Several weeks ago my great-aunt Kat had mentioned to my mom that she had always wanted a headstone for her mother’s grave and was never able to get one, whether due to monetary issues or distance from the cemetery itself. It was something that I had thought about a few times before, getting a headstone for my great-grandmother, so I started looking around. And I found that headstones are far, far more expensive than I thought they were. A basic small headstone was hundreds of dollars. That wasn’t going to do, so I started looking around again. Then my mom sent me a link to a website that tells how to make the stones. It looked easy enough, so we (my mom, my husband and I) started making the stones about three weeks ago. This past Sunday my mom and I drove up to Tennessee to set the stones. Aunt Kat got misty.
The following is the journey to make the headstones.
The website that my mom found was The Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project. Neal Du Shane of APCRP is so helpful. I am so grateful for him for being in contact with me and giving me tips and tricks along the way to make the stones successful.
Anyway, here’s how we made the stones.
Flat sticks, like 1 1/2” wood trim
Press-in letters (I ordered from Magnetic Poetry, as suggested by APCRP)
Very strong plywood boards
Garbage bags or other plastic
Quikrete Type S Mason (mortar) Mix 80lbs bag (make sure it’s MORTAR mix)
Water (about 5 liters)
Small hand cement tamper
Hand cement trowel
Small bucket of water
Cloth rag or paper towels
Vegetable oil cooking spray
Seal Krete Clear-Seal Gloss Concrete Sealer
Wrought iron accoutrements and nails, if so desired
Be sure to make just one stone at a time. Neal figured out that the time one has from when the mortar is mixed to work with it is roughly 30-45 minutes. He is not joking. It’s a short amount of time, so you have to work quickly, but efficiently. All supplies laid out and ready to go!
Building the Frames
Each stone was to measure 21”x16”. My husband Brett cut 2x4s into lengths so that the inside of the frames would measure correctly, then used long screws to put the frames together.
Setting the Letters
I started by taping paper together into 21”x16” rectangles. Then Brett cut the trim pieces of wood into lengths of 23” (which is the measurement of the outside of the frames). I then laid the ironwork on the paper in the place it would be on the stones and marked the stick. I then began setting the letters and marking them on the stick to get them as centered as possible.
Once the letters were set we were ready to begin making the stones. We started by setting a strong piece of plywood on a dolly to make it easier to move around. Plastic was laid on the plywood, followed by several layers of newspaper (it was figured that the newspaper might help absorb some of the moisture from the mortar). The frame was then placed on top of the newspaper. Letters and numbers were set out along with a written copy of the exact lettering (just in case I messed it up on the sticks!)
Preparing the Mortar
Brett poured the bag of mortar in the wheelbarrow. When he had the shovel ready I started pouring in water. I started with about 3 liters, then added until it was, as Neal said, the consistency of peanut butter (for the record, we had a discussion on whether or not Neal meant homemade peanut butter once the oil was poured off or popular name brand like Jiff or Skippy. We decided that it was probably in between, but more Skippy than homemade…so smooth, but not something that was sloshy and pourable). Brett put a lot of back work into it to get it mixed. Once it was mixed up he started shoveling the mix into the frame, while I spread it into the corners to make sure it was distributed evenly. Once it was all in Brett went to rinse the wheelbarrow and shovel while my mom tamped it all down to break all of the bubbles out and bring the “cream” (as Neal called it) to the top. We then smacked all around the outside of the frame with the rubber mallet to make sure the mortar got into the corners well and then Brett smoothed the top with the trowel, which brought more “cream” to the top. Once the top was perfectly smooth we were ready for the ironwork and the lettering. The mortar we used.
Placing the Decoration and Letters
Placing the ironwork was done by eyeballing. I then laid it in place and smooshed it down as far as I could into the mortar. I then used the mallet to lightly tap it in a little deeper. Nails were placed in spots to anchor in the ironwork. I then placed the stick across the frame in the correct spots and began using my marked guides to press in the letters. My mom sprayed each letter with the cooking spray to prevent the mortar from sticking. As each letter was removed from the mortar she would rinse it in the bucket of water and dry to prepare it for it’s next use. Me laying out the guide stick.
