It’s that time of year again! Time to get spooky, and silly, and anything in between.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and pumpkin carving is a big part of that. My dad is a master pumpkin carver, and every year of my childhood after I got big enough to be trusted to wield a tiny saw, the night before Halloween was sacred, reserved for jack-o’-lantern creation.
In essence, Halloween is about the freedom to be whoever you want to be, to show whatever face you want to the world. For me, it’s the time that I get to indulge my fantasy of being an artist. For someone who’s always been more analytical than creative, pumpkin carving offers the opportunity to pretend to be artistic…but I’ll let you in on a secret: all it requires is patience and a steady hand.
Here are some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over the years!
Pick Your Gourd
The best pumpkins for carving are tall rather than squat—more surface area for the design—and relatively flat. If you are choosing between a couple, pick the lightest of them. This will mean you have less to scoop out once you’re ready to carve.
Pro tip: make sure your pumpkin can stand up on its own. Sometimes if you grab one from the top of a pile, you’ll get it home only to discover that it tips over when it’s upright!
Get Your Carving Station Set Up
Lay out newspapers or paper bags so you don’t stain anything. Make sure it’s a well lit area, so you can see what you’re doing. Grab a fairly large knife and a big mixing bowl for the scooping part.
Pro tip: invest in a carving set complete with a scoop and saws. It’s much easier than using a spoon for scooping and steak knife for carving. I recommend this one by Pumpkin Masters!
Cut It Open
Use a pen to draw the hole you’ll cut in the top, and then follow that stencil with your knife. Don’t forget to make the hole big enough for your arm and scoop to get inside, but don’t make it too big or you’ll cut into the area where your pattern should be.
SAFETY TIP: remember, when you’re using a knife to cut anything, always go slowly and cut in the direction away from your body. No Halloween tragedies on your watch.
Scoop it Out
Use the scoop from your carving kit to get the innards out of your pumpkin. Once the stringy, goopy stuff with the seeds is gone, scrape the side of your pumpkin until it’s about half an inch to three quarters of an inch thick.
Pro tip: remember, no need to spend time scraping the side of the pumpkin you’re not going to carve. You’ll only tire your arm out!
If you’re going freestyle, more power to you. I’ve always been more of a paint-by-numbers kind of girl, so I use a pattern. Zombie Pumpkins and Jammin Pumpkins both have good ones, organized by skill level. Print your pattern and cut it out in a circle, then cut slits in the circle so you can easily tape it onto your pumpkin. Use a push pin to transfer your pattern onto the pumpkin—this will not only give you lines that are easy to follow, but it’ll even make it easier for your saw to cut through.
Pro tip: after you’re done using the push pin and you peel off your pattern, make sure not to throw it away yet! Sometimes the tiny holes you’ve poked can all seem to blend together and it’s helpful to be able to reference back to how it was supposed to look.
Carefully, patiently cut out the pattern you’ve marked. Don’t force it—just gently saw away. Start in the center and work out.
Pro tip: leave all the cut-out pieces in their place until you’ve finished cutting everything. Pushing them out as you go makes the surface you’re cutting into much more delicate and harder to keep steady.
Do Some Housekeeping
Start at the center and carefully push all the cut-out pieces out. If a piece is sticking, try running your saw around the edge again to make sure it’s cut all the way.
Pro tip: once all your pieces are cleared out, you might notice that you can see a lot of the pumpkin’s inside when you look through the holes you’ve carved. Try sawing some of this away to get a much crisper look.
Light That Baby
Put a small candle inside your pumpkin and light it. Tea candles work if you can’t find anything you like better. Just make sure it won’t tip over and burn up your amazing creation (or anything else!).
Pro tip: sprinkle some cinnamon on the pumpkin’s top so once the candle is lit and the top is in place, the heat rising will make your house smell like pumpkin pie.
Sit back, admire your handiwork, and enjoy a well-earned cup of hot apple cider or some spiced wine. Happy Halloween!