There’s no better cure for the summer scaries than jumping right into your (second) favorite season—autumn! Break out the long sleeves, go apple picking (tip: bookmark this apple crisp recipe in case you end up with too many), whip up pumpkin spice (to add into everything), and deck out the exterior of your home with bright orange pumpkins. This year, turn it up a notch and skip the spray-painted pumpkins that you’ll miss in the dark. Carve into some gourds. We turn to some megatalented pumpkin-carving pros for some incredibly helpful tips. Soak up the inspiration, ahead.
1. You Don’t Need Fancy Tools
A simple $7 kit is sufficient for most classic jack-o’-lanterns and veggie carving projects, says Marc Evan and the crew at Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, who specialize in extraordinarily detailed etchings that are nothing short of stunning. For detailed work, you can use paring knives, linoleum cutters and precision blades. Rely on household items to step up effects. Lemon zesters are great for varying textures on your pumpkin. Melon ballers are useful for hollowing out a pumpkin or to create scooped-out balls that can later be pinned onto a pumpkin as eyes or a beaded necklace, says Evan. Scrubber sponges are optimal for smoothing out the surface (that is, if you plan on sculpting like Michelangelo).
2. Opt for an Imperfect Gourd
Most of us go to the pumpkin patch, or let’s be real, Wal-Mart, looking for the roundest and smoothest pumpkin. Don’t be afraid to get one that’s more visually interesting or even misshaped—as long as it doesn’t have any soft spots, according to Masterpiece Pumpkins‘ Gene Granata, who has been expertly carving pumpkins for more than 20 years. If you have a pattern, bring it with you. That way you can find the pumpkin that suits the shape of the pattern you’re going to carve. For the freshest pumpkin or one with the most staying potential, look for one that’s solid to the touch with a strong, sturdy stem.
Psst! If kids are working under your supervision, opt for a pumpkin that’s lightweight and smooth instead of one with heavy ridges. They’ll be much easier to carve.
3. Open From the Bottom
Here are a couple hacks that will simplify the job. Granata recommends always cutting open the bottom instead of the top around the stem. “When you pull that plug out, a lot of the seeds and stringy stuff comes out with it. Half your job of cleaning out the pumpkin is already done,” he says. Wipe down the exterior of the pumpkin before carving. If you’re creating a classic jack-o’-lantern, cut from the top so you can easily slip a candle (but beware it’ll dry out your pumpkin quicker) or battery-operated tea light into it.
4. Extra Scooping Saves Time
Scrap the walls of the pumpkin with a big metal spoon or the scooper from the classic carving kit until the walls are an inch thick. “This one is really important, especially for people who carve from stencils and patterns,” Granata says. How can you tell when you’ve scraped enough? Have inch-long dressmaker pins or thin screws ready to poke through a cut-out region to test the thickness. Or you can tape your template onto the pumpkin from the start and add pins all around the pattern. That way when you’re scraping down the inside, you can feel exactly when the thickness is right. “That will probably cut your carving time in half,” according to Granata.
5. Trace the Design
Thoroughly clean the face of your gourd. Then use sewing transfer paper (found in most arts-and-crafts stores) to replicate the pattern or design onto the pumpkin. Put the transfer paper between your design and the pumpkin, and make sure the transfer paper is facing down onto the squash. Use masking tape to tape down the design on the corners and the sides. Then trace the design with a ballpoint pen. “You can draw that whole pattern on there and now it’s on the pumpkin, waiting to be carved,” Granata says.
6. Be Patient While You Carve
You probably can’t wait to see your creative carving idea to come to life. So you’re likely craving and pulling the pieces out as you go. To preserve your art’s stability, do the opposite and leave the pumpkin intact. Granata says, “It will help keep the whole thing stable and keep it from breaking. Then when you’re done and want to see the design, reach into the inside and gently poke the pieces from the inside out of the pumpkin. Things will come out way easier. If something gets stuck, go back with your tool and revisit the corners. Then you should have no problems.”
7. Save It for Later
Evan advises that if you’re carving something incredibly intricate like your favorite TV character of the year (Eleven from Netflix’s Stranger Things) and need an extra day to complete it, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
8. Let the Kids Join In
If you’re in charge of carving, include your kids on the action with a few easier tasks like scooping out the pumpkin guts and separating the seeds from the stringy stuff. Make sure they can enjoy the fruits of their labor with this recipe for Roasted Pumpkin Seeds.
For a simple yet spooky project, have your little helpers embellish a pumpkin without carving or sharp tools. Instead, decorate using glitter or stickers. Water-based paint such as acrylic or tempera works nicely on pumpkins, Evan says.
We hope these ideas have your creative juices flowing. Remember to prep some festive snacks for your pumpkin-carving party. We suggest creepy candied popcorn, roasted pumpkin nachos, and ghost pizzas because scooping out pumpkin guts is tiring!
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