It’s Halloween this weekend, yay! I like Halloween for no particular reason, but I do love the way it welcomes in winter. Any excuse to watch cheesy horrors and eat all the sweets we bought for the trick-or-treaters (who never come) is good by me. But these niceties are all superceded by the very best part of All Hallow’s Eve – carving a pumpkin!
I can’t remember the first time I decided to take a knife to one of these orange beauties, but it couldn’t be more than about six or seven years ago. Me being me though, I couldn’t be satisfied with just making a scary face… oooh no, I had to go the whole hog and carve something far more intricate. My first attempt was a haunted house scene and since then I’ve run the full gamut of subjects from Frankenstein’s monster (not ‘a Frankenstein’, don’t get me started there) and Lost Boys’ David, to messages and random nonsense. It’s an awesome feeling when you finish one and turn the lights out for the first time to see it in all its glory, but it’s not without its annoyances, chiefly peoples’ reactions.
Show someone a well carved pumpkin with an immediately recognisable face and their first reaction is ‘Wow! that is so cool! How do you do that?!?!’, which is great. When you tell them you used a pattern though, their face soon drops to ‘oh, so you don’t actually have any skill of your own at all then?’. I’ve got news for you people, it still takes a lot of time and patience! *deep breath*
Ok, so you want to carve a pumpkin, good on you! Here what you need, and how to get started. Be warned, you’ll need to set a few hours aside for this, it’s best done on an evening when it’s miserable and cold outside.
What you need:
- A pumpkin. No sh*t Sherlock! get a decent sized one, the bigger the better, and try to choose one with a flattish face on it.
- A sharp knife. Useful for getting the lid out and doing the ‘big bits’ of the picture.
- Newspaper. If like me, you do your carving on the living room floor (it’s much easier to gut a pumpkin in your lap), get some newspaper down as it can get messy.
- A big bowl. For cut-out pumpkin bits and the guts.
- A pumpkin carving kit. You can get these for a few quid in the supermarkets at this time of year, and will usually consist of a scoop, a punch, a saw and a (completely useless) drill. The saw and the scoop are your friends here, the punch is good for marking, but blunts quickly, I prefer a decent tack.
- A pattern. Unless you’re freehanding it, print out a patter from somewhere. Either download one from the loads of sites out there like Zombie Pumpkins or The Pumpkin Wizard, or create your own from your own pictures and the guides on those sites.
- Sellotape. For attaching the pattern.
- Awesome Halloween films. Background stuff, for atmosphere and general Halloweeniness.
What to do:
Ok, you’re sat cross legged on the floor, Trick R Treat is playing on the TV, you’ve got a knife in your hand and a maniacal look in your eye. Lets get going!
- First up we need to hollow it out. Cut a large hole in the top, but cut with the knife at an angle. This piece becomes the lid, if the cuts are straight down it can fall in. I also cut a notch shape somewhere around the lid too which makes lining it up afterward much easier. Cut the stalk out of the lid and scrape the orange goo off the bottom of it. The hole where the stalk was becomes a chimney for the tealight in the bottom and stops that smell of burning pumpkin. Put the lid to one side.
- If you look inside now you can see the pumpkin guts, a nasty mess of orange fibres and seeds. These need to come out, so get your hands in and go nuts! It’s a messy job, but great fun. Once the majority is out you can grab that scoop from the carving kit (or a spoon) and start scraping the inside. You need to get ALL of the orange stuff out until you’re down to white flesh. Orange stuff goes mouldy fast. Pick one side of the pumpkin to be the ‘front’ and scrape this side even more. You want this wall to be around half- to three-quarters of an inch thick.
- Wipe the pumpkin clean and get your pattern ready. You may need to print a few out at different sizes to get one to fit the beast you’re carving. Now’s the awkward part, attaching it. Paper is flat, pumpkins are not, so there’ll be a bit of folding and snipping around the edges until you get it looking as you want it to. Sellotape the pattern to the ‘front’ that you chose before.
- We need to get that pattern on the pumpkin, and there aren’t many easy ways of doing it, so here’s my preferred way. Use the punch (or in my case tack or nail) and punch holes through the lines of the pattern every quarter-inch or so. The more you do, the easier your job is later, but it can get pretty soul-destroying so I tend to space them out on long straight bits, and make sure you mark every corner well. Once done, remove the pattern and keep it to one side for reference.
- Fun time! Get the saw (or a very small, thin blade) and start cutting out. Do the small bits first, big bits last, it makes it a lot easier to get the small bits out while there’s still good structural integrity. When you do the big bits I find it easier to cut them into smaller bits and take it slowly. When you use a pumpkin saw, use it like a wood saw – let it do the work. If you have any disasters and a bit falls off that shouldn’t have (ouch!), use a cocktail stick broken in half to pin the two parts back together.
If you’ve done everything right you should be able to drop a candle in now and light it! Try to line it up under the chimney in the lid. If you want to take a photo of it, turn the lights off and get your camera on something solid, a tripod ideally. 3 or 4 second exposures on a high iso, and try to get the flame hidden by the flesh, it looks a lot better. Here are a few old photos of some of mine, I hope it’s inspiration to give it a go.