Tombstones are one of the most important elements of any Halloween yard display. For home haunters, the cheapest, most economical, and most readily available material for creating tombstones is some variation of Styrofoam insulation sheeting. This document covers the construction, set up, and storage of Styrofoam tombstones.
Types of Styrofoam
All of the tombstones used in my Halloween display were constructed out of either 1 or 2-inch thick white Styrofoam insulation purchased at a local home center for about $10 per 4X8 sheet. From a single sheet, I have usually been able to get 8 to 12 tombstones. I have also seen sheets of pink and blue insulation foam for sale at home centers, depending on the of the US, but have never used it. I do know that it is denser than white Styrofoam, which makes it easier to carve and shape, but the color requires that it be painted.
Designing The Tombstones
Buy a roll of poster paper at your local arts and crafts store. This will help significantly in planning out your tombstones and will allow you to create templates that can be used over and over. Draw the designs for the tombstones on the paper. Cut out the paper, tape it to the Styrofoam, and trace the design using pencil. Be advised that some permanent markers have a tendency to eat away at the foam.
Alternatively, if the design is simple enough, draw it directly to the Styrofoam and use the first tombstone as a template for subsequent ones.
Cutting the Foam
There are two common methods for cutting foam: sawing or the use of a hot wire.
Cutting is easy done with a scroll saw, and mistakes (variances from a straight cut) can be cleared up with sandpaper. Avoid breathing in the dust.
A hot wire is simply a length of wire that is heated using electricity hot enough to melt the Styrofoam. They are commonly handheld or mounted to a table or sheet of plywood. You may be able to find a handled hot wire that runs on two D batteries for under $10 at your local arts and crafts store in the floral section. Wal-Mart has been known to stock them as well, but Wal-Mart is evil and has a tendency to destroy small businesses, so avoid them if at all possible.
If you want to build your own, hot wires are usually made from nichrome wire which is connected to a couple of D-Cell batteries or a lantern battery, depending on the length of the wire. Check your local hobby store, arts and crafts store in the floral section, or do a search on Google for ďnichrome wire.Ē Itís an item that is often hard to come by.
Although Iíve never tried it with Styrofoam, you might be able to get away with a thin gauge steel wire and a lantern battery, both sold at your local home center. DO NOT PLUG THE HOT WIRE INTO HOUSEHOLD CURRENT! Also use enough power to get the wire sufficiently hot to melt the foam, not red hot. Otherwise, it will burn the Styrofoam, and burning Styrofoam creates relatively nasty byproducts.
Always cut Styrofoam with a hot wire in a well-ventilated area.
After using a hot wire, you will probably want to go back over the edges of the Styrofoam with sandpaper to smooth out any small imperfections created during cutting.
Carving the Letters and Decorations
If you decide to place lettering on your tombstones, it is often a good idea to make a printout of the lettering on paper, then transfer the design to the tombstone. Check the Halloween-L archives if you are looking for a list of Halloween-related fonts. Use a Dremel tool with a sanding disk to carve the letters or shape any other designs. They work wonders on Styrofoam.
Painting the Tombstones
I found it was unnecessary to paint my white Styrofoam tombstones, since they were only viewed under dim lighting and for a short time by trick-or-treaters. However, if you do decide to paint your tombstones, use a flat outdoor latex paint. Add small amounts of black to white to make varying shades of gray. To save money, check your local paint stores to see if they have any mis-mixed or returned paint that they will be willing to sell you at a discount. You might be able to find something that is close to white or gray that will work for your purposes.
Spray paint will eat unprotected foam, but this may create the look youíre after. Just do so in a well-ventilated area.
Dirt rather than paint may be able to be used to add the appearance of age, although Iíve never experimented with this.
Aging and Texturing the Tombstones
I have never personally added detail to create the effect of age in tombstones, but here is some advice I can offer. The following text is included in another section of this web page.
Check to see how much aging is really necessary for your tombstones. From how far away will they be viewed? How dim or bright will the lighting be? How long will they be viewed?
Look at the pictures of real tombstones included on this web site and/or tombstones at your local cemetery and pay careful attention to shades, hues, and textures of both the stones and the deposits that have accumulated over the years, as well as the wear that has occurred to the stone.
For a granite appearance, buy spray paints at your paint store or home center intended to create a granite finish, or carefully spatter the tombstones with paint from a brush or use a sponge.
Use a sponge dipped in a darker shade of paint to create the appearance of lichens or other discoloration.
A true marble appearance is more difficult to create. For painting a marble pattern on Styrofoam, I have heard of one person using a feather to spread around the paint.
Setting up the Tombstones
I used 8 or 10 gauge stainless steel wire stakes, about 10 inches long, to attach the tombstones to the ground. Iím not sure where this wire was originally purchased. Check your home center or a farm or fencing supply company.
In a windless graveyard, one steak per tombstone worked sufficiently well. Half of the wire was carefully worked into the tombstone, while the other half was forced into the ground with vice grips. When removing the tombstones, care was taken to remove the steak as well, since it would be relatively unpleasant to step on when walking through the yard later in the year.
Other methods I have heard of involved people using PVC pipe inserts into the tombstones in addition to steaks, made from PVC, rebar, or wood. Dowels will also work but are more complicated to force into the tombstones and will snap in situations where metal would simply bend.
For liability reasons, take into consideration the possibility of someone falling onto your tombstones that have been staked into the ground. How far away from the path are they located? How easily do the stakes pull out of the ground when the tombstones go over, etc.? Is there some scare that will force them in the direction of the tombstones?
Pay attention to the placement of the tombstones when setting up your graveyard on Halloween. For example, in the Fairview Cemetery in West Liberty, Ohio, the tombstones are placed between 2 and 3 feet apart, with about 8 feet between the rows.
Also notice the bases of real tombstones, and the plant growth around them. Many cemeteries have their share of broken and fallen-down tombstones. And rarely are all of them perfectly perpendicular with the ground.
Pay careful attention to how the tombstones are placed in the ground. Make sure that the tombstone is resting in the leaves/grass rather than on the leaves/grass for a more natural look
Toss them in the backyard shed or attic for the winter, but keep in mind the following:
Cockroach egg casings have a tendency to melt/bury themselves into unprotected Styrofoam. They damage the tombstones and are a pain to remove. If your tombstones are unpainted, seal them in plastic in any environment where they may come in contact with roaches. Also avoid storing tombstones where mice or rodents could get to them.
After reading this web page, you now have sufficient information to start building your own Styrofoam tombstones. Browse through the images of real tombstones on this web page and check your local cemeteries for design ideas. Now get the materials and start building!