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Carving the Perfect Pumpkin

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

Traditional Jack O' Lanterns are carved as simple faces, but many creative souls have taken the Jack O' Lantern to new levels of complexity. Searching the internet for 'pumpkin carving patterns' will yield a treasure trove of patterns for carving everything from your favorite cartoon character to your favorite political candidate into the side of a pumpkin.

At first glance the more complex carving patterns may look to difficult for the average pumpkin carver. With a few tips and inexpensive tools, carving pumpkins like a pro is definitely possible.

Growing up, carving pumpkins was a big event, but a tedious one. My sisters and I were never allowed to do the actual carving—that was Dad's job. Wielding a large sharp knife, he would carve each pumpkin under our direction.

The three of us were in charge of scooping out the insides of our pumpkins. We would scoop and scrape for what seemed like hours. Just when we thought we were done, Dad would say "just a little more". I still don't know whether he really needed our pumpkins scraped more, or he was just trying to keep us busy!

Once I was old enough to be trusted with sharp objects, I started carving my own pumpkins. I soon discovered a few ways to make carving easier, and ways I could create more complex designs.

Using a serrated knife, such as a steak knife, allows for finer detail in designs. Large knives tend to be harder to control while carving. Remember though, there is still a safety issue when using kitchen knives, even serrated ones. The serrated knives in pumpkin carving kits are generally a little safer, since most are not very sharp at all. There are exceptions though.

When cutting the top of your pumpkin, there is nothing that says it has to be a round opening. I actually like to have at least one flat side so I know how to line it up when replacing the top. If you make the cut sides slant inward toward the center of the pumpkin, this helps prevent the top from falling through the opening.

Another option is to not cut the top at all, but to make your opening on the bottom. No need to worry about replacing the cut piece, just set your pumpkin over your light source and you're all set.

I remember bending and even breaking some of my Mom's spoons while scooping out pumpkins as a young girl. A great tip I've learned is to use an ice cream scoop. It's a lot easier on the hands, and since they are designed to cut through rock-hard ice cream, they are a lot less likely to break.

Creating your pumpkin design can be done basically two ways: drawing directly on the pumpkin, or drawing on paper and transferring the design to the pumpkin.

I grew up always drawing the design on the pumpkin, usually using a pen or marker and hoping that I didn't make a mistake that I couldn't erase. A solution to this is to use dry erase markers on your pumpkin. Any mistakes just wipe off.

Using a paper pattern is a bit more advanced, but not impossible. Downloadable patterns on the internet or those that come with pumpkin carving kits use this method. After drawing your design on paper, the paper is taped to the pumpkin, and a sharp pin, tack, or nail is used to puncture through the lines of the design and just enough into the pumpkin to leave a small hole in the outer skin.

When the design has all been outlined with the pin, remove the paper and carve out sections by connecting the dots left in the pumpkin skin. I had doubts about my ability to accomplish this the first time I tried it, but it worked so well it is the only way I carve my pumpkins now.

A common question I get this time of year is how long a carved pumpkin will last. This depends on three factors: temperature, mold, and moisture. Most of the time carved pumpkins will last a few days before deteriorating. There are ways to add a few additional days to their lifespan.

The colder the outside temperature, the longer your pumpkin will last. Some very dedicated pumpkin carvers will refrigerate their carved pumpkins when not on display to extend their life by a few days.

Pumpkins and their cousins the winter squash store well after harvest because their thick skin prevents rot from setting in and moisture from escaping. Once that skin is cut by carving, fungi which rot the pumpkin can move in, and moisture is lost readily, causing the pumpkin to shrivel.

One way to delay the onset of rotting is to wash the cut surfaces of your carved pumpkin with a 20% bleach solution. After that, you need to seal the surface to prevent moisture loss. There are also commercial preservatives available to do this, but they tend to be relatively costly.

A more economical choice I have had success with is coating cut surfaces with petroleum jelly, but this can be messy. I read a tip recently that said to spray the cut surfaces with WD-40, or some other type of spray lubricant. Allow the pumpkin to sit for 24 hours before using candles near it, to be sure that flammable vapors have dissipated.

When lighting your pumpkin, there are a lot of non-candle options available, such as battery operated lights or glow sticks. If you choose to use candles, a votive or tealight candle in a clear glass holder will be safer and provide more light than an exposed candle. Never leave candles unattended.

Make sure you take a few pictures of your pumpkin masterpieces before their relatively short lives end. Remember that a Jack O' Lantern is a great addition to your compost pile after the holiday is past.

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