Welcome to the first installment of the Halloween 2018 Haunted Trail of Tears Project Posts. For those of you not familiar with my “addiction” as my wife refers to it, we host an annual Halloween cookout. One of the main elements of that cookout is a haunted trail we set up in through our woods. It is quite the event and has grown to epic proportions over the years. My friend in haunt Paul and I tend to go overboard on our favorite holiday. You might get the impression this is something that is thrown together in a week or so near Halloween. Truth is, this is a 364 day a year activity. Paul and I are constantly working on new decorations for the trail throughout the year. The day of the cookout is simply the time when all our friends get to see what we have been squirreled away in our labs building all year. During the next couple of months I am hoping to go through some of my new builds for the trail. Keeping with tradition, I will also be posting about the overall haunted trail so you get a better feel for just how labor intensive this is. One of my projects this year was to improve our grave yard with some new headstones.
How scary is that! Pretty happy with how my stones turned out this year and figured I’d walk you through all the steps it takes to get one err.. three of these babies ready for the trail. From a materials perspective, the base of the stones are made out of 2″ foam insulation. A 4×8 sheet of that stuff is ridiculously expensive for what it is (~$22/sheet depending on the quality you get). Look for sales and the 11% off at Menards events to bring that price point down a bit. You should be able to get a number of good sized tombstones out of a single sheet. One sheet yielded 5 for me – one from last year – link here three intricate stones and then the second from the left is just an extra from the remaining piece (if you look close you can tell is was left over from cutting out the cross).
Hit the jump to see how this year’s stones were made!
There are a multitude of foam cutters on the market usually built with a piece of wire tied to a battery. I have a couple of different types, but they are a bit cumbersome when the piece is wide. Big thanks to my other friend in haunt Brad who put me on to a much better, albeit a slightly more expensive way, to quickly cut the outline of the stone out of the foam. With new idea in hand, went to Menards and found two suitable tools to use. The item on the left is an actual foam insulation cutter/saw and has very sharp edges along all three sides along with the serrated edge. The other is a hacksaw blade and holder which looked like it would do the trick. Along with these two cutters, picked up a nice blow torch with button igniter and a can of propane – see where I’m going with this!?!
You got it, heat the blade up with the torch and start moving it through the foam. Ended up using the insulator cutter on the left the most. That thicker blade held the heat longer and didn’t bend as much as the hacksaw blade. This made quick work of the outline – especially nice for the long straight cuts. Be sure and pull the knife out of the foam before it cools down too much or it will get stuck in the middle. You will get goo on the blade between cuts but that will burn off on the next reheat. Oh, and do it outside with a respirator on. The gasses that are produced are NOT good for you.
With the stones outlined, detoured a bit and went to work on a centerpiece for one of the stones. I wanted to put a skull in middle of one, but wanted it to blend in and have a similar stone feel to it. Decided to try the Alja-Safe that was used to model last year’s hands (link here). The box alluded to it having a short shelf life. It was over a year old now and didn’t have much optimism it would work.
Whipped up a batch, poured it into a small bucket and dropped in a plastic skull prop purchased last year after Halloween (the best time to buy new props!). It seemed to set up just fine. Very thankful remembered to put a screw in the top to help free it from the suction.
This left a really nice looking mold – this might work after all.
Since it needed to blend into the other foam, decided to try the Great Stuff can foam on it. Sprayed the inside with a release agent (Easy Release 200), sprayed in some hot water and then filled up inside of the mold with a healthy amount of foam. Before the foam dried, a 3/4″ pvc pipe was stuck in the back of the head in order to get it out of the mold easier and provide a mount point on the tombstone. A few hours later, pulled out this to my complete amazement.
Totally pleased with the results, went about making a couple more with a few variations. You can see the PVC pipe in this shot – simply used both ends for the molds. The extra foam form the lip of the bucket was shaved off of the top one, however, opted to go with one that had the extra foam around the lip – you will see why in a few more shots. As a reminder, do not forget to hit the Great Stuff foam with hot water immediately after spraying it in the mold – this will help accelerate the curing.
Okay, with that done, was able to get back to the stones themselves. With a sharpie, ruler and a pen tied to a string, went about adding detail to the bases. The places in marker represented areas I wanted to remove material from in order to give it more structural detail.
With my trusty micro cordless Dremel, went about painstakingly carving out the marked up areas. This will take a very long time and is very delicate work. If you do not keep tight control on your Dremel it will catch a piece of foam and start tearing into unintended areas – worse it can easily draw blood if you are not careful. Pretty use to this work from all the foam pumpkin carving over the years – if something new to you BE CAREFUL. Take your time and keep your other hand away from the cutting area. Halloween is only fun if there is fake blood. You can see the results of the etching below. Try your best to keep the same depth across large areas. Mark the depth on your bit with some blue tape if you are not comfortable free handing it.
With the structural enhancements out of the way, the next step was to add the lettering. Big thanks to all the ideas on Pinterest for clever names. Went with two clever names and one with Dracula’s actual name for this year’s stones. I also added some meaningful dates (they might be a bit obscure trying to figure them out, but they all have a historical purpose). All the lettering is printed out on 8.5×11″ paper and then the letters cut out with an Exacto knife. Once cut, the sheets are then moved to the stones and the letters outlined. Helpful reminder, remember to keep the middle portions of the letters, you will need to outline them after the outline of the letters are done.
