11 Expert Tips for Carving a Better Jack O'Lantern
Forget two triangles and a toothy grin; this Halloween, take your jack o’lanterns to the next level. We asked Marc Evan, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Maniac Pumpkin Carvers—whose crew carves everything from corporate logos for Martha Stewart and the Yankees to replicas of Escher, Klimt, and Van Gogh paintings on as many as 400 pumpkins a season—for a few tips. “We look at it as this new art medium,” Evan says. “For us, it’s this really fun material to work with, and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what we can carve into a pumpkin.”
1. Get a pumpkin with a stem.
Pumpkins grow on vines and rest on the ground, so the stem is never meant to support the fruit’s weight; a pumpkin without a stem means it’s been handled—or more likely mishandled—a lot. To ensure you’re getting the freshest pumpkin, look for one with a greenish stem. “If a pumpkin has been sitting around, the stems will dry out and get brittle,” Evan says. “The greener the stems the better. We also like when they have a big, thick stem, which is an indication that the walls of the pumpkin will be thick as well. The thicker the stem, the heavier the pumpkin and the better it is for carving or sculpting.” Also avoid pumpkins with blemishes, soft spots, or bugs, as you would when picking out any other kind of fruit.
2. Don’t dismiss a weirdly-shaped pumpkin.
“Part of the fun of pumpkin carving is that pumpkins come in so many shapes and sizes,” Evan says. “We actually almost prefer some of the really awkward ones. They can inspire some unique designs.”
3. Have a pumpkin-carving plan.
Evan recommends drawing out what you plan to do before you ever make a cut on your pumpkin. “We’ll print out a bunch of references to get inspiration,” he says. “And then we’ll draw our design with a pen onto the pumpkin and start carving away.”
4. Wait to carve your pumpkin—but work fast once you start.
You can buy your pumpkin whenever you want—“they should last a really long time until you carve them,” Evan says—but wait until you want display to start carving. He and his crew at Maniac Pumpkin Carvers usually create a pumpkin just 24 hours before an event, and once they start carving, they don’t stop until a pumpkin is finished, which can sometimes take 10 hours. “We’re working with a perishable food item,” Evan says. “As soon as you cut into it, it’s starting to decompose. It’s unpredictable—we’ve had some carved that last three weeks but then others three days. At home, it’s kind of safe to carve it within two or three days of when you really want it for. But if you want it for Halloween, you shouldn’t carve it at the beginning of October.”
5. Keep a water bottle handy while you’re carving your pumpkin.
“Pumpkins don’t oxidize as fast as an apple or avocado would, but if you leave it out on the counter over the course of just one day, you do see the change in the structure of the pumpkin,” Evan says. “It’s losing a lot of moisture, so one thing we do while carving is we’re constantly spraying it, trying to keep it wet. That helps it to stay workable.”
6. Think beyond the typical pumpkin carving kit.
Evan and the Maniac Pumpkin crew will use whatever it takes to carve a pumpkin, including paring knives, lemon zesters, rasps, Exacto knives, saws, and clay sculpting tools. “Ribbon hoops that are normally effective on clay work great on pumpkins,” Evan says. “One of our favorites actually is a linoleum cutter, normally used in print-making—it’s great for doing intricate designs and line work. Really, anything that is sharp can be useful.”
Still, for scooping, you can’t get much better than what comes in a kid’s pumpkin carving kit. “We love those little plastic orange scoops,” he says. “But you can also use big spoons—we have a couple of big, wide salad serving spoons that we’ve snapped the handles off of, and those work really great.”
7. Leave the top of the pumpkin on.
Removing the top not only messes with the structural integrity of the pumpkin, it also cuts off the vine, which supplies the fruit with nutrients and moisture until it’s all dried out. “When you cut around it, you’re kinda cