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This is How to Carve Pumpkins with Kids

This is How to Carve Pumpkins with Kids

Two experts share tips to easily and safely carve jack-o'-lanterns with kids this Halloween.


Planning to carve a pumpkin with your kids for Halloween but not sure where to start? Follow these easy pumpkin-carving tips from the pros: Michael Natiello, master carver and creative director of The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze in Westchester County, and Thomas Olton, creative director of the annual Rise of the Jack O'Lanterns at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island. They share their best tips on how to carve pumpkins with your kids, what tools you should use to carve jack-o’-lanterns, how to preserve a carved pumpkin, and more!

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin

There are two ways to approach it. You either have a design in mind and find a pumpkin that suits the design, or choose your favorite pumpkin and let it ‘speak’ to you. For example, if a pumpkin looks like Frankenstein, carve it into Frankenstein.

So, find your nearest pumpkin patch and go pumpkin picking!

  • 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.
  • 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 after carving.
  • Choose a pumpkin with a smooth, flat face, with shallow ridges and few of them. Never carry your pumpkin by the stem.
  • 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 Choose a Jack-o’-Lantern Design for Kids

You want to look at the overall complexity of the design. If you have a lot of lines and a lot of intricate small detail, you are going to have a much harder time carving the actual pumpkin.

A good rule of thumb is larger and simpler shapes are best for younger kids. As the shapes get smaller and more complicated, it’s going to take someone a little older with a little more skill. So for a young child, big triangle eyes and a zig zag mouth are the way to go. For older folks, you can do more complicated imagery.

With just a quick Internet search, you can find numerous stencils that will help you bring your child’s favorite characters to life on a pumpkin this Halloween. Many of these stencils are free to download and look great when finished. If creating a more complex image is a challenge you enjoy, there are several sites where amazingly detailed stencils can be purchased for just a few dollars. Either way, you are sure to find images and stencils to inspire and guide you.

If you decide that you want to take a more independent route and create your own image, you will still want to draw it on paper first. You can then transfer your drawing onto the pumpkin and ensure it looks good before starting to carve. This part is especially fun for children. It can be difficult to find ways for kids to participate safely. Having them nearby drawing jack-o’-lantern faces on paper while you gut and carve is a great way to get everyone involved.

What’s the best way to transfer the jack-o'-lantern design onto my pumpkin?

There are two ways of transferring an image on to a pumpkin that are generally accepted. Most people will tape a picture onto the pumpkin and trace it out by making tiny holes in the skin of the pumpkin with a small pin. When you peel the paper off, you will have all these dotted lines that make up your image.

Another very effective method is to take a piece of charcoal, and rub the back of the piece of paper with it to make it completely black. Place the paper on the pumpkin, charcoal-side down, and then trace the image with a ballpoint pen. That will leave a pencil copy of the image that you just traced. Essentially you’re making the piece of paper into a piece of carbon paper.

What are the best pumpkin carving tools?

Any of the available Exacto knives or a small precision razor blade with a nice sharp blade are great for carving pumpkins. A lot of people think it’s too dangerous to use very sharp knives, but a sharp knife used carefully is a lot safer than a dull knife you have to force through the pumpkin. You can go slow or use a lighter hand with a sharp knife. If you have a dull knife and you’re trying to force it, that’s when you slip and hurt yourself.

You can also use commercially available pumpkin saws, which you can typically easily find as pumpkin carving tool kits, along with scoopers, in stores this time of year. They do exactly what they’re supposed to do and they’re very safe. A lot of times they’re rounded off so they aren’t even the least bit sharp but they provide just enough resistance to cut through the pumpkin. Plus, if small children are going to take part in the carving itself, you’re going to want to go find some of these small, very dull, but still effective pumpkin carving tools. 

