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Getting ready to try my hand at some tombstone construction and was looking for some advice. I've watched some tutorials on Youtube and see that there's a few different methods folks use. Wanted to get your take on some of these...

Lettering... I see iron on method and the trace method. Tracing seems easy enough to me. What do you all do to transfer your lettering?

Carving... I see Dremel and Exacto used in a lot of those. Dremel seems like it would be easy but a dusty mess. What method do you prefer?

Painting... I've seen a few that use Drylok as a base. I don't see why since foam insulation is waterproof. Is it a texture thing or just something folks do? I was planning black base with various shades of gray acrylic over it. Again, what method do you prefer.

Any tips you'd recommend that aren't on some of the videos?

Any thoughts shared would be most appreciated. Looking forward to getting some stones going!
 

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Hello Mrjinglepants!

You're going to love tombstone making, it's my favorite prop to make.

On the lettering, the method I have used a lot is to print the letters out on regular paper, then cut them out to make a stencil. Then I trace that onto the tombstone. I recently saw a video that Bigant made where he does the same thing only he uses a washable glue stick and glues the paper down to the tombstone then uses a Dremel to cut them out. Here's a link to the video:

https://youtu.be/lSXc0WN-fdk

On carving, I usually use a Dremel but I want to try carving with an exacto because I think I can get better detail. The Dremel is messy, no way around it. Get ready to get messy if you go that route.

Painting, I usually just use regular exterior latex paint but I Drylok is nice because it has sand mixed in and gives the stones a nice texture. Drylok is also tough as nails and will hold up well over the years. I've found that the exterior latex can sometimes start peeling.

I'm not sure what else to recommend that hasn't already been covered in all the videos out there. I'm sure the other folks on here can add some stuff.

Good luck, have fun and happy haunting!!

Chuck
 
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I print my letters and trace them using a stylist. You can use carbon paper if you can find it. You can use a Sharpie to make the line more visible. There is another way by printing in mirror image. Only a few printers have that option but if you have access to one then use a iron to transfer the lettering.

Dremel is my choice with the router attachment. Yes it can be slightly messy but easy to use. If you carve, change blades often as a dull blade will not cut cleanly but curl the foam.

A base coat of black with a dry brush of greys is my first choice. I have also used drylok over the black, use a roller and don't fill the lettering. I like the texture of it and it looks like stone. I have had some paint come off the foam but mostly from them rubbing together during storage.

Once you get started they will go quickly unless you put a lot of detail in them. A lot of times at night and low light the details are lost anyway.
 

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Another Idea if you have one or in my case its my wife's is to use a cricut to print out letters onto sticky vinyl and place them on the tombstone and use a exacto to trace. After tracing remove the letters and carve your stone. You can use any shapes or fonts you want with this machine. Here is video from youtube to give you an idea. Its how to apply the vinyl to a tumbler but you can put it on a stone then peel it off.

 

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I print my lettering out with a laser printer. I then spray the back of the paper with a very light coat of contact adhesive and stick it to the face of the pre-cut tombstone. I use a 2" thick green stryofoam from Lowes. One side is printed. One side is not. I glue to the not printed side. Then, using a dremel tool with a "wedge" bit and a dremel tool screw on guide (prevents me from going too deep), I cut out the lettering. I find that I need to set the depth of the cut to match the minimal width of the letters. Holding the dremel like a pencil, with the guide in place, gives me total control. In the few cases where I've gone slightly past the end of a letter's segment, I'll later cut that and make it look like the stone has been chipped. The dremel doesn't create a whole lot of dust. Most of what is "cut" is actually just melted. The letters will be mostly black when done, because you'll be cutting the paper and black lettering in addition to the foam. Run the stone under water when finished to wash off any residual paper.

A warning about this method... If you put too much contact adhesive on, you will damage the surface of the stone. It will melt. The way to know if you don't have too much is to look at it. If you can see blobs of adhesive, you have too much. Run your finger over the blobs and spread them out. You'll be fine then.

I prime the stones with a "battleship grey" latex paint, then over-spray that with Rustoleum stone paint (I'm partial to dark grey, which looks like granite in the local tombstones). Finally, using an artists brush and dark-grey-almost-black latex paint, paint in the lettering if it isn't visible enough.
 

