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Oh Hey, Pumpkin: Quick Guide to Carving and Designing the Perfect Jack O’Lantern

Pumpkins are everywhere this time of year. We carve them, eat them and wear them as costumes. We line our mantels with them, turn them into table centerpieces, and bake cookies, cakes and pies with them. For many, pumpkins symbolize family and tradition during this time of year. As Jack O’Lanterns pop up in store windows and on the front steps of every home, make sure your family’s carved pumpkins are looking their absolute best with this helpful guide below.

History of Jack O’Lanterns

Why do we go crazy over this iconic fruit, and where does the pumpkin-carving tradition come from? Jack O’Lanterns were originally carved out of turnips and potatoes. While Jack O’Lanterns’ location of origin is uncertain, pumpkins are native to North America, and carving and lighting them gained popularity after Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. Pumpkins are harvested in October, just in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving. It was once a common belief that carving scary and grotesque faces in pumpkins and placing them in front of your home would ward off evil spirits (or pranksters) on Halloween.

While pumpkin carving is nothing new, how often have you or your kids attempted to create a pumpkin masterpiece to have it end up falling short? Or, maybe you’ve had trouble getting a carved pumpkin to last more than a day or two?

Keep reading for some basic but essential pumpkin carving tips and tricks. Perfect for both beginners and more experienced carvers, these tips will surely boost your Jack O’Lantern-making skills this season.

Pumpkin Carving 101

Choose the right pumpkin. A large pumpkin with a sturdy stem and a flat base is ideal. Large pumpkins are easier to handle and carve, and a sturdy stem is a sign of a healthy pumpkin that will last longer. Be sure to examine your pumpkin from top to bottom, and avoid ones with soft spots and bruises.

Use the right tools. These days, many great tools for both kids and adults are available in retail stores. A boning knife or serrated knife works well for carving, an ice cream scoop works well for removing the pumpkin seeds, and a scraper cleans the inside walls nicely. For kids, you may want to purchase a carving tool set specially designed for them.

Cut the lid. First, create a lid by cutting at a 45-degree angle so it does not fall into the pumpkin when you place it back on top. You can cut the lid in a zig-zag shape, or another option is to cut off the back or bottom. The choice is based on what you want and the look you want to achieve for your pumpkin.

Scoop the goop. Remove all the seeds and pulp with an ice cream scooper.
Place them aside and roast them later for a healthy snack! Once the seeds are removed, scrape the walls with a scraper. If you carve a pattern in the front, try to scrape the back of the pumpkin as smoothly as possible because it will be visible through your carved design and will reflect the light.

Draw and carve. Draw the face or trace a template for your desired design. Your design can be scary, grotesque or funny. Consider using a dry erase marker so you can easily wipe off mistakes. If you are a beginner, start with a simple design. Use a small paring knife or Exacto knife for more detailed designs. Make slow, gentle cuts that go straight up and down, not at an angle. More experienced carvers may use drills and electric carving knives.
Preserve it. You can preserve your pumpkin to make it last longer by spraying or soaking it in bleach or cold water. After you soak it, make sure to dry it completely to avoid mold. As an added preservative, apply petroleum jelly to the cuts. This jelly acts as a barrier to lock in moisture and slow down the dehydration process.

Other Pumpkin DIY Ideas
You don’t have to carve a pumpkin to decorate it. There are also many beautiful but spooky alternatives to carving a pumpkin for your Halloween decor. You can paint them, decoupage them, or cover them in fabric or tulle. You can embellish them with flowers, gems or gauze. You can even repurpose them and turn them into fall-inspired serving bowls, drink coolers or flower vases. Here are two easy alternatives:

Decoupage
To decoupage fabric onto a pumpkin, cut strips of fabric one or two inches wide. To determine the length needed, measure from the stem to the bottom center of the pumpkin. Apply decoupage medium directly onto the pumpkin with a paintbrush. Place one fabric strip, and apply another generous layer of decoupage medium on top of the strip. Continue applying strips until your pumpkin is covered. Allow it to dry completely.

Cooler
To make a drink cooler, choose a large, wide pumpkin. Follow the tips and tricks above for cutting the lid, removing the seeds and pulp, and scraping the wall. Do not carve it. Place a glass bowl inside the pumpkin. Fill the bowl with ice and place a bottled beverage inside. Consider embellishing the pumpkin by painting it or attaching paper bats to the outside. This pumpkin drink cooler is perfect for Halloween parties and get-togethers.

Bouquet
Using a medium to large-sized pumpkin, complete the carving steps above to hollow out the pumpkin. Then, turn the hollowed-out pumpkin into a vase by taking a pre-arranged grocery store bouquet, holding the stems right below the flowers, and trimming all of the stems at once to a length that fits the pumpkin. Place the shortened bouquet into your pumpkin and voilà — a perfectly festive flower arrangement.

The pumpkin is officially an icon of autumn. From Halloween through Thanksgiving we can’t get enough of them. So now that you know why we carve pumpkins and how to carve one, it’s time to make it a family tradition. Carve them, line them up and light those Jack O’Lanterns!

Clever Hacks

Use dry erase markers to trace designs. Use dry erase markers to draw designs directly onto your pumpkins before carving. Unlike permanent markers or even pencils, the markings will completely wipe off clean with a wet paper towel once you’re done.

Place silica gel packs at the bottom. Those little silica gel packs that you find in shoeboxes can serve a great purpose. Put them in the bottom of Jack-o’-Lanterns to extend their life. The packets not only trap moisture, but they also prevent mold.

Sprinkle on some cinnamon. After you’ve finished carving, sprinkle a little cinnamon on the bottom of the lid or base of the pumpkin. Because of this, when you light your Jack O’Lantern, it will smell just like pumpkin pie!

Dinah Wolfe is a DIY expert and runs a successful home décor, crafting and DIY blog.

About Dinah Wolfe

Baltimore's Child Staff

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