Nothing says “Halloween” like a jack-o’-lantern sitting by the front door. Picking the right pumpkin and having the right tools to carve one can make the job easier.
Here are some of the experts’ tips of the trade:
Choose your pumpkin wisely
“You want to have a stem, and you want it to be a healthy stem because that stem is still providing nutrients for the pumpkin,” says Chris Soria of the Maniac Pumpkin Carvers of New York City.
Don’t cut into your pumpkin around that perfect stem. Instead, access the pumpkin from its backside to help preserve freshness. Cutting out a stem cap weakens the jack-o’-lantern, says Marc Evan, also of the Maniac team. And hiding the opening in the back gives the pumpkin more visual punch.
“It’s aesthetically more pleasing seeing the glow from (only) the design, not creeping out from where we might have cut the hole at the top,” Evan says.
Preparing your pumpkin
Before carving a face, scrape and clean the inside of the pumpkin. The cleaner you get it, the longer it will last.
Pumpkin carving expert Alex Wer of The Pumpkin Geek (www.thepumpkingeek.com) has carved for celebrities such as Gene Simmons, Joe Mantegna and Jeri Ryan. Though he now only uses craft pumpkins, because they don’t deteriorate, he started out on regular pumpkins.
“One pumpkin carving tool that everyone should have is a scoop with a serrated edge, because the most important thing is to have the pumpkin completely scooped out. If it’s stringy it’ll be a mess,” Wer says. Pumpkin scoops often can be found in pre-packaged carving kits, and Pumpkin Masters makes a deluxe pumpkin scoop with a serrated edge that is sold individually.
“I always tell people, ‘Gut it out twice as much as you think you need to,’ ” Wer says. “It should be very dry inside.”
Folks, there are two kinds of pumpkin carve: the lighted jack-o’-lantern face and the three-dimensional sculpture, in which a pumpkin is treated like a block of wood – only stinky and less permanent. The tools are the same, but they’re used in different ways.
Wer carves up to five layers in his faux pumpkins to get a mix of light and shadow for a photorealistic quality.
Learn this skill, called shading, by scraping part of your design into the gourd. For detailed facial designs, Wer likes to use “a clay loop, the sculpting tool, that you can get at a craft store,” to shave away the pumpkin to create his layered carves. “Most of my carves are four or five layers, including the areas that you completely cut through, a few graded layers of shading, and the dark parts that I don’t cut at all,” he says.
“It just creates this new layer and this multi-level depth,” says Wer.
Need more help? Visit pumpkin-carving tutorials, such as those posted by The Pumpkin Lady, on YouTube.
More about tools
The Maniac team favors tools from the kitchen or garage, primarily paring knives, graters and saws. They tout linoleum cutters and sculpting tools.
Linoleum cutters have several gouge tips. Evan likes the V-gouge for making precise cuts, whether shallow or deep. Ceramists’ sculpting tools are metal loops on a stick – in various shapes and sizes – that can be purchased at art supply and craft stores. They slice smoothly through pumpkin rind.
Those cheap pumpkin-carving kits? All four of our expert carvers love them.
The Maniac team uses the orange plastic scoop to clean out hundreds of pumpkins – fast. Scott Cummins, a Perryton, Texas, middle-school art teacher, uses the scoop too, and praises the kit’s flimsy, serrated blade.
“Don’t underestimate that little saw,” Cummins says. “Sometimes there is a need to cut slowly and deliberately, and that is when the little saw is indispensable.”
Making intricate designs on a pumpkin requires a small, sharp tool that’s both sturdy and flexible. To create zigzag patterns or squiggly shapes, try a keyhole saw. It has a pointed tip that will easily pierce a pumpkin’s thick shell and is thin enough to create small details.
Common kitchen tools can also be used to create pumpkin carvings. For example, OXO’s melon baller has two different sized heads, which can be used to help scrape out the pumpkin pulp on the inside or to create a polka dot design on the outside. An apple corer can punch round holes through the skin of a pumpkin, and a lemon zester can help execute unique designs.
Wer notes that fancy tools don’t necessarily produce the best designs. “Even the most detailed carvers still use very basic tools – it’s just a question of technique.”
Once a pumpkin is carved, it begins to deteriorate.
“You will certainly notice a difference in 24 hours,” says Cummins in his online tutorial.
Says Evan: “You can’t preserve a pumpkin. We recommend ‘delay’ tactics.”
• When a jack-o’-lantern is not on display, Wer says, give it a bath. He has had as many as eight pumpkins bobbing overnight in his bathtub.
• Preserve cut edges with a lemon juice-water mixture, says the Maniac team, then seal them with vegetable oil or petroleum jelly. Store your carving in the refrigerator or wrap it in plastic wrap and store in a cool place.
• And quick, take a photo. It’s the “best and most essential way to preserve your creation,” says Cummins.
Contributing: Associated Press and McClatchy-Tribune