Friday, October 21, 2011

Who put that graveyard there?


For the last couple weeks, I've been working on a project. I wanted to make some tombstones for the yard for Hallowe'en, so I watched a bunch of tutorials online, read a bunch more, came up with my plan and executed it.

For durability and weight, I decided to use treated plywood (1 3/8-inch, 4x8-feet panel), glued to the back of styrofoam panel insulation (half-inch, precut 18-inch x 4-feet pieces). I figured I could get a dozen 16x24-inch tombstones out of that. I bought my materials at Menard's and Home Depot, and overall spent around $60.
Cut slabs of plywood
Once all my plywood was cut into manageable pieces, I sketched on cutlines for fancier tops, which I used a jigsaw to cut.

At my husband's suggestion, I used a belt sander to clean up the edges of the cut pieces, which also made them more comfortable to handle. I then used the cut pieces of plywood as my template for the cutlines on the styrofoam... and that's when I hit my first snag. The styrofoam pieces were not 16-inches wide as I assumed they were, but 14.5-inches - this was MY fault, the package they came in did state that, but that meant 3/4-inch needed to be trimmed from both sides of each plywood pieces. My husband did that in about 5 minutes with his table saw, and I was off and running again. Styrofoam was cut using a snap-blade utility knife.

I had bought 3M's foam adhesive, and used that to spray on both pieces, sticking them together and stacking them on the floor, with heavy buckets on top to keep the pressure on to help with adhering.

In the morning, I hit my second snag: some of the pieces were NOT sticking together. I think this is probably my fault, but the spray glue did etch into the foam pretty badly, removing some of the surface area for the wood to stick to. I ran and got some Loctite foam glue and used that to reglue the pieces.

From this point, I was ready to get my lettering started. I'd seen an awesome tutorial using extruded foam (the pink or blue stuff, not the beady white stuff I used), an iron and photocopies for toner transfers. I got my epitaphs made, printed them out reversed, made the photocopies and made a test run on scrap.

The styrofoam melted quite a bit, and the paper stuck to the foam pretty badly. I tried using less heat, less pressure, and that resulted in a transfer that was too hard to see. I played with some other ideas, tracing the lettering with a Sharpie (letting the ink bleed through the paper onto the foam), tracing with a pencil (too hard to read), tracing with a woodburning "pen" (lettering blurry on the surface), using a pin to "trace" the letters (OMG, that would have taken me years to finish)... and finally decided to freehand the letters.

Heat transfer, melted styrofoam
Sharpie through paper, partially re-traced;  pin-hole transfer, traced with pen
I wrote them in pencil on the styrofoam, then traced my pencil marks with a soldering iron (instead of the woodburning tool; the soldering iron had a pointed tip, the woodburner was chiseled, got cleaner lines with the soldering iron). I did this on my screened sunporch with the doors open and the fan on, so I wasn't inhaling melted plastic fumes.

Once I was finished with that, I sprayed into the letters with black spray paint, knowing that it would eat into the foam (making the surface look "rockier"). Alas, I got carried away, and some of my pieces got eaten TOO much, and I still had to go back and do the lettering with thinned acrylic paints...

bottom: painted lettering using thinned acrylic (craft-grade) paints; top is not yet painted

here's one of the ones that got eaten by the spray paint pretty badly, even once I added the black acrylic to bring out the lettering, some were just too damaged to be legible

Once my acrylic lettering was done, I used exterior latex house paint (that we already had on hand) and a roller to apply the grey paint that would (hopefully) look like stone, more or less, AND protect the surface, front and back.

before house paint 
after house paint
Some of my lettering had to be touched up after the latex paint was done, but it wasn't much work for that, and most of them didn't need any touching up at all.

Now I was ready to "age" them, using green and brown acrylic paint to give the look of moss and lichen growth. This was a pretty random process, and I tried not to overthink it, make it too uniform or symmetrical.

Success! Pleased with my aging process, I let them dry overnight, and then put the brackets on that would hold them to the posts in the ground.

brackets are made from steel hanger strap, cut with tin snips and bent by hand (using the post as a guide)
the post was used to help me align the brackets; everything was eyeballed, I didn't measure anything here
With my brackets in place, I was ready to turn my front yard into a cemetery!


1.  Never assume anything. I assumed the foam sheets were 16" wide, because the package said it covered an area 4x8 feet - the same as my plywood. Smaller print said that the pieces were actually 14.5" wide. This was annoying, but trimming the plywood fixed it.

2. Anything in an aerosol can is going to eat styrofoam. Even glue intended for that purpose. The Loctite glue (applied with a caulking gun) took longer to use, but didn't eat into my styrofoam.

3. Simpler may be better. I would have gotten really awesome lettering, with lots of different fonts, had the heat transfer technique worked. In the end, freehanding worked better for me, and I just used my printed sheets as a kind of guide for the lettering I drew on. Fancy lettering would have taken a lot longer to trace with the soldering iron, too, and longer to paint later.

4. DRAG the soldering iron, don't PULL it through the styrofoam. Pulling it was too fast, and it tended to snag in the little balls in the styrofoam, pulling my lines crooked. Dragging it was slower, and my lines were straighter. Also, make sure those lines are deep!

5. Spray paint simply did not do what I wanted it to do. I ended up repainting all the lettering anyway, so I could have skipped that entirely, or maybe do a LIGHT surface spray, just to roughen up the smooth flat front a little bit. (This is probably operator error as much as anything.)

6. It's going to take longer than you think. For some lunatic reason, I though I could get all 12 tombstones made in a week's time, max: the weekend to cut and glue, and maybe a couple days to paint and done. Maybe if I didn't also have a family to care for, I could have... but even if it was just me, and I didn't eat, I don't think I could have gotten this done in 5 days.

I hope this has been informative. There are so many tutorials online for these, so many really talented people... they inspired me to try this but put my own spin on it. I think my decision to marry plywood and styrofoam was a good one; I have some weight so they won't blow away or be easily damaged, and the soldering iron carved my letters into the foam beautifully. All in all, this was a great project. I learned a lot, and even with some bumps along the way, they turned out great. I'm really pleased with them.

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