Introduction: Precision Pumpkin Carving

Every year I carve at least a half dozen pumpkins. My wife usually does a few as well. Recently, we've been getting other friends and family on board, teaching them how to carve their own fantastic-looking pumpkins, using stencils and basic tools.

Now, it's time for YOU to learn, too!

Step 1: Tools and Materials

You will only need a few basic tools and materials to carve pumpkins this cool:

Pumpkin Carving Saws
A push pin, needle, small nail, dentist pick
a metal spoon or pumpkin scoop
tape (any kind)

If you don't have the resources or time to make your own saws, you can purchase them at just about any store around Halloween. Typically these kits come with one or more saws, a poking tool, a scoop and some patterns. The best quality kits are made by Pumpkin Masters, so get those if you can.

You will also need some patterns! My favourite place to go is Zombie Pumpkins, in my opinion the very best place on the 'net to get pumpkin carving patterns. Pumpkin Masters also has a huge selection of patterns, but they are only available in book form. If you're new to this, you don't have to start with the most basic patterns (leave those for your kids). All you need is patience!

Step 2: Pick a Good Pumpkin

It is very important, both for good results and for keeping your blood pressure down, to pick good carving pumpkins.

For starters, find pumpkins that are as fresh as possible. Picked from your own garden is ideal. If you go to a store, look for green, wet stems and not brown, dry ones. Avoid pumpkins with bits of white mold around the edge of the stem. Older pumpkins will still work, but sometimes they hold nasty surprises...

Second, look for a pumpkin that has as smooth a surface as possible. Deep trenches will not do! A flat pumpkin is a hundred times easier to transfer a pattern to, and follow the pattern while carving.

The pumpkin should never, ever, ever be soft. A soft pumpkin is a rotting pumpkin and you'll never get good results from it. Rap on the outside with your knuckles, it should make a nice hollow sound. Feel the entire surface for soft bits.

If possible, avoid pumpkins with severe blemishes on the surface. A few spots of brown here and there are fine, but will make your pumpkin harder to carve.  A lot of spots will make the transferred pattern difficult to see.

Lastly, if you have a particular pattern in mind that you'd like to carve, make sure you choose a pumpkin that is the right size for it! Some patterns are tall and others are wide, so pick a pumpkin that matches.

Step 3: Preparing to Carve

When you get your pumpkin home, wash it off with water. You may need to use a wash cloth to get the dirt out of the trenches. Dry it off with a towel.

Now, you can prepare your pumpkin carving area. There are two steps, the messy part and the carving part. For the messy part, especially if you have kids, cover the floor and table with garbage bags. If it's warm enough, do the messy part outside. Set up a garbage bag for the pumpkin guts, or better yet a compost bag. Set up a bowl for pumpkin seeds, if you're going to keep them.

The carving part will only require a bowl for cuttings.

Print off or photocopy your patterns, and set each one with the pumpkin that it will eventually be used for. Note that you can enlarge a pattern using a photocopier for a better fit.

Step 4: Gut the Pumpkin!

Using a kitchen paring knife or a large pumpkin carving saw, cut the top off the pumpkin. Make sure you angle the knife towards the center of the pumpkin, so the lid won't fall in when it has been cut loose. You may also want to include a notch in the lid to make aligning it easier later on.

When the lid has been cut, it should come loose with a tug on the stem. Sometimes some gentle twisting may be required. If the stem is too short to hold, slide a knife under the lid and pry it loose. Or, cut a "finger hole" in the lid so you can pull it out.

The lids will come loose with a bunch of pumpkin guts attached. Pick off the seeds (if you're keeping them) and put them in a bowl. Then, with the same knife as before, cut off the guts until you have a nice, clean surface. Set the lid aside.

Now you're ready to hollow out the pumpkin. I usually start by reaching in and trying to break off as many sinews and tendrils as I can. Then, go in with a spoon or pumpkin scoop and go to town on that stuff. Mix it around and loosen as much of it as you can. Scoop it out with your hand into a bowl, separate out the seeds (if you're keeping them) and then toss the remaining gunk into the compost pile or garbage.

Once you have the majority of the pumpkin guts removed, you can scrape the inside walls with a spoon or scraper until they're clean. Try scraping around the circumference of the pumpkin rather than bottom-to-top, it will work better.

If the walls of your pumpkin are very thick, you'll need to thin them out with the scraper until the side that will be carved is about 3/4" thick. When you push the carving saw through to the handle, about 1/2" should be visible on the inside.

Now, go wash your hands (and the pumpkin if it's covered in guts!) - we're ready for the next step!

Step 5: Transfer the Pattern

For this step you'll need the masking tape and the push pin/poking tool. Set your pumpkin on a flat surface, and hold the pattern up to it so that it is aligned how you want it (usually perfectly vertical). Take two pieces of tape and stick either the top and bottom or both sides of the pattern onto the pumpkin. Now, take the pumpkin and hold it in your lap, because this part is fiddly.

On the sides that aren't taped, grab the pattern sheet where the pattern lines come closest to the edge of the paper. Tape the paper down in those spots. The paper should now be taped down in four places, one on each side.

The pattern sheet will probably be folded like crazy now. To get the rest of the pattern flush with the pumpkin surface, tear or cut the pattern using lines radiating from the center of the pattern, in locations where there are no pattern lines. Fold the pattern sheet over itself, and tape it down. It's kinda like Origami.

Work your way all the way around the pattern sheet, cutting small lines and folding the sheet, so that every part of the pattern is flush with the pumpkin's surface. When you're folding, make sure no pattern lines overlap. In places where this is impossible to avoid, try making the pattern overlap in such a way that you can find an "average" line. A good example of this is a full moon background on a pattern - once everything is stuck down the moon might not be perfectly round - just use a marker to re-draw that line so that it is round again.

