Monday, October 26, 2009

Manufacturing the Chateau Papillon Graveyard, Part One: Casting Tombstones

Ever since childhood, I've enjoyed "do-it-yourself" Halloween decorations. I think it started with some old stereo equipment and "spooky sounds" LPs; I know I made a loop tape from a spooky thunderstorm track on said vinyl and set speakers up in the shrubbery outside my windows, piping out a bit of Halloween atmosphere to accompany the decorations. (I was probably around 7 years old at the time.)

Later displays included hand-painted light bulbs--making up for my allowance not covering fancy colored lights by adding "blood" to plain white incandescents--set up to illuminate a ghost constructed out of a rubber devil's head mask, a white sheet, and a strategically-placed box fan. My sisters got involved as well, and we even drafted some trusted neighbors to help out, with the apex of our work a display (including a too-lively scarecrow seated on the porch, played by my sister Erika if memory serves) terrified a group of the neighborhood kids, sending future reality TV star Ashley McNeeley and several others running screaming down the hill.

My wife Beth and I enjoy decorating even today as adults, and a few years ago put together quite a nice setup at our rental home in Vienna, Virginia, with the centerpiece a zombie we titled "Graveyard Man" built from a wire armature, structural foam, and two flicker-flame bulbs in night light sockets as "eyes" set behind a fantastic latex mask I picked up at Spenser's. The past two years, we haven't gotten to put our ghoulish talents to work; we simply didn't have time in 2007--particularly to rebuild Graveyard Man's hands after a rat got to them in our storage shed!--and in 2008, we were in a temporary apartment (itself a bit of horror, mind you) waiting out the purchase of our new home.

This year, though, despite some rather uncooperative weather, we've gotten back to work, and the centerpiece of the display is to be a graveyard next to the front porch. Whereas in the past we used cardboard boxes, duct tape, and some craft stone-textured spray paint to set up our tombstones, having a home of our own has inspired us to do more. This year, we're making our own concrete tombstones.

Initial steps building the tombstone mold: laying out the sides and kerfed top.The task isn't as hard as you might think, but nor is it as simple as it could be. I wanted to have several of the traditional arc-topped slab tombstones, and we wanted to have carved or etched lettering on them as well. The design would be fairly simple, and concrete isn't that hard to work with; you just need a suitable mold.

From all of our work on renovations and other improvements, we have plenty of scrap wood sitting around, and my table saw made short work of cutting some sides and bottom to make up the tombstone shape; the backing is one of the cheap particleboard shelves I pulled out of the pantry when redoing it with leftover plywood from the library. The trickiest part would be the curved top of the tombstone; no problem with the table saw, though, as I simply "kerfed" a strip of the same scrap plywood used for the sides and bottom.

The space left by the wood cut away by a saw blade is the "kerf," and the technique--commonly used to create curved pieces of wood--makes a series of cuts which almost but not quite go all the way through the wood (leaving a thin veneer atop the cut). As anyone who's made a balsa model knows, thin wood bends easily, and each cut will allow you to bend the piece slightly.

The tombstone mold filled with concrete.Assembling the mold was a bit tedious--primarily because I wanted to make it easy to disassemble and reassemble, as breaking concrete free of a mold can be a challenge. I secured the sides and bottom with as little hardware as possible, instead putting fixed braces along the edges in several places (look at the sides, above). The kerfed top I glued in place and braced at several points to keep the desired shape.

Beth lined the mold with wax paper to ease in breaking the concrete free once it set. In the meantime, I mixed up the concrete itself, combining a ready-mix blend with a shovel of clay-laden dirt from the yard to make the final product more natural in appearance (sculptors will often blend in all sorts of things to achieve artistic effects, such as hypertufa concrete). I used some scrap metal rods as reinforcement, placed into the concrete after filling the mold halfway; I need to track down the leftover wire I used for Graveyard Man's armatures for future castings, or else cut up one of the garden's tomato cages, perhaps.

After letting the concrete set for 15-20 minutes, I pressed in some wooden letters we picked up at Michael's (here, spelling out the traditional abbreviated Latin requiem)... then waited. A couple of hours later, I pulled the letters out, leaving their images behind in the quick-drying stone.

Unmolded tombstone.Fast-forward 24 hours; when I got home from work today, I carefully unmolded our tombstone by placing a slab of scrap plywood over the mold and then inverting both (the wax paper really helped--I barely had to wiggle the mold at all--and didn't have to remove any of the sides to free the set tombstone).

The concrete was still a little "green" despite being a quick-setting variety, so I handled it pretty carefully and set it aside to dry more before we try standing it up in our "graveyard." (We cast a bird bath from some concrete left over from setting posts for our compost bin--so I know the blend I made will firm up quite well despite the addition of dirt as the bird bath mix had dirt and even potting soil mixed in.)

But as you can see from the photo above, it's going to be quite a nice addition to our Halloween display! I cast another one by flashlight this evening (inscribing this one with a date and a stylized cross instead of "RIP"), and we also made a different tombstone shape (a trapezoid) which we plan to use. Only thing is the weight: even though the tombstone is only 2 inches thick and about 12" x 20" in dimensions, it weighs a good 30 pounds or more! Definitely a bit more of a pain to move about than those styrofoam ones sold at megamarts this time of year... but oh so much more realistic.

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