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Okay. Some tips that I use frequently.

Loctite PL300 is safe for all kinds of foam. It does not eat away the foam. Regular Liquid Nails will melt away the foam. I learned this when building our cemetery gates. But the blue glue is excellent.

I have the Stanley Fat MAX 25mm razor blade. This is the bee's knees for slicing up foam. The blade is rigid and sturdy, and that helps when trying to slice up 2" foam. I can just clamp down a straight edge, and maybe three strokes will cut all the way through. Also, the really fat blade is easy to see if I am tilting the blade. Now I hardly have to re-cut or shave edges any more. Most of them are square and clean as a whistle.

https://smile.amazon.com/Stanley-10-817-25mm-Xtreme-Knife/dp/B000OO05UM/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477589565&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=Stanley+25mm+razor+knife

I also use an Irwin dowel cutting saw. Cuts on the pull, not on the push. VERY handy for squaring up overlaps and flush cutting.

https://smile.amazon.com/Tools-Dovetail-Detail-4-Inch-213104/dp/B0001GLEZI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1477589623&sr=8-1&keywords=Irwin+dowel+saw

Also, I took a hacksaw blade and just duct taped a wooden dowel as a handle. I can use it push or pull, depending on the way I have to cut. So easy, especially on foam. By the way, a Milwaukee HackZall is BEAUTIFUL on cutting and hacking foam. So fast, so coarse and rough. I've even dragged the teeth of the blade sideways across foam to rip up the surface. Like dragging the blade backwards. So much fun using power tools incorrectly!

We've been using plywood or pressure treated 1x4's, and eye screws to anchor our tombstones. We'll cut 3/4" plywood to match the bottoms of our stones, and mix and smooth the stones and plywood together. Then we'll put one eye screw in the front center, and two in the backside. Then we hammer 10" roofing spikes into the ground at angles. Our stones do NOT move. And we'll just sprinkle a handful of dirt over the front eye screws, and nobody can see them. In fact, surrounding the bases of your stones with dirt really helps. You can just rake it into your soil afterwards. Use one bag of fresh potting soil or compost manure, and you're fertilizing for spring!

Sometimes actually breaking your foam creates the best cracks and aging damage. Just break your stone, then shove in dowel rods and glue it back together. I've even re-assembled stones using paint stirring sticks and lots of glue.

For lettering, go buy a totally crap soldering iron. Preferably one with a control base with a temperature dial on it. You can put it on the lowest setting, and melt lettering and sculpting details, without burning the heck out of the foam. I've also used razor scrapers and wood chisels to get the Roman style chiseled letters. Just like you would with a hammer and chisel, I cut with the blade at a 45-degree angle, to get sharp points.

One trick I perfected this year, is using my propane torch and a wire coat hanger, to melt away huge swaths of foam. If I want a big recessed area, I'll heat up the wire, and drag it across the top of the foam. It melts down about 3/8" to 1/2" deep, leaving a nasty roughened surface texture. Excellent contrast against a smooth faced surface above it.

A heat gun on low is your weathering friend! You scuff up your surfaces with abrasives or wire brushes or files, then float the heat gun over to shrink and shrivel up that foam. It'll also toughen up that outside surface of the foam, making it harder to accidentally damage it. Smooth flat foam seems to get damaged very easily, so any time I can "age" it with heat, I'll do it. Also gives lots of texture if you're good at it.

If you need different textures, get some acetone on a brush and flick the bristles at the stone from a short distance. You'll get deeper pits and damage, accenting your surfaces. The little details are sometimes the best ones once you start painting.

Try not to leave any clean sharp edges. Ancient tombstones should have rounded over corners. You can use a file or 36-grit sandpaper and quickly knock down all the edges.

When painting, mix ordinary play sand into your paint. Dead simple, and can give little or heavy texture to surfaces. This makes dry-brushing WAY cool.

Now that we're talking about paint, I try to always use a black paint as a base coat, and add light drybrushing over that. If you Drylok, you can spray or brush on black over it.

Use a sponge instead of a brush, to do drybrushing over letters. Bristles want to push down into the lettering, but a sponge stays flat on the top. This leaves your letters sharp and dark.

