For a brief few days this October, jack-o'-lanterns will flicker across America, the happy result of wicked imaginations, fun-filled family afternoons and lots of elbow grease. If your family is raring to carve pumpkins this year, we've got the scoop on how to do it right. Below you'll find a step-by-step carving guide, tips for novice and veteran sculptors, and three inspiring jack-o'-lantern designs (with templates), from a spooked pumpkin kids can make with their own two hands to Goodnight Moon and howling panther pumpkins.
Whether you're picking your own or perusing a farm stand or grocery store, look for pumpkins that are large, ripe and have smooth, even surfaces and at least a 2-inch stem (stemless, dented and bruised pumpkins may already be in decline). If you plan to light your jack-o'-lantern with a candle, the pumpkin should be at least 9 inches high.
To design your own jack-o'-lantern, take a cue from your pumpkin--is it tall, squat or blessed with a curly stem or irregularity you can incorporate into the design? What's the mood going to be-- scary, goofy, artistic, just plain weird? Once you have a plan, sketch your pattern with pencil and paper. If drawing freehand doesn't appeal, or if you're aiming for a complex pattern, use a stencil or template. You can use the templates offered here or those available on the Web and in carving kits.
To make a lid, draw a circle or a hexagon at least 5 inches in diameter around the pumpkin's stem. Cut out the lid at an angle (so that the outside edge is larger than the inside) to keep it from slipping inside. For a carving tool, we recommend a pumpkin saw. Those using knives should carve gently and steadily. (Tip: Don't slide the knife all the way out of the pumpkin.) When the lid is free, scrape it clean of seeds and pulp. Instead of removing the top, you may choose to remove a section from the bottom or side of the pumpkin. (This works well for an unstable or small pumpkin, or for certain designs, such as The Goodnight Moon pumpkin.)
This delightfully slimy job calls for a large metal spoon or an ice-cream scoop. Little kids can easily remove all the seeds and mushy stuff. Then a stronger pair of hands can take over scraping. The thinner the wall, the easier it is to carve and the brighter your lantern will be. Scrape until you've had enough or until the wall is 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick (stop before you compromise the strength of the walls). At the base, flatten a spot for the candle (again, don't make it too thin, or the bottom will rot).
There are two ways to transfer your design onto the pumpkin. One is to copy it freehand onto a clean, dry pumpkin with a water-based marker (mistakes can be easily corrected with a paper towel). The other is to tape your pattern or template to the pumpkin, then score the design into the skin by poking holes through the pattern with a nail or plastic poking tool (available in some pumpkin-carving kits).
Okay, now you're ready to sculpt. Start at the center of your design and work outward (this avoids putting pressure on areas already carved). Begin with the innermost and smallest features--eyes before eyebrows, for instance--and try to carve the inside lines of each feature before the outside lines. Be gentle: If you're using a knife, run it over each line a few times, rather than pushing all the way through. Don't cut all the way to the end of a line on the first cut. As each shape loosens up, gently push it out of the pumpkin with a finger or a dull pencil point (a good job for small kids). Larger shapes, such as gap-toothed grins, may have to be removed in pieces. Tip: If you cut something you didn't intend to, perform an ad hoc pumpkin surgery: Stick a toothpick through the flesh side of the piece and fit it back into place.
You can create dramatic effects by letting candlelight through the pumpkin in varying intensity. For a shaded effect, don't cut all the way through the pumpkin. Instead, make a shallow, angled (or V-shaped) cut (1/8 to 1/2 inch, depending on the thickness of the pumpkin wall), then peel away the outer flesh with a knife tip, spoon or vegetable peeler. You also can use deep, angled cuts to remove larger pieces, so that the light reflects off the walls of the hole.
Now is the moment of truth. Place a candle inside your pumpkin (votives are more stable than tapers). Light the candle, put on the lid and turn out the lights. If the candle doesn't stay lit, increase the air supply either by enlarging some of the features or by carving a vent on the back of the lid. Lastly, put your jack-o'-lantern in a place of honor (away from flammables) and remember to blow out all candles before you go to sleep.
Visit Spoonful's Halloween Fright Site page for more great decoration ideas.