a bread knife with a sawing motion, which will cut through the foam and leave a rougher edge. This isn't a bad thing- many tombstone designs are enhanced with a rough edge.
Once you have strips, you simply repeat the process and cut them to the length desired. Mine range anywhere from 60 mm to 125 mm long.
Step 3: By Hand: a Simple Tombstone
Now that you have some foam to work on, lets make a simple tombstone with simple hand tools.
Design your headstone and draw it with marker on the front. Try to keep your artistic skills and manual dexterity in mind when you draw it out. Some types of dry erase marker will wipe right off a smooth foam surface- you can use that to sketch like a pencil and then finalize your plan with a permanent marker.
Once you have your design laid out, cut it out with the craft knife. My simple headstone only took a few passes with the knife to get the classic half-circle on top. You can see how rough and pitted the edges were- that's because I pretty much just tore the foam inside of slicing it. As I said, keep your manual dexterity in mind.
A quick pass with some sandpaper, though, and the edges clean right up.
For the inscription, I thinly sliced at an angle to carve out the letters, trying to give them a beveled look. I think in my case it made absolutely no difference, but it might work better for you. I used a toothpick to clean out the inside of the carving and to prod around to shape the letters better.
And its done!
The inside of the inscription looks pretty rough, but the painting will cover it up. Not all of it though. If you want cleaner edges to your inscriptions and tombstones, try the next method.
Step 4: Small Tools: a More Complex Tombstone
Just a knife is all you really need to make these. But a rotary tool (like a dremel) can really open up some options. I use mine with the "cutting attachment" which comes with bits for cutting through drywall. They work almost as well as cutting through foam, as you can see.
If you use a long cutting bit to shape your foam, keep in mind the direction the bit is spinning. If you work TOWARDS the direction the bit is spinning, it will pull into the foam, which is why my blank has scalloped edges on the left side. If you work AWAY from the direction the bit is spinning, the cutting edge won't cut as well, and you end up with a grinding action that creates a lot of dust. Steady hands make a big difference, but as before, sanding cures a lot of ills.
To make the inscription, I put a small grinding bit into the rotary tool, with the cutting attachment. It makes an effective enough "poor man's router attachment", as it lets you set a depth and keep it there. Or you can just freehand it, if you have the previously mentioned steady hands.
Trace your letters, and keep in mind that the bit will pull strongly in the direction that it spins. This can lead to some very wobbly letters until you get the hang of it. I was assured by my young neighbors that the letters were "very spooky" because of their irregular shape, so I guess it is a feature, not a bug.
You can use a sanding drum to take off any rough edges, but keep in mind that it will be more more aggressive than hand sanding, and also that if it is smaller than the width of your tombstone, you won't get an even sand without dedicated effort to move it around.
Step 5: CNC: Lots of Options and Details
So you might think to yourself- "Gosh, my letters and edges are so uneven and I just don't have the manual dexterity to execute my vision." In that case, you could let a robot do the work for you!
I won't go into any details on how to set up and run your CNC machine- it is too complicated and needs more expertise than I have. But rigid foam is easy to work with and very forgiving.
I use a BoXZY CNC and Easel from inventables as the software because of the low barriers to entry. A 1/4 inch bit is used to cut out the material, and a 1/16 inch for the detailed inscriptions.
One of the advantages to using foam is that you can take very deep cuts and the machine feels no strain at all (after all, it is just foam. It's mostly air!) This makes the process very fast. I set my cuts to be between 4 to 5 mm at a pass, which means that my cut outs rarely take more than a few minutes. I can even set the detail bit to the full 3 or 4 mm depth in one pass, because there is no danger of snapping the bit.
I've been using the "expanded pic" setting for the feeds and speeds setting, and it seems to work well enough. The edges are almost as well finished as using a circular saw.
Here are the numbers when using a 1/4 inch flat end mill.
Feed rate: 762 mm/min
Plunge rate: 228 mm/min
Speed: "5" on a Makita RT0701C
Step 6: Painting and Weathering
I use a small variety of spray paints to color the tombstones a nice stony grey.
"But" you say "Isn't spray paint bad for foam? Doesn't it eat away at it, making it melt and deform from the solvents in the spray?"
Right you are! But that is intentional. If you lightly apply spray paint to the foam, it will get small pitts as the solvents dissolve the foam structure- but not too much so. It really helps add to the stony effect because it gives the foam some texture. Once you have the first coat on, the layer of paint prevents the further solvents from melting the foam more.
Short, slow bursts of paint are key. Too much at once and the melting effect will be too pronounced. I alternate between grey, white and black paint to give flecks of each color that add to the fake stone illusion. The undercolor of pinkish purple works well for halloween if you want to let some of that show through.
If you are making these for Halloween night, then most people will see them at night, so if you have some nooks and crannies that don't get entirely painted, then they won't be noticed. But it is more noticeable during the day. Also keep in mind that the TOP of the tombstone and the BOTTOM of the inscriptions are what people will be looking at for the most part.
Step 7: Make a Graveyard
Once you have made your tombstones, you are ready to make your graveyard.
I take some small toothpicks and press them midway into the foam, to act as stakes. Over time, I'm sure that the holes will widen or deepen and the toothpicks will fall out, but I think this will be on the order of years. The foam and paint are a relatively durable combination. It's weather-resistant too- mine have been rained on with no negative effects.
Push the toothpicks and tombstones into the ground, and they should stay where they are put. You can make rows, or arrange them haphazardly for a more organic looking cemetery. I like to add just a few spoonfuls of potting soil in front of each one to really emphasize the the "grave" aspect. Sometimes I add candles, or small flashlights to act as a spotlight.
And of course, the most important part is having a terrible pun theme. Mine are all "tiny" puns or people.
Step 8: (optional) Let's Make a Wall
I found a scrap piece of foam at work, and thought my cemetery could use some privacy. Let's make a wall, using the same techniques we used to make the tombstones.
This is a different kind of foam, so we probably can't use the rotary tool or CNC. We can just cut it out with the knife or scissors, and paint it the same way.
Because this foam is less dense than the rigid foam insulation, you need to be careful when piercing it. Your knife blade or toothpick might go a lot farther than you expected, poking all the way through! Hold the toothpick, not the foam, when you push them into the ground.