Carving Pumpkins: Jack-O-Lanterns Of The Twenty-First Century
Every year at Halloween, jack-o-lanterns are everywhere. Many of them don't even look like a traditional jack-o-lantern anymore. They could look like a graveyard, a haunted house, a witch on a broomstick or bats flying through the air. They're really fun to make. So let's go make one!
Every year at Halloween, jack-o-lanterns are everywhere. On doorsteps, on window sills, hanging as paper on walls, even as plastic candy collectors for trick-or-treaters. You can easily find them in department stores, restaurants and even along public streets. They are an absolute part of Halloween.
Many things have changed over the hundreds of years since jack-o-lanterns were first brought to America. The pumpkin is no longer always a real pumpkin. As a matter of fact, artificial jack-o-lanterns are much more common these days than real ones, and it's been that way for many years. As usual in our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, we'd rather buy it than make it. But there are those out there who wouldn't have it any other way. It's got to be a real pumpkin or nothing at all.
So let's make a jack-o-lantern from the twenty-first century. Not the traditional method where all you use are your hands, a couple of knives and maybe a drawing tool. This is the jack-o-lantern that could look like a haunted house, a grave yard, a witch on a broomstick or bats flying through the air, almost any image that can be carved onto the face of a pumpkin.
You'll need to gather a few things: the right kind of pumpkin, the stenciled image you want and a handful of simple tools. Once you've completely finished carving the jack-o-lantern, all you'll need is the right lighting.
The Right Kind of Pumpkin. To help get a pumpkin of the right size and shape, you should already know what you want the carving to look like when you're done. Medium sized pumpkins are the most popular for jack-o-lanterns. It may be short and squat or tall and narrow, depending on the image to carve. Whichever you decide, make sure that it has a uniform color throughout. The bottom of the pumpkin should be flattened so that it'll stand upright.
Inspect your pumpkin for injuries. These are pumpkins with bruising, scratches, gouges, dents or damage of any kind. These deformities will affect how you carve and how pleasing you're jack-o-lantern will appear when you're done.
Safety Tip. The stem of a pumpkin can easily break off. Never carry your pumpkin by the stem. If it does break off, use toothpicks or a similarly narrow shaft to hold the stem in place.
Modern Day Carving Tools. The carving tools for a modern day jack-o-lantern are very simple. Most of them you can get yourself right at home.
ª Pumpkin Carving Patterns. These are stencils, or templates, of images that you could get on the internet. If not, there are booklets or books available at arts and crafts stores, specialty stores or even in a library. Or you could create a stencil from a drawing of your own.
ª Transfer tool or poker tool. This tool is used to transfer the image from the stencil to the pumpkin's face. You could use the tip of any sharp tool, an ice pick, a nail or even a sharpened pencil or a pen.
ª Securing the Image. You can use pins, tacks or even tape to hold the stenciled image in the exact place you want.
ª Two knives. One long, thin bladed knife and one short, thin bladed knife. You can easily get these in your kitchen.
Safety Tip. Sharp knives are safer than dull knives, because dull knives will force you to exert extra force or extra leverage to make clean cuts. Sharpen your knives before you begin carving. The moment it seems like you have to use more force, it's time to resharpen them. Be careful not to assume that your knives will always stay sharp.
ª Carving saw or cutting saw. A carving saw is mainly for cutting out fine details that would be difficult to do with a knife. But if you'd prefer, you surely could carve the entire jack-o-lantern this way.
ª Gutting spoons. These are for removing all of the soft flesh from the inside of the pumpkin. Ice cream scoops or thick ladles are great. Any large sturdy spoon or scoop will do. Twenty-first Century Jack-o-Lantern Carving. The first thing is to carve the lid. Use the long knife to cut a pentagon or a hexagon around the stem. As you cut into the top of the pumpkin, make your cuts angle towards each other beneath the stem. You are effectively cutting a cone shaped chunk out of the top of the pumpkin. This keeps the lid from falling in. Your hand and some of your forearm should be able to pass easily through with a utensil. Remove the lid. Now get in there with your gutting spoon and scrape all that soft flesh out. Be thorough.
When the jack-o-lantern is burning bright, you want to know that the candle inside is secure in its setting. Make the floor inside of the pumpkin firm and flat. If you give the pumpkin a little smack on its side, the candle shouldn't move from its position. You'll know what to do.
The easiest place to put the face of your jack-o-lantern is the flattest section on the outside of the pumpkin. Select the stencil for the image you want and place it there. Secure it with pins or tape. If you're using tape and have to crease the paper, try to do it in a section where there will be the least distortion.
Use the transfer tool to poke holes along the lines of your image. Puncture through the image and into the pumpkin's skin just a bit. It isn't necessary to make deep punctures. These holes should be from an eighth to a fourth of an inch spaced apart. In areas where you may be unsure when carving, add some extra dots. The more the dots, the easier the carving. It's all up to you. When you're completely done transferring, inspect the dotted outline. Save the stencil in case you need it for clarification while you're carving.
Take the carving saw and connect those dots. Make sure that the saw is cutting straight into the pumpkin and not at an angle. Remember to use a back-and-forth sawing motion. Don't use it as a knife. Saw all the way through to the inside open space of the pumpkin. For tight corners, remove the saw and reinsert it where the lines connect.
If you have pretty large chunks to remove, you could easily cut them into smaller sections and have them fall off, one after the other. Push the cut pieces with your finger into or out of the pumpkin, whichever is smoothest.
Trim up the edges with your small knife or carving saw. More light will come through the pumpkin if these edges are trimmed at a 45 degree angle or thereabouts. This is great if additional lighting will compliment the image you've just carved.
You are done. Now how can you make your jack-o-lantern last longest? Take some petroleum jelly and coat every exposed surface, everything left after a cut. This will include the entire inside surface of the pumpkin, too. Dehydration is the enemy. Any sign of wrinkling or shriveling can be helped by soaking the pumpkin in water over night. Natural decomposition can be slowed greatly by refrigerating it during the day. This is a bit of work for every jack-o-lantern you make, so try not to carve your jack-o-lanterns too early from when you'll be using them.
Wasn't that fun? Making jack-o-lanterns sure is fun for me. In this day, almost any image could be found on the face of a pumpkin. It just depends on how creative you want to be. Go forth and broaden your mind. Happy Scary!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Len Q. is a master blade sharpener and an adventurer who strives to protect the natural world. If you would like to find out about ª Knife Sharpening: How to Sharpen Knives, Maintain and Store Them ª Sharpening Other Edges (e.g. Lawn Mower Blades, Chain Saws, Gardening Tools, Axes) Find it here at http://www.MakeKnivesSharp.com .