Nothing says it's Halloween like a carved pumpkin glowing in the dark. Whether you're a novice pumpkin-carver or a seasoned pro, here are some tips, tricks, and ideas to spark your creativity and ensure a gorgeous creation, while making sure you don't hurt yourself in the process.
Choosing a Pumpkin
Before you create your pumpkin masterpiece, you'll want to put some thought into the size and shape you'll want to work with. Tall and thin or short and stout, big or small, perfectly round or lumpy and unusual - there are all kinds of pumpkins!
No matter the size or shape, look for a solid pumpkin that is free of bruises, blemishes, or soft spots. Make sure that it will stand up straight at the angle you want to display it. Wobbly jack o' lanterns with candles inside can be a fire hazard. Avoid carrying it by the stem, as the stem could break and your pumpkin will bruise or crack in a fall.
Tools of the Trade
Before the carving begins, gather your supplies and make sure your work space is clean and free of clutter. Wipe down the outside of the pumpkin with a damp cloth before cutting into it.
Basic supplies include several sheets of newspaper, a long sharp knife, a damp cloth, a bowl or bucket to put the seeds in, a large metal spoon or pumpkin scraper, a pencil or marker to trace or draw with (or a pumpkin pattern and masking tape), a small knife for detail, and something to hold the pumpkin scraps in.
If you're creating your own design, you can draw it freehand right on the pumpkin and cut it out. You can also buy or download pumpkin patterns that will give your finished product a professional look. Many department and hardware stores carry pumpkin carving kits that include patterns and tools to create gorgeous jack o' lanterns, or do an online search for "pumpkin carving patterns" for hundreds of free patterns that you can download and print at home.
If you choose to use a pattern, you'll also need a small tool to poke holes through the pattern and into the pumpkin. An ice pick or a nail will work well for this task.
Preparing the Pumpkin
To keep your work area clean, carve your pumpkin over several layers of newspaper or use a plastic tablecloth. Using a large sharp knife, cut out the top of the pumpkin, angling the knife towards the center to create an angled cut that will support the lid when you replace it on top. Remove lid and cut off any seeds or membranes that are attached to it. Make a small cut out in the lid to allow smoke from the candle to escape.
Using a large spoon, ice cream scoop, or pumpkin scraper, scrape down the inside walls of the pumpkin. Remove seeds and membranes, and set the seeds aside for roasting if desired. Make sure the inside of the pumpkin is scraped clean. To make carving easier, you can also scrape away some of the pumpkin "meat" on the side where you will be cutting out your design. Do not make this side less than half an inch thick, however, or the heat from the candle flame could warp your finished design.
Draw your face or design on the pumpkin, or line up and fasten your pattern using masking tape. It helps to trim the pattern a bit to keep it flat against the pumpkin.
Carving Your Pumpkin
If using a pattern, use the poking tool (kits will come with these, or use a nail or ice pick) to poke small holes into the pumpkin about one-eighth of an inch apart along the cut lines in the pattern. Once you've poked the holes, remove the tape and pattern.
Using a small knife or mini saw, cut very carefully along your drawn lines, or along the holes you poked through the pattern. Cut from the center of the design outwards, removing the knife and reinserting it at corners. Remove and discard cut out pieces as you work.
When all pieces have been cut and removed, go over your design with the knife and clean up any jagged edges or corners that don't look clean.
Pumpkins shouldn't be carved too far in advance of when they will be displayed; they are a vegetable, and will rot if opened and left out. To help keep your cuts looking fresh for a couple of days, dip a cotton ball in some lemon juice and rub it over the cuts. You can also rub the cuts with Vaseline to preserve a fresh look.
Place a tea light or votive candle inside your pumpkin, unlit, to see if it will stand up straight. If the candle leans or is unstable, place a glass or heat-resistant ceramic saucer in the bottom of the pumpkin and place the candle on top. Light your candle with long fireplace matches to avoid burning yourself.
For a bit of extra seasonal flair, rub a bit of pumpkin pie spice onto the bottom of the pumpkin lid before lighting your candle. When the candle is burning and the lid is in place, the heat from the flame will warm the spices and give off a wonderful fall scent.