Mix up darker paints with lots of water in a squirt bottle. Once all your detail painting is done, spray down your stones to replicate the damage from acid rain and mold growing on drip lines. If you're careful and practice a lot, you can get truly ancient looking stones.

Use sawdust mixed with green and brown paints to simulate moss and mold. Google up some old tombstones, and study how the moss looks. Go find trees in your neighborhood and study actual moss up close.


Okay, I think Ima shaddap now.

Go make a mess.
 

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Bryans316's post got me thinking about how I make the tombstone slabs themselves. I've looked at the local cemetery and found that most of the stones made after 1920 are smooth on the face, but very rough on the sides. In order to duplicate that look, I use a cross-cut saw to cut the stones from the 4x8 sheet of foam. It chews up the sides pretty well. I then use a surform file to shape the top and sides a bit. When I'm done, there will be no sharp edges whatsoever. The surform file is quick and easy.

To make arched top stones, I'll cut the stone square, and then draw in the arch I want. I'll then chop off the largest pieces with the saw, and then surform the rest to conform to the arch I want.

To add age, I'll dent and gouge the foam up by dropping handfuls of large nails onto it.
 

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To transfer lettering, I connect a projector to my computer. Using Microsoft Word to get the lettering and font I want, I project on to the stone and trace it with a sharpie marker. Just make sure to clamp the stone so it doesn't move on you! Then use a blade or dremel, whichever you prefer.
This method would probably work for ornamental designs too, but I haven't had time to try.
 

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I print my wording on my printer, tape the paper to the tombstone, and then use a needle to create a dotted outline to follow when I cut out the letters. I like the chiseled effect you get by using an exacto knife to cut out the letters.

I also used a sticker paper stencil and spray paint to achieve a cool relief effect. The spray paint ate away the foam everywhere it touched leaving behind a raised image.

I paint my tombstones with leftover gray acrylic paint... because it is cheap and I have a bunch on hand. They seem to hold up OK to the weather but they are only out about a week.
 

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To transfer lettering, I connect a projector to my computer. Using Microsoft Word to get the lettering and font I want, I project on to the stone and trace it with a sharpie marker. Just make sure to clamp the stone so it doesn't move on you! Then use a blade or dremel, whichever you prefer.
This method would probably work for ornamental designs too, but I haven't had time to try.
BRILLIANT

This really allows you to draw or shape ANYTHING, as long as you have good photos or some photoshopping or CAD skills!

And even once you've cut shapes profiles or letters away, the projection still shows, to make sure you're aligned and centered! I would even go so far as to build a jig of some sort. Like an artist's easel, but with clamps. Clamp the foam plank from the sides, and the whole front surface would be exposed and easily accessed.

DANG I gotta try to find a projector on clearance or online....
 

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This is a variation on the needle method: Print your design on the computer, tape it in place on the tombstone, and trace over it with a ballpoint pen. Use a medium heavy pressure, and you will dent the design into the smooth surface of the foam. (not too heavy or you will tear the paper.) Remove the paper and go over the dents with a fine-point Sharpie to refine the result, then cut out with whatever method you like best (X-acto, Dremel, whatever)
 

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My other bit of advice would be generally to stay away from highly decorative fonts. Also, don't worry too terribly much about perfection. Otherwise, between the two of them, you end up with a tombstone that looks a) brand new, b) mechanically produced and commercial. It's a balance getting something to look well crafted and with character, but old and decrepit.
 

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CraiginPA, Do you have the Lowes part number for the 2" foam? If I can get the number I can order the foam here in Florida. We in the south don't have a lot of choices for thick foam.
 

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I print my epitaphs out on 8 1/2 x 11 label sheets, then just peel and stick them to the foam. Multiple sheets can be combined to make larger or more complex designs. I then either use an exacto to trace the design and letters outline, then lift the interior of the label off before removing more foam with my knife to complete the letter, or just go right over the label with my Dremel and a routing attachment to control depth. The knife gives a cleaner, sharper letter, but the Dremel is way faster. Once done I just peel the remainder of the labels off and it leaves zero residue. I use a wood burning tool with a exacto tip to make my cracks and damage, then a heat gun to distress the surface further. I don't Drylok my tombstones either. I just use flat black latex enamel as a base coat, then paint with grey exterior house paint, sometimes tossing a little sand on the wet paint, then brushing over it again. To weather and age I like to start with the dirty water I used to rinse my paint brushes in while doing the rest of the painting. I add some black, brown, and green into the wash water as I go to change up the color a little and darken it further. Mist your stone a little with water before tea staining it and several times during the process to keep things moving. Keep the stone upright and just let things drip and run down it till you are happy with it.
 