If you want to get a little more creative when carving pumpkins, don’t be afraid to go fishing through your cutlery drawer or your junk drawer. Anything that has a little bit of an edge to it or can actually make a dent or a divot in the pumpkin is fair game when it comes to carving jack-o’-lanterns. Open up that junk drawer to find any little strange thing that you think might make the right shape or might make the right impression in the pumpkin and feel free to use that. That’s the great thing about Halloween. It pushes people to be creative and to figure out what they enjoy and what they want to get out of it. So don’t be locked down into just the knife or the pumpkin saw or something like that. There are any number of things around your house that might be perfectly suitable for carving a pumpkin and if you’re old enough and have the skill level feel free to use whatever you like. Think: screwdrivers, old keys, melon ballers, metal skewers, anything metal that you can make an impact on the pumpkin.



How to Carve Pumpkins with Kids

There are a few things to keep in mind when carving pumpkins with kids, especially if it’s your child’s first time. There’s always a part that the child can do. Cut the bottom out of the pumpkin and then give your child a spoon or an ice cream scoop and let them go to town ripping the guts out of it. That’s the messy and the fun part. Another way you can get kids involved is to carve a very simple face in your jack-o’-lantern and simply hold your child’s hand to help guide them as they cut along the line of a triangle or any circles.

The other thing as far as getting kids involved is a lot of times kids like to decide what the design is going to be. So ask your child what kind of face it should be—a scary face, a happy face, an angry face? Then have them take a black magic marker and physically draw the image on the pumpkin and then you can have them scoop out the pumpkin and then you carve the image out. The child’s still going to take ownership of it because they drew the face on the pumpkin and they like that. That’s their face.

Once you’ve picked out the perfect pumpkin and brought it home, you’ll want to:

  • Wash the pumpkin with soapy water, then dry it.
  • Cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin. This helps to keep the pumpkin stable and keeps it looking nice. If you decide that you prefer the more traditional look of a hole in the top, cut the hole with a slanted edge, which will keep the top from falling inside.
  • Scoop out the guts.
  • Scrape the inside flesh clean and smooth until it’s approximately 1-inch thick.
  • Transfer your pattern onto the chosen side or draw your pattern directly onto the pumpkin.
  • Make cutouts, the traditional method of carving a pumpkin, whereby shapes are cut from the flesh, allowing light to shine through.
    • Think about your cut before you make it.
    • Start in the middle and work your way out (this helps keep the pumpkin structurally sound).
    • Leave large areas to cut out for last (same reason as above), and cut them into smaller pieces for easier removal. As you begin removing pieces, the pumpkin will get increasingly delicate. You will find it much easier to cut out the small details when the pumpkin is its most stable. So work backwards from the smallest cut outs to the largest. This will help you avoid accidental breaks that would destroy your hard work.
    • Hold cutting tool perpendicular to the surface.
    • Cut with gentle, steady sawing motions.
    • Point the cutting tool towards the pumpkin's center.
    • Resist the urge to poke the cut out into the pumpkin. Instead, push it out toward you from the inside.
    • On corners or if changing directions, remove the carving tool then reinsert it in the new direction.
  • Cut a vent or chimney in the back top of the pumpkin.
  • Once complete, wash under cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
  • Once your pumpkin is completely dry, add a candle or electric tea light inside and enjoy your jack-o’-lantern!

How to Preserve a Carved Pumpkin

How long your pumpkin lasts outdoors will depend on weather and the elements. But here are a few tips to lengthen your jack-o’-lantern’s lifespan as much as possible:

  • It is a fruit. It is perishable. So you want to make sure it's wrapped in plastic and stored in a cool environment when not in use. 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.
  • After carving, the No. 1 thing you’ll want to do is clean your jack-o’-lantern with soapy water or disinfect it with a mild bleach solution (a little bleach and water or any bleach-based bathroom cleanser). That’ll kill all the bacteria that’ll break your pumpkin down and will help your pumpkin to survive a few days longer.
  • You also can coat any openings with petroleum jelly or commercially available pumpkin preservatives.

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-percent bleach. Dry before putting back on display.

I accidentally kicked my jack-o’-lantern and parts of it broke off. What can I do to fix it?
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.

How do I prevent my pumpkins from becoming a snack for wild animals?
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.

 

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