Taping down the pattern can be tricky at first, but be patient and think ahead. Remember that the pattern is disposable (you did make photocopies, right?) and that you can fold it however you like. After one or two pumpkins it'll be easy.

With the pattern taped down, you can transfer it to the pumpkin using the poking tool. If you bought a kit, there will be a small poking tool that you can use. I prefer to use a straight dentist's pick, or a push pin in a pinch. The metal tips stay sharp forever, compared to the plastic ones found in kits.  Simply poke holes along the pattern lines, deep enough to pierce the skin of the pumpkin, but no deeper. Space the holes about 1/8" of an inch apart, and closer (1/16") in small, detailed parts. Make sure a hole gets placed on ever sharp corner.

Once the pattern is transferred, remove the pattern sheet and set it beside you - you'll need it for reference. Depending on the pumpkin, the pattern may or may not be easily visible on the surface of the pumpkin. If it is, then you can go ahead to the carving step. If not, you may want to use a ballpoint pen to connect the dots on some or all of your pattern. I recommend doing this for kids or for inexperienced carvers, or if you have bad eyesight.

Step 6: Carving!

At last, the fun part!

I find it is easiest to carve a pumpkin when it's sitting in my lap. Find a comfortable place to sit (I prefer my couch) in a well-lit room. With your pattern beside you for reference, and a bowl for cuttings, grab your saw because you're ready to start.

But first! A few carving tips. The saws can be fragile, so don't force them. When you push a saw through the pumpkin, hold it near the tip of the blade and carefully push it in. This is more accurate, and prevents the blade from bending. Ensure that the blade is entering the pumpkin perpendicular to the pumpkin's surface on all sides - you can't change the angle once it's in (that will just bend the blade).

Don't push the saw forward with too mush force. It's best to use short, fast strokes for most of the pattern, letting the teeth do the cutting. In detailed sections, use single strokes, realigning the blade each time but never twisting it too much.

Finally, always make sure that the blade goes all the way through the pumpkin, or you'll have to re-cut those lines. That's something you want to avoid.

Got all that? Okay, start carving! In most cases, you'll want to start at the center of a pattern and work outwards from there. In general, you want to make sure there is uncarved pumpkin on at least one side of the section you're working on. Some patterns will have a very detailed section on the side or in a corner - in that case you may want to start there instead. Work on the small detailed bits first, then cut out the large sections. Again, be patient and take your time. Rotate the pumpkin in your lap to get a better angle or a better view of the pattern lines. Make sure you hand doesn't rest on a carved section.

Once you've cut out a piece, try pushing it in or out of the pumpkin (either way is fine). It should come loose easily - if not, you may have to re-saw a corner (that's what usually prevents a piece from coming out). Attack the corner from two directions, sawing towards it. There may also be a section where the blade didn't go all the way through - simply re-saw those sections. If the piece is too small to push with a finger, try using the end of a pen or a matchstick to push it through - avoid using the saw blade to push unless the piece is so loose that it just slides right out.

When you remove a piece you should be able to see straight through to the inside. If not, and the hole on the inside of the pumpkin is much smaller than the outside, you can re-cut the inside hole using the saw to make it larger.

Hopefully by now you've gotten a feel for the work. Again, patience is the key here, so be careful where you cut and refer to the pattern often. Take the time to make precise cuts and don't force the saw. It's easier and faster to do it right the first time, than to do repairs later. If your hand starts to get tired (and it will!) take a few minutes to rest. This is supposed to be fun, not painful!

Step 7: Cleaning Up & Preservation Techniques

With your pumpkin fully carved (good for you!) all that's left to do is a bit of cleanup.

Chances are, there will be little pumpkin sawdust all over the surface of the pumpkin. I like to wash these off in a laundry tub or sink. If you don't have easy access to a sink, a paper towel will do.

It's best to carve your pumpkin no more than two days before it will be displayed. If you need to keep it looking good longer than that, here are a few tricks to try:

- Dunk the pumpkin in a tub of water with a small amount of bleach. This will kill any bacteria and mold that was transferred to the pumpkin during handling.
- Spray the cut surfaces with disinfectant spray to inhibit mold
- Store the pumpkin in a cool, wet location to keep it fresh longer
- Rub petroleum jelly (Vaseline) on the cut edges to lock in the moisture and prevent wilting
- Bring a wilting pumpkin back to life by soaking it in water for 2-3 hours

Step 8: Illumination

For pumpkins displayed outdoors, the best and cheapest illumination method is still a plain old candle. Try to avoid using tea lights, they have a small flame and burn out quickly. Instead, pick up a few large votive candles from a dollar store (or from your mom's house, she's probably got dozens). These will last for hours and produce a large flame.

If you have a convenient lamp post, you can remove the lamp cover and place a pumpkin on top instead - you'll have to cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin to do this.

You may also use LED lights to light up your pumpkin. This is recommended for pumpkins displayed indoors, and required for those artificial pumpkins. You can make your own, or get a store-bought LED.

You can even go fancy and try one of these ideas:

Dark-detecting pumpkin lights
Tirefly Hack
Solar powered

Happy Halloween!

Step 9: Repairs

Hopefully you will never need to do repairs, but if you do, here are some tips.

If you accidentally cut a piece off that wasn't supposed to be cut, line the piece back up and push a few tooth picks at different angles into the cut edges to hold the piece in place.

If the section that was cut is too small for a toothpick, use individual staples instead. Don't staple directly onto the pumpkin, just break them off one at a time and push them in by hand.

For very serious repairs, you can even cut a whole new section of pumpkin using the pattern and graft it onto the pumpkin - though this is extremely difficult to do.
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