Next step is to go around each line with the Dremel using a cone shaped cutter. This gives the familiar angled cut you see in real stones. There will be extra material left in the middle of the letters depending on how thick the letters happen to be at any given point – now worries, just focus on the outline.
after that is done, put the flat bottomed cutter back in the Dremel and carefully eliminate any unwanted material from the middle of the letters. Be careful, you have come too far to mess up something now. This part probably takes the longest due to having to make sure it doesn’t mess up the sides of the lettering and keeping the depth of the cut even with the bottom of the letter outline. Ooops, forgot to mention how messy this is. I keep a shop vac going next to the cutting surface to catch as much as possible. It also allows me to see what I am cutting. If you are curious, I also use the respirator for this part. Not an issue with the gasses in this phase, just the small foam pieces and dust I’d prefer to keep out of my lungs.
Still with me? This is definitely not a quick process, but the results are worth it. Now that the lettering is done, time to start distressing it. Brad always gives me grief about not messing them up enough. It is hard to start destroying something you have spent so much time with to that point – he is right, these tombstones still end up being too nice for a supposedly old graveyard. Someday I’ll really lay into them. For this set, I used the side of a pocket knife and ran it aggressively against all the edges. This gouges the edges and removes a nice amount of material giving it that left in the elements look. From there, I took that same pocket knife inserted it in the foam about 1/2″ deep and proceeded to wiggle it back and forth while dragging it down the face of the stones. Don’t fear going through the letters or structural decorations (it will twinge a bit, but you will get over it fast enough).
The hard work is done now. Hopefully everything is still in one piece and the lettering is readable. One issue with the foam sheets is it come pre-scored for easy snapping to size for what it was actually intended to be used for. These cuts will weaken your tombstones and depending how close to the edge, it can downright ruin the entire project. To address this issue, simply take foam board glue and fill in those tiny scores – that is the shiny parts in the shot below. Forgot to take picture of an important feature. Using a spade bit, I cut 2 4″ long holes on the bottom of each stone. In that hole, I glued in 3/4″ PVC pipes to use as ground stake holders. If you look really close you will see a small piece just barely sticking out of bottom. I also added in the new foam skeleton shown earlier in the post – you can see the foam ring this one had from the lip of the bucket.
Okay, now the fun begins – turning the foam into stone. Ended up buying an air sprayer from Harbor Freight. The price was decent, but ended up having to go to Lowes and buy a metric open ended wrench to get the inner rod removed for cleaning – even went back to the Harbor Freight and asked them how I was supposed to get that thing off. After a number of employees looked at it, they all decided I was screwed and the product was defective – took matters into my own hands and resolved it myself, but still torques me off – damn Chinese knockoffs. With the air sprayer working now, thinned out some black acrylic paint and hit all the places that were cut out. In the future I will go ahead and paint the entire stone black.
… and the other stone.
Okay, next up is the outer shell painting. For this I use DryLok. This stuff provides both a water resistant layer and gives it the stone texture thanks to the grit that is already in the paint. Easiest way to do this is to simply get one of the mini-paint rollers and put a solid foam roller on it. Don’t put too much DryLok on the roller or it will ruin the black in your cutouts. Slowly move the roller on all of the faces of the tombstone. Those cutouts will immediately pop. You also get a nice weathered look as the black will show through lighter patches. Let that first coat dry and then apply a few more. Each of these tombstones ended up getting 4 coats of DryLok before they were up to my standards.
.. and the next…
… and the next…
Here they are after the fourth and final coats – note, the black will still show through in spots and that is perfectly okay, in fact desired since that gives it a better weathered look (not to Brad’s standards of course).
… and the next…
… and the next…
Okay, now the final steps. For one of my tombstones, I wanted to embellish with skulls – the foam one created earlier and then two additional ones on the outside edges. The small skulls were attached by sticking a rod down into the base of the plastic skull and then putting the other end in a drilled hole in the stone. The new Great Stuff skull was painted with textured stone spray paint. That turned out way better than expected. Ran a few LEDs from the backside of the skull and down into the supporting PVC added to the back of the head (now you know why I did that). That pipe simply extended through to the back of the tombstone where I placed an end cap that locked it into place. Had the eye wires coming out the end of the cap and then connected it to a battery supply.
Sweeeet! Those eyes were so bright it messed up the camera sensors – here it is from the side.
All that was left was to proudly display them out on the trail.
Brad gets credit for staging this next scene although I did add the bone in the little dog’s mouth.
Extremely happy how these turned out. Took more time that originally intended, but then again, most of my Halloween projects do. All worth it in the end.
Hope you enjoyed the tombstone project walkthrough. Maybe even inspired you to head over to the closest hardware store and get started on your own stones for next year. Before going, I need to give a shout out to all the tombstone examples and tutorials that have been put up on Pinterest. A lot of these techniques came from those individuals willing to share their craft and for that I am greatly appreciative.
Haunt on everyone!