Intro: Jack O' Lantern Graveyard
Ever since I saw the movie Trick R' Treat (if you haven't seen it yet go watch it) I have wanted to replicate Rhonda Kreeg's yard. This little girl with a propensity for pumpkin carving has over 50 jack o' lanterns in her yard. Although the individual designs are not complicated, the overall effect of all those staring faces is intimidating and creepy. Since I don't want to carve 50 pumpkins a year I've been slowly accumulating craft foam pumpkins that I can store in the garage when it's not October. You can often find these at garage sales or on sale at craft stores if you look for deals in the paper. Until I build up enough to go full scale like in the movie shot above we'll be working on a smaller scale.
Step 1: A Note on Types of Craft Foam Pumpkins
Not all foam pumpkins are created equal. You can see three separate types here.
Most stores carry their own personal brands or off brands like the two on the right. Those are from Walmart. They are more rubbery, making it harder to carve them without breaking them because they bounce and vibrate with the movement of the saw. You can always spot the off brands because they will have a smooth plastic texture to them, too shiny and perfect to look 'real'.
On the other extreme, you have Funkins on the left, they come in a variety of colors and are cast from real pumpkins. They have all of the surface variation and coloration of their originals. They're also made from polyurethane instead of clunky foam so they're easier to carve and have the most realistic yellow color on the inside.
The two in the middle are also 'Funkins' but they're from Hobby Lobby. Craft stores sometimes sell these but they have a flat paint job and whiter inside that takes away from the realism. Real Funkins are more expensive, but you can't find better for carving or realism.
Step 2: Tools of the Trade
You can use a large serrated kitchen knife for the top of the pumpkin if you choose to, but it will take more muscle to open the top of a foam pumpkin that way. I prefer a drywall saw, it will cut through the foam like butter. For smaller pieces, I've got a double sided pumpkin carving knife with larger teeth on one end and smaller for fine tuning on the other. Make sure your small carving knife is about a cm wide and a little bit thicker than average. Those paper thin knives will snap off in the foam like a twig.
Step 3: Carving Foam Pumpkins - Lid
This is where you'll want your drywall saw or large serrated knife. When you're carving out the lid make sure that you have the knife at a sharp angle like the first photo. This will leave enough of the pumpkin 'flesh' under the lid to keep it from falling into the Jack O'Lantern. (See photo 2)
Saw around the top of the pumpkin in a circle. Make sure your circle is narrower than the widest part of the top or it will look odd. To cut in a curve twist the knife counter-clockwise slightly so that the serrated edge is trying to turn upwards slightly. Always cut a curve carefully because if you twist the knife too hard you can crack the pumpkin.
Safety Note: Always cut with the knife moving AWAY from your body and hand if at all possible to avoid injury. Losing a finger isn't part of the fun! (See photo 3)
Step 4: Carving Foam Pumpkins - Finding Your Face
I do freehand drawing for most of mine but if you use a pattern you can tape it to your pumpkin and use a stick pin to punch an outline to follow when you're carving.
Start by finding the side you want to carve. Generally the flattest side of the pumpkin will be the easiest, but you also don't want to show too many deformities in the skin.
When picking your pattern remember that proportion is key. The pattern should take up 2/3 of the pumpkin or more. If you want a pattern without a nose you can make the eyes larger. If there is almost as much space between the eyes and the mouth as the eyes are tall you should add a nose to keep the face proportional. (See how much better it looks in the third picture when the eyes are made larger). Patterns look best when they reach most of the way across the front of the pumpkin.
Step 5: Carving Foam Pumpkins - Carving Large Sections
For the large sections you can use your drywall saw or large serrated knife. These are the easiest to cut because the fine details crack easier. Remember when you are cutting on a curve to be careful how hard you twist the knife so you don't crack the pumpkin. Although the pieces are bigger it can still happen.
Start rocking the knife gently just below your starting point to get it through the flesh and follow your lines. You can go back with the smaller knife to smooth out uneven parts and make sure you got all the lines off the skin. Make sure the flesh of the pumpkin is cut at an angle so that the front edge is the narrowest part, this will keep the light from casting weird shadows and ruining your effect later.
Step 6: Carving Foam Pumpkins - Carving Small Details
With the smaller details you can start with your big knife if you have more than a couple of inches to work with. If not use your smaller carving knife. Rock the knife gently while inserting it just below your starting point because the back end will cut in a little bit.
As you go cut the pieces out in sections to avoid breaking your small details. The more small chunks you cut it into the easier it will be to avoid major damage but the more time it will take. This part is why many people don't want to carve pumpkins, it takes a lot of careful work and patience to do this well.
You can go back if you leave lines behind and gently rub the serrated end of the knife against the edge to sand it down or use sandpaper.
Step 7: Carving Foam Pumpkins - Cleaning and Lighting
When you finish your pumpkin will be covered in foam dust. For Funkins this will be a lot more like fine powder and regular craft foam pumpkins will be more coarse and grainy. You can wipe it down with your hand or a paper towel, it's usually very easy to clean off.
When lighting your pumpkin keep in mind the brightness and size of your light. Larger pumpkins will need bigger lights to get the same brightness. The strobe lights will give you a more cool and trendy look, led candles will give you a more classic creepy and glow sticks will give you a great waterproof eerie. Strobes or glow sticks are brighter and will work better when you have fine details that are difficult to see (like Nibbs' teeth). When the only details on your pumpkin are fine details (like on Stitches) then a strobe is your best bet to be able to show them.
