Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Styrofoam Headstones

J here.

When it comes to that front- and/or graveyard staple, the foam headstone, there are some tricks to making it a little easier on you. Do some looking around online or take a trip to a graveyard for some inspiration about general sizes, shapes, and what you want written on it. Pick something that blends well with your other decorations, or shapes you are reasonably confident you can pull off. And hey, if it all goes horribly wrong, you can always snap it off and paint up a broken one.

Our example headstone starts as a classic roundtop stone, cut to size with a boxcutter or breakaway bladed knife (if you love to make a mess, use a bread knife!). We only have access to the beaded foam in the desert, but the blue or pink stuff you can buy in proper climates is easier to work with. One 1" thick sheet is enough for a lot of stones if you are careful and plan ahead (1' x 2' stones are good to fill in around trees and stuff, and you could get 16 out of a sheet!) You can score the lines you want and then break the foam, no need to cut all the way through.

Lay out your text with a permanent marker and adjust away. If I'm not a fan of where it's heading, I can flip it over and start with a fresh side or just draw over it with a different color marker. This can be painstaking work with Photoshop and transfer paper, or the ol' eyeball and marker method. All of the signs on here this year are eyeballed. It's not as "professional", but helps with some spookyness and irregularity.

The next step is to "carve" your stone along those marker lines. I have a Foamworks hot cutter and scribing tool, but we didn't use them for this. We used a $10 soldering iron to etch all of the marker lines and fill in the font. We also used a light touch to scribe some cracks and the barrel of the tool to smooth the edges. It helps smooth and "seal" the beaded foam against flaking out little pellets later. A's foam had a hole punched in it from before we started and she added some new ones as she went to keep up the feeling. "There aren't mistakes, just possible inspirations." -Hallmark

Quick note: DO THIS OUTSIDE. The gas released when melting foam is bad for everyone. At the very least, you are headed for a massive headache, at worst there can be some respiratory damage.

Note the cracks and gouges, Sharpie guidelines, and lack of concern for impending death.

Base your stone thoroughly with acrylic or latex paint. Latex housepaint is better about water, so go ahead and get a quart or two of paint mixed up in a black or charcoal and another in a medium gray. (I scout the mis-mixed paint at home stores for great deals on base colors.) You could use acrylic craft paint straight out of the tube if it's a mostly indoors thing or will only be outside one night. Spray paint is perfect if you want to melt it into a sticky puddle of plastic goo. Seriously, the solvent eats this stuff alive. We can dedicate a future post to why that could be a good thing but for now, avoid spraypaint.

While that one is drying, base all of your other stones (You are doing more than one, right? This stuff is always easier in multiples) or do what I do and catch up on tv shows on Netflix. Once dried, it's time to drybrush. Drybrushing is magic, and makes cheap things look nice. Crack open ye olde medium gray paint and dip your dry paintbrush into it. The brush should start out dry and pretty much stay that way throughout. Scrape a lot of the paint off onto the edge of the can, cup, or cupped hands of your assistant. Wipe most of what's left onto a paper towel or the leg of your jeans until the brush is only highlighting the wrinkles of your towel/jeans. That's dry enough for this technique.

Wipe the brush over the surface. It should highlight the edges and texture of the foam. You should still see the base color underneath. If you get a solid stripe of unbroken color, re-read the previous paragraph and understand what you have done wrong. Otherwise, keep rubbing that light coat of paint over the decoration and highlight the crap out of it. Once you can barely see what you are doing, re-wet your brush and wipe it all off again. If you get too much paint on there and obscure the dark undercoat, blot or wipe it off with a clean corner of your paper towel.

The cracks stay dark, the surface is light, and the pebbled texture works with you, for once.
That paint can lid is the drybrush color: It brightens as you do more layers.

If you want more texture, grab a lighter color and do another pass or two of drybrushing, making sure to focus on raised areas, edges, and anything that needs highlighting. As before, make sure you can still see the colors underneath from earlier. Go until you love it or can't stand to wipe paint off onto towels any longer. Blotchiness and weird variations are fine because this is a graveyard headstone that will, in all honestly, really only be looked at for a few seconds in the dark. Hope that helps.

The final step for me is to weather the stone a bit. Maybe a black wash of very thing black paint to punch up the crack and blend the layers together or a thinned green stippled onto the lower surfaces for mold or discoloration. I splashed mine on and crumpled up my drybrush towel and blotted a lot of it off randomly. Do that until you like it.

The easiest way to display these is to come down a mountainside with two of them and tell folks about how they are doing it wrong. Or lean them against something. If you want them to stand up on their own, fire up the soldering iron again and plunge two holes up from the bottom and mount them on dowels sunk into your yard. For indoor display, a wide foamcore or wooden base with 16 penny nails poking up from the bottom should do the trick.

Make a bunch for your yard or just one for a hated enemy so they know you are prepared to deliver justice. Send us some pictures of your projects and share any tips you discover as you solder your way to a personalized graveyard.

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