If you’re like us, every time you try to carve a pumpkin for Halloween you end up feeling like a clumsier version of the evil villain in a bad teen slasher movie.
Stabbing at crude, triangular eyes with your ill-fitted kitchen knife. Hacking out an asymmetrical, toothy grin. Carving the nose in entirely the wrong place.
Usually, your pumpkin ends up looking a lot like a round, orange Picasso drawn by an inebriated 4-year-old.
So then, who comes up with all of those amazing, intricate illustrations on the jack o’lanterns at some of these larger pumpkin events? And more important, how do you up your jack-carving game to THAT level?
The Montgomery family of West Point says it’s really not all that difficult. The Montgomerys carve hundreds of artistic, intricate gourds each year for the Syracuse City Pumpkin Walk, and they have a few handy tips for creating squash art that even “The Joy of Painting” host Bob Ross would be proud of.
Here are a dozen pumpkin-carving tips from the Montgomery clan’s mother-daughter combination of Annice Nixon and Liseanne Chapman:
1. Forget what you know. Those intricately designed pumpkins you covet are created by an entirely different method than the one you learned as a child. Rather than cutting all the way through sections of the pumpkin to create a face, you merely remove the outer layer of skin to perhaps an eighth of an inch or less, using linocut carving tools or linoleum cutters (like Speedball brand).
2. Pick the perfect pumpkin. Avoid punk’ins with pronounced ridges; the smoother the better. And while soft-and-squishy is bad, some pumpkin skins are thicker or harder than others. Look for one with a firm but soft, smooth skin.
3. Pick the perfect Pumpkin, Part 2. And get a good stem on your pumpkin. A pumpkin with the stem completely broken off will rot much faster.
4. Carbon paper is your friend. Some people transfer an image to carve on a pumpkin by using a pin to meticulously poke holes everywhere they’re going to carve. But a much faster method is taping a paper template of the desired image onto the pumpkin — with a piece of carbon paper (black side down!) in between — then tracing the image atop the paper with a pen or pencil. The carbon transfers the image to the pumpkin surface, and when you remove the template and carbon paper, there’s your image for carving. Now it’s just a matter of using the carving tools to remove the pumpkin skin wherever there’s ink.
5. Start simple. Keep your pumpkin design uncomplicated on the first try, like a basic line drawing from a children’s coloring book.
6. Timing is everything. Don’t carve your pumpkin too early — no sooner than two weeks out. And even then, only carve the image on the surface of the pumpkin. Don’t hollow it out just yet.
7. Vaseline: It’s not just for beauty pageant contestants’ smiles. Once the image is carved, cover all the cut areas with petroleum jelly. It’ll keep the cut pumpkin flesh from being exposed to the air and thus preserve it longer.
8. Gutting it. No more than a week before Halloween, cut your hole in the top of the pumpkin and hollow it out. Carve the lid at an angle inward (so it doesn’t just fall into the pumpkin), with a notch at the back to make replacing the lid quick and easy. Oh, and make the hole big enough that you can easily get your hand and arm inside.
9. Close shave. And while we’re on the subject of hollowing out the pumpkin, here’s where you make sure you remove enough of the inside of the pumpkin to get close to the outer shell of the pumpkin. But not too close! You may need to experiment with depths of the pumpkin wall to ensure you get a good glow when you put a light inside. A metal canning lid can make a good scooper.
10. High and dry. The key is to make sure you get every last bit of the seeds and “guts” out, so the inside is as dry as possible — it’ll last longer that way. Then, give the inside of the pumpkin a good spraying with Lysol or some other disinfectant, which will inhibit the dreaded mold from growing.
11. Cool it? If you’ve got the room in your refrigerator, you might consider putting your creation in there. Some claim the cold air makes it last longer. Others aren’t so sure.
12. Final pro tip. Consider wearing gloves when carving. That black stuff from the carbon paper, combined with the juice from slicing the skin of the pumpkin, can be extremely difficult to remove from your fingers and hands.