With any project it is always best to plan your build before you go head first into the project. I have made tombstones by hand and by machine. No matter the approach you will always have gotchya's when building tombstones.
Single Piece or Complex Assembly
Tombstones and Monuments can be as simple or as complex as you choose. Some of my best tombstones are simple 1 piece designs. If you are making by hand one piece tombstones are the way to go and if you look at some of the old tombstones as you pass by graveyards you will see that the one piece tombstone more often than not will be an authentic looking piece to add to your décor.
When I was hand building tombstones instead of carving out the lettering in the tombstone I would cut stencils and paint the lettering on the tombstone. This will still give that realistic look to the tombstone.
When it comes to building your tombstone there are some things you need to know... Polystyrene (PS) is an interesting medium and first instincts might cause you problems.
When attaching pieces together use PL300 Adhesive... it is made for Polystyrene. Some adhesives will melt PS so test your adhesives on a test piece and it fully cures to see the reactions it may cause before you use it on your décor.
Use Toothpicks and Bamboo skewers to hold pieces together. Make sure you countersink the toothpicks and skewers. Use side cutters to snip any excess or to shorten.
Any holes, snags, or imperfections you find can be filled during the finishing process.
Today I carve most of my tombstones using a CNC router. Typically I will design the tombstone up first in Fusion 360 and Blender before cutting them on the CNC router. I know not everyone has tools like a CNC Router or the time to learn software's like Fusion 360 and Blender so I included some really good videos below on how to hand build tombstones.
Holding a tombstone to the ground without it appearing to reside on the surface is tricky.
Adding Dowel Rods to the base of the tombstone/monument
Drill Holes (min of 2) in the bottom of the tombstone or monument using a 1in auger bit 6in-12in into the base of the piece.
Put PL300 Adhesive in the hole. Do not fill the hole, just enough that it will spread out on the sides and bottom of the hole as you push the dowel rod into the hole.
Push the dowel rods into the hole in the foam.
Take a handsaw and cut the dowel rod at the base of the tombstone/monument.
Let the adhesive set.
Dowels as the adhesive sets.
Cutting a base for the tombstone/monument
I attach my pieces to the ground using 10in metal spikes and even in the windiest of environments I have seen during the month of October I have never lost a tombstone or monument. Typically my bases fit the profile of my tombstone/monument and have tabs with holes in them for the spikes to be driven through.
Attaching the base to the dowel rods
Using a drill with a countersink drill bit and a small drill bit predrill holes in the base that match up with the middle of the dowel rods.
Paint the base the desired final color and let completely dry. (I typically do a black or dark green, something that will blend in the grass)
Apply PL300 to the tombstone's bottom that will make contact with the base.
Set the base and put screws where you previously pre-drilled.
Let the adhesive set.
Finishing the Look
Now to finish the look and make it look more authentic. For this process it is an art more than a science. You will be sanding, filing, filling... any finishing technique you can think of to give that tombstone the look like it has been sitting outside for centuries. Use my Album of Real Tombstones to get inspiration. I have a habit of stopping in old graveyards when I pass them so more photos will be added in the future.
Painting and Sealing
When it comes to priming, painting and sealing your décor piece there are some thing you need to consider and know.
Do not use spray paint, the 2-in-1 spray paint or spray paint primer directly on the polystyrene... it will melt!
When Priming your polystyrene use Acrylic primer (roll/brush/air-spray) or Rust-Oleum® Specialty Foam Primer Spray. I typically do the bulk of my priming using either a foam roller/foam brush or a air-sprayer, then I will follow up with the hard spots using the Rust-Oleum® Specialty Foam Primer Spray.
This step is an art and it might take a couple tries but all of my tombstones are painted with flat/matte spray paint. The idea here is to start with a base color and then work the accent colors from there. Depending on the tombstone I might start with a light gray to white or standard gray. Then from there you start spraying the light accent colors to give the tombstone its depth and aged / weathered look. Tombstones lots of time have speckles of color either from imperfections or how it weathered.
Sealing the tombstones is key and you need to make sure you seal it with the right clear coat sealer or you will be repainting in years to come. Indoor clear coat will wash off and Oil based outdoor clear coat will look amber-ish on the tombstone.
Water based exterior polyethene is the stuff!!! This will hold up to the outdoors and will be crystal clear over your paint job. Unfortunately I have not been able to find this in anything other than liquid form... Ping me on twitter if you find an aerosol version of water based exterior poly. So you will be left with foam rolling and foam brushing it on... I have a HVLP sprayer which if you have this capability it makes quick work of clear coating.
Good Luck on your Graveyard Build...
If you use these instructions please post your build on Twitter and share the post with me (@malamaker86).