SELECTING & CARVING THE PERFECT PUMPKIN
- By Jenna Maxwell
Many communities have special pumpkin patches or pumpkin farms set up in the fall for the express purpose of pumpkin shopping. You are going to find a great selection at one of these locales and may also have great autumn time fun while doing it. Many of these pumpkin patches have small petting zoos, kiddie rides, hayrides and other such activities so not only can you make your pumpkin selections, but you can also have some good family fun while you are at it. There are certain varieties of pumpkins that are best suited for carving, and generally speaking these are readily available during the month of October.
Whether you are heading to your local pumpkin patch or to your local grocer to buy your Halloween pumpkin, here are a few tips to help you make just the right choice.
Consider what type of display you are going to make with your pumpkins. Are you going to use several different pumpkins, or are you going to have just one pumpkin standing alone? If you are using several pumpkins in a row, try using different sizes and shapes for variety. If you have an idea what type of faces you may be interested in carving, you may also wish to take the shape of the pumpkin into consideration. Very elaborate designs are going to be challenging if your pumpkin is too small, so think ahead about your game plan. When assessing the actual pumpkins, make sure each one will stand on end without toppling over. You also want to assess the outer flesh of the pumpkin for any flaws that may interfere with your design. If the pumpkin has any bruises, soft spots or cracks, don’t buy it. Make sure the stem is intact as well as this will later serve as an important design feature. Don’t be tempted to carve your pumpkins too early. Once carved, pumpkins deteriorate very rapidly so this usually is a great activity to do just a day or two before Halloween. If you live in a place prone to freezing weather, you should consider bringing your pumpkins inside on very cold nights.
Pumpkin Carving Tips
If you don’t already have a specific design idea in mind for your pumpkin, taking a look at the size and shape of it can give you some clues as to what you might like to try. Specific flaws in the pumpkin or variations in the shape of it can actually be incorporated into your design and will make your jack-o-lantern very unique. Envision what type of a look you want your pumpkin to portray. Do you want it to be frightful and ghoulish, or silly and goofy? If you feel confident, you can free hand your design directly onto your pumpkin. Use a pencil to do this or a water-based marker that you can easily wipe off with a paper towel. It’s not a bad idea to sketch your design out on paper first to see how it appeals to you; necessary changes can be made then if needed. Looking for a carving design that is really elaborate? Your jack-o-lantern will get many ooo’s and ahh’s from trick or treaters by using some pretty amazing designs that are actually surprisingly easy to create with the right stencils and tools. There are many really cool kits that are readily available that will allow you to obtain fantastic results fairly easily. You can also look online for Halloween clipart that may give you some great inspiration for Jack-o-Lantern pattern ideas.
Cut Out the Top (or Bottom)
Cutting out the bottom isn’t necessarily the most traditional way to carve, but it serves a couple of useful purposes. First, your stem and top will remain intact so you wont have to fiddle around with it to get it back on after you are finished carving. Secondly, once the bottom is out, it’s very easy to just pop your finished jack o lantern on top of a lit votive candle for easy lighting. When cutting out the top or the bottom of your pumpkin make sure you cut the circle (or hexagon if you prefer) big enough so that you will be able to easily remove the guts of the pumpkin. Angle your carving tool or knife when cutting out the lid so that the outside edge is a bit larger than the inside. This will keep your lid from falling inside! (Something else you don’t have to worry about if you remove the bottom.) You can use a knife to do this carving but a much safer alternative is to use a pumpkin saw. (Tip: if you are using a knife, don’t remove the blade all the way out of the pumpkin, keep it inside with a gentle, steady sawing motion.) Once you’ve completely cut off the lid or the bottom of your pumpkin, gently remove that piece. Smell the fresh pumpkin aroma! You will need to use a pumpkin scraper or other suitable tool to gently remove any seeds and pulp that are adhering to the lid.