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Solvent transfer - it's the only way to letter. Reverse your text (most copiers can do this), place the paper face down on you foam and use a solvent to transfer the lettering. I use Citrasolv. Most solvents will also eat away at the foam, so you can use it for aging. This is much easier than ironing.

Once I have the lettering applied, I use a hot wire foam engraver, which is much less messy than a dremel. It's also good for making cracks. Hot wire routers and sculpting tools are great too.
 

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It’s great to see all the options out there. I guess it says something that I’ve tried most of them in the last couple of years. Half the fun of making tombstones is trying out things to see what works for you. Don’t be afraid to try any of them that sound fun. Foam is very forgiving and the dark of Halloween night is your friend.

The things I’ve settled on…

1. Lettering: My favorite way of letting is using a projector to draw on the foam with markers. It allows for not only flexible font use, but ornamentation that comes from actual tombstones or designs online that we like.

If I didn’t have a projector, my second choice would be using carbon paper and a ballpoint pen to trace printed letters onto the pink insulating foam blocks, or the narrow blade in a wood burning kit for Styrofoam. (It's my foam of choice because it’s free from my local furniture store.) You trace the letters basically stabbing the blade into the foam as you go around the letters. This leaves a nice outline that you can use to carve the letters.

2. Carving: Hands down, the wood burner kit’s fine line bit. My letters might not actually look like perfectly chiseled carved stone if you’re right up on top of them, but even during the day they look carved enough to impress the neighbors and save me hours of time doing the other options of blade or dremal tool. It takes a bit of practice to find what heat setting melts the foam fast enough but not too fast that you lose control and mess up the lettering. But the learning curve isn’t too bad. (Picture 1 shows all three options… dremal, blade, and wood burner… in various stages of completion. Bet you can’t tell which is which.)

3. Painting: Drylock is great if you have a big budget. Most people posting on YouTube seem to have way larger budgets than our family. We buy up mismatched gallons of paint for around five bucks and encourage the salespeople to color them as grey or brown as they can go. We mix it into a slightly thinner version of monster mud and paint our tombstones a few coats to give it a bit of extra strength. Then we cover it with a couple of coats of that same cheap paint to lock out the moisture. After that, we have various techniques to make it look like stone and to age that stone. (Picture 2 shows a closer look at some finished stones.)
Lastly, we’re not above using premade tombstone items to advance an idea we have if it saves us time. We would never stick one of them out there as is from the store, but we have no qualms about letting someone else do the molding work for us on complex things. (Picture 3 shows a stone mixed up with hand-carved and purchased items melded together.)

Mostly, just have fun. They’re a blast to make and the whole family can get involved in one part of the other. And of all the decorations we put out, they are the most forgiving. Even broken and badly carved stones make their way out into the cemetery and everyone has a blast. Enjoy your first stones. They’re not going to be your last.

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This is a variation on the needle method: Print your design on the computer, tape it in place on the tombstone, and trace over it with a ballpoint pen. Use a medium heavy pressure, and you will dent the design into the smooth surface of the foam. (not too heavy or you will tear the paper.) Remove the paper and go over the dents with a fine-point Sharpie to refine the result, then cut out with whatever method you like best (X-acto, Dremel, whatever)
VERIFIED and AUTHORIZED

This is a very easy and simple method. Foam indents quite easily. If you print your design in gray, then use a blue ballpoint pen, it is very easy to make sure you've traced over everything and didn't forget a spot.

Also, try to leave the lettering raised, and carve away around the letters. This lets the letters project forward from the tombstone. Also, you can incorporate a raised border or wall along the edges of the stone's design. Once you've removed most of the foam around the lettering, use a barbecue grill brush or a strong steel scraping or paint removal brush, to very quickly rip away the rest of the foam surface to recess it.
 
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