Planning to carve a jack-o'-lantern for Halloween but not sure where to start? Follow these easy pumpkin-carving tips from Michael Natiello, master carver and creative director of The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze in Westchester.
How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin
There are two ways to approach it. You either have a design in mind and you know what you want to do, such as a Celtic knot, and then you find the pumpkin that suits the design, or the pumpkin sort of speaks to you and says 'This is what I want to be.' For example, if a pumpkin looks like Frankenstein, let’s carve it into Frankenstein.
First, find your nearest pumpkin patch.
1. When choosing your pumpkin, look for one that is without bruises, is evenly colored, and isn't moldy or rotten. Check the bottom for rot and tap gently to hear a firm, hollow sound.
2. The lighter the pumpkin's skin, the softer the pumpkin will be, thus the easier to carve. However, lighter-skinned pumpkins may not last as long post carving.
3. Choose a pumpkin with a smooth, flat face, with shallow ridges and few of them. Never carry your pumpkin by the stem.
4. If it's heavy, that’s a good sign. If it's light, it probably has been sitting around a while, so it will be shriveled up or dried out. It's like picking an apple—you want the freshest fruit.
How to Prepare Your Pumpkin
1. Pick a pumpkin that best suits your intended pattern/design, or vice versa.
2. Wash and dry the pumpkin.
3. Cut a hole in the bottom.
4. Scoop out the guts.
5. Scrape the inside flesh clean and smooth until it’s approximately one-inch thick.
6. Transfer your pattern onto the chosen side or draw your pattern directly onto the pumpkin.
7. Make cutouts.
8. Light the pumpkin and fine tune as necessary.
9. Once complete, wash under cold water.
10. Cut a vent or chimney in the back top of the pumpkin.
11. Light and enjoy!
The "Cut Out" Method
This is the traditional method of carving a pumpkin, whereby shapes are cut from the flesh, allowing light to shine through.
1. Think about your cut before you make it.
2. Start in the middle and work your way out (this helps keep the pumpkin structurally sound).
3. Leave large areas to cut out for last (same reason as above), and cut them into smaller pieces for easier removal.
4. Keep all cut edges parallel.
5. Hold cutting tool perpendicular to the surface.
6. Cut with gentle, steady sawing motions.
7. Point the cutting tool towards the pumpkin's center.
8. Resist the urge to poke the cut out into the pumpkin. Instead, push it out towards you from the inside.
9. On corners or if changing directions, remove the carving tool then reinsert it in the new direction.
10. When complete, put a candle in the pumpkin, turn out the lights, and fine tune as needed.
Preserving Your Pumpkin
How long your pumpkin lasts will depend on weather and the elements. But here are a few tips to lengthen your gourd's lifespan as much as possible:
1. It is a fruit. It is perishable. So you want to make sure it's in a cool environment. Some people put it in their fridge or some cool, dark place. You don’t want it baking in the blazing sun, because it turns into rot and mush.
2. After carving, clean up the pumpkin with soapy water or disinfect it with a mild bleach solution—that inhibits any mold or any bacteria from growing.
3. You also can coat any openings with petroleum jelly or commercially available pumpkin preservatives.
4. Keep the pumpkin wrapped in plastic in a cool location when not in use.
I ignored your advice about the petroleum jelly. Can I save my pumpkin?
To rehydrate a shriveled pumpkin, soak in a tub of water overnight. Dry before putting back on display. To prevent mold growth, soak in a solution of water with 10% bleach. Dry before putting back on display.
It was dark and I thought my jack-o'-lantern was a soccer ball so I kicked it. What can I do?
To fix broken areas, or to repair areas accidentally cut off during the carving process, use toothpicks, pins, or staples to reaffix. If needed, patch a broken area with a scrap of pumpkin flesh.
I've got some hungry, hungry hippos nearby. How do I prevent my pumpkins from becoming a snack?
To deter animals from eating pumpkins, spray the pumpkins with commercially available hinders, garlic spray, or hot pepper, or sprinkle the area with human hair.
Carving with Kids
Carving with a kid for the first time?
1. Keep it simple. There's nothing wrong with the triangle for eyes and simple circle for nose and kind of jaggedy mouth, like what you would think of as a traditional jack-o’-lantern. Don’t overcomplicate it. There is something really elegant and beautiful about just a simply carved, glowing jack-o'-lantern.
With my kids, we do our traditional pumpkin carving. They're getting there. One of my daughters is in middle school. At this point she has a good grasp of how to use the tools
2. Make sure that your tools are safe. They should be sturdy, clean, and sharp. It is actually more dangerous to work with a dull knife or a dull blade.
More Halloween Fun
For more Halloween tips, including creative costume ideas, spooky recipes, and awesome giveaways, head to nymetroparents.com/halloween.