Scrape Out the Inside
Call in the troops folks, ‘cause this part is going to get a little bit messy. Lay out some newspaper or something to collect any mess. Collect the bulk of the pulp and the seeds and remove it completely. After all the slimy stuff is out, you are going to want to scrape the inside of the pumpkin to remove all the stray strands of pulp, etc. plus the thinner the pumpkin wall ends up being, the easier your pumpkin will be to carve. Don’t be overly aggressive as you don’t want anything caving in on you, but having a wall of about 1-1 ½” thick is going to be the easiest for carving purposes.
If you removed the top, you will want to flatten out a small part at the base of the pumpkin, which will eventually be a pedestal for a candle. Don’t make this too thin, either or your pumpkin may prematurely rot.
Transfer The Design
Make sure the outside of your pumpkin is clean and dry after all the pulp is removed. Take a final look and decide which side is going to be the front and then you can begin to transfer your design onto it. Free handing the design is easiest to do with a water-based marker because mistakes can be done over with a simple wipe of a damp paper towel. If you are using a stencil or template, you can tape the design right onto the pumpkin and score the design into the pumpkin by poking holes into the flesh through the pattern with a nail, or with a special poker tool that is found in most pumpkin carving kits.
The easiest thing to do is to start at the center of your design and work outwards so you aren’t putting too much pressure on previously carved (as well as fragile) areas of your design. Begin with the innermost and most intricate parts of your design first. Eyes before eyebrows, etc. and try to cut the inside lines of each feature before you carve the outside lines of it. Be very gentle and if you are using a knife, use a small sawing motion and don’t remove the knife completely between each cut. Don’t cut all the way to the end of a line on the first cut. As each shape begins to gradually loosen up, carefully push it out of the pumpkin with a finger or a dull pencil point. Larger shapes, such as a gapped-tooth grin may have to be removed in sections. If you make a big mistake, there is always the old tried and true pumpkin surgical technique. Use a toothpick to put the accidentally removed piece back into its proper place.
Experiment with Shading
Dramatic effects can be yours by letting candlelight through your pumpkin with varying intensities. For a cool effect, don’t cut all the way through a section of your pumpkin but instead make an angled (or V-shaped) cut 1/8 to ½ inch depending on the thickness of your pumpkin wall. Peel away the outer flesh with a knife tip, spoon or vegetable peeler. You can also use deep, angled cuts to remove larger pieces so that light reflects off the walls of the hole.
Test Drive Your Pumpkin
Drum roll, please. Place a votive candle inside your pumpkin, making sure it is sitting on something very stable. Turn out the lights. Hopefully your candle stays lit. If it doesn’t you will need to increase the air supply to the candle by adding a few more holes to your jack o lantern, or enlarging some of it’s features. You can also add a vent on the back of the lid if necessary. Put Jack in a place of honor—away from all flammables, please and remember to blow out the candle before you go to sleep.
More Carving Tips:
- Cut the top and any large areas with a sharp knife. A dull knife is never a safe knife.
- Serrated metal saws and other safer pumpkin carving tools are made for the job and are widely available. Consider using them.
- Carve away from yourself and make sure your kids’ curious eyes are not too close. Young children should only carve under adult supervision.
- Never hold the knife in a stabbing position.
- When carving, keep a portion of the knife blade in the pumpkin and use slow, steady saw strokes.
- Use an X-Acto knife for details and the top of a potato peeler to make small circles and curves.
- Consider letting very small children paint their pumpkins with tempera paints, or perhaps even decorating them with stickers or markers.
Keeping Your Pumpkin Fresh
You’ve worked hard on your Jack-o-Lantern and of course you are going to want it to last as long as possible. Unfortunately, as soon as Jack was created (cut), he began to deteriorate. There are a couple of things you can do to help your Jack-o-Lantern last longer. There are commercially available anti-browning solutions that are made specifically for fruits and vegetables. You can pick this up at your local supermarket, or you can try our recipe for a homemade version that is quick and easy to make!
- 2 T. Vinegar
- 1 t. lemon juice
- 1 qt. water
Mix these ingredients together in a bowl. Brush the mixture over the carved surfaces of your pumpkin, which will help your special Jack-o-Lantern last a bit longer!