Safety Note: NEVER put an open flame in a foam pumpkin. The whole thing will go up like a torch, they are FLAMMABLE. You must use electric lights. I use flickering LED candles to get a more realistic look.
Step 8: Carving Foam Pumpkins - Special Issues
Off Brand Pumpkins
The material used for these is rubbery (pics 1&2). This means that it's easier to make tight turns with the knife because it will have more give to it (like the small eyes on Boo) but it has drawbacks as well. It will leave a lot of mess behind and will take more time to clean up your lines with the fine edge of the cutting blade. You could sand it down too if you prefer, it just takes a little extra effort than the more powdery Funkins. Also be aware when using a large knife on rubbery pumpkins it will make an unholy screeching sound like nails on a chalkboard, but on a white board.
Small lines and spaces are harder to leave without breaking in a craft foam pumpkin. Because the material is harder to cut through than a real pumpkin's flesh it's very easy to break off thin parts (like between the flames on Scorch's eyes). Make sure you take these ultra slow and don't twist the knife while you're working on these areas. It's better to have to make multiple passes then try to make a turn and snap off a piece. For narrow lines (like Eeek's zigzag mouth) always cut the furthest part of the hole first so that the near part is still attached to the larger body of the pumpkin. This will give you more stability when cutting the near line. (pics 3&4)
When cutting out Scorch's top and eyes (pic 6) I ran into a hard spot on the right side. There was some discoloration and it appears there was damage that was patched, or it could just be because that's where the seam in the mold was. Either way, it was extremely difficult to cut through. If you run into one of these the best thing to do is take the fine edge of your cutting blade and take it slowly. If you saw through too fast with big teeth on the knife you might crack the pumpkin skin. It will also make an unholy screeching sound like nails on a chalkboard, but on a white board.
It's inevitable, they're cheap plastic and the knife will give out eventually (pics 7&8). I managed to slam the blade all the way into the handle trying to get through the thick front of Eeek. I got lucky though because in a box of old Halloween stuff I found my favorite carving knives. These are thicker than normal ones and have survived three years thus far. It's always good to have a spare.
If you live in a really windy area even normal pumpkins are able to be blown over. Foam pumpkins are much lighter and if you don't weigh them down then the wind can just carry them off. (Two of ours are missing a lid because of this.) We used tent stakes and drove them through the bottom of the pumpkin to hold them in place and they seem to work very well. If you need to attach the lid to keep it from blowing away glue some Velcro to the inside of the pumpkin and a piece to the lid so you can secure a side and keep them together, but still be able to open it.
Step 9: Foam Gravestones
All of the gravestones pictured here were from multiple packs. There are four very good things here. One is that they are all different shades and sizes. When walking through a graveyard you'll notice there's a wide variety in the types of stones and the patterns used in gravestones. Also, there is some old world influence in some of the stones like the knot work and columns. This lends itself to looking older, as does the moss on some of the stones. The thing that could ruin it here is the glitter on the large one to the left of the big cross. Gravestones don't have glitter, and you can't be scary and glittery at the same time. So we'll have to take that off if we don't want it to ruin the effect.
Now any store bought tombstone will probably come with T-shaped plastic stakes to put it in the ground. Not only are these too short relative to the length of the tombstone to keep it in the ground, but the tombstone is too weak to handle a longer one. If you were to simply cut off some wire and stick it through the tombstones, the first stiff wind to come by would snap the foam in half. To successfully reinforce them you'll need a strong backing as well as better stakes.
Step 10: Reinforcing Your Gravestones - Tracing
The stakes included with the gravestones usually don't stick far enough into the ground to hold it steady. Of course, you could add a piece of wire from a hanger in between the backing (which keeps the wind from breaking the tombstone) and the foam but the most sturdy way is to cut the stakes into the backing as one solid piece. We used double the length of the stakes to measure out how much room to leave for the 'feet'. Then drew out two triangles starting at the corners of the bottom of the tombstone for maximum stability.
Then we took the sharpie and outlined the tombstones for our cut line. Make sure you outline along the bottom as well so you know where the 'feet' stop.
Step 11: Reinforcing Your Gravestones - Cutting
We cut along the outline shapes with the jig saw. It can't turn very sharply so for the small details we went back in with a serrated knife and cut out the detailed parts. You also want to use the knife or some sandpaper to scrape off the loose bits around the edge because they'll make it harder to color later.
Step 12: Reinforcing Your Gravestones - Glue and Press
We used Locktite epoxy but you could use Guerilla Glue or something similar if you wanted to adhere the backing to the tombstones. For the large cross, since the neck would be a weak point, we double reinforced it. Glue the backing to the tombstone and press and let it dry. I just layered them between broken down cardboard boxes to keep the foam from being deformed and left my sewing machine on top of them for a day.
Step 13: Graveyard Setup
You can use a big sharpie to color the back of the tombstones so they won't stand out as much. As previously mentioned, I have a strong dislike for glittery Halloween decorations. When I scratched at the glitter to see if it would come off it became apparent it would take the foam off with it. Because I was lacking black paint I just went over it with the sharpie to dull it, which seemed like a good compromise.
The soil here is hard and dry so I used a trowel and pushed it into the ground where each stake would go and it worked very well. We've already had two horribly windy days and haven't lost them. Make sure they're all the way into the ground so the base is aligned with the dirt.
When placing your tombstones, for the best effect, you want to be sure that there's enough room in between the rows that you could lie down. It helps with a little more realism. I don't put them in neat rows because I like the haphazard look, so I stagger them out a little bit.