Curing the Mortar
When the ironwork and the lettering were in place it was time to let the mortar cure. Since the stones were on the plywood on the dolly we just had to roll the dolly to the drying location, then pick up the plywood and place it in a dry spot for a few days. After about 48 hours Brett unscrewed the frame and the stone was moved to set on it’s side leaning on the wall so that air could flow freely around it and finish curing it.
Sealing the Headstones
After a week of curing it was time to seal the headstones. We took them outside and began using a very hard rock to smooth the edges and corners of the stone. After they were dusted off I used a small roller brush to apply a very thin coat of sealer. I allowed it to dry for about an hour, then applied more. I made sure to get a lot of sealer around the ironwork (to prevent staining from rust) and I made sure to coat the inside of all of the lettering. Then I let the sealer cure in the sun for a while, moving it to a dry place (the garage) to finishing curing for a week. Sealer drying on the bottom of the stones.
Placing the Headstones
My mom and I drove the headstones up to Tennessee for placing. And the way the stones are placed all depends on the cemetery. Some want rebar and all to be used, some just want pea gravel. I was told pea gravel, but when we got there the Rust family said to place them in the spots and they would do the permanent placing with concrete for us.
And that’s how Kat’s family got their stones!
A few notes concerning the stones:
- I can’t actually tell you how much water we used, but it was more than 5 liters. When I measured out the 5 liters it left a lot of dry mortar. So I would start with that, but add more if needed.
- Neal said that he found an easier way to get the mortar in the corners and get the bubbles out (and bring the “cream” to the top): use bladeless saws on the sides to vibrate the frame!
- The “cream” actually leaves a very shiny coat to the top of the stone. The reason we used a sealer was because the cemetery required us to do it, but you don’t actually have to do it (unless you want to, I suppose).
- We actually did one stone, Porter’s, as a tester. And his came out very well. When we first did Katie’s stone I wasn’t happy with it at all, so we pried the ironwork off it and started over again.
- They are very heavy. One 80lb bag of mortar makes one headstone. So the headstones are 80lbs each.
The approximate cost to make five headstones (assuming you already have basic tools such as screws, mallet, trowel, nails, wheelbarrow, shovel, garbage bags, newspaper, cooking spray and rags):
- 2x4s = about $16
- 1 1/2” flat trim = about $6
- Press-in Letters = $12.95 plus shipping, so we will just say about $13
- Plywood boards = about $10
- 5 bags of Quikrete = about $30
- Sealer = a gallon can is about $24 and we used roughly 1/4 gallon, so about $6
- Accoutrements = Hobby Lobby has a large selection of wrought iron pieces for about $5 each, so about $25
- Total approximate cost to make five headstones is about $106. That may seem like a lot, but as you can see here one single basic granite marker has a starting cost of $147.
The five we made are not perfect. Letters are slightly wonky, some edges aren’t perfectly straight (from the smoothing process). But these stones will last for hundreds of years. And they were handmade with love. Each epitaph was carefully selected for the person on who’s stone they were placed.
I am really glad that we were able to do this. And knowing that my family is pleased makes it all the better.
Betty Rust (helps oversee the cemetery), JJ Rust (carried the stones from the car to the gravesites), Billy Rust (helps oversee the cemetery), my son in his stroller, my mom, my 2nd cousin Polly, my great-aunt Kat, Polly’s husband James.
MAY 4, 1895
DECEMBER 27, 1971
IN JESUS’ NAME,
(note: I asked Kat about her father’s middle name and it is Corbit. I thought it was Corbett since I had seen it spelled that way on certain records, but it is for certain Corbit. He went by CC or Corb, so CC seemed appropriate for his headstone. Henry CC Craft is my great-grandfather)
DEC. 18, 1897
NOV. 25, 1935
HER MEMORY IS
ENSHRINED IN OUR
(note: Katie Clady Cathey Craft is my great-grandmother)
MARCH 11, 1929
APRIL 27, 1941
SAY A PRAYER
(note: Jesse Porter Craft, known as Porter in the family, is my great-uncle)
DEC 12 1919
JAN 2 1949
BLESSED ARE THE
PURE IN HEART
(note: Louise Craft Harris is my great-aunt)
WRETHA JANE HARRIS
JAN. 26 1939
MAR. 7 1939
IN LOVING MEMORY
(note: Wretha Jane Harris is Louise’s daughter. She is my first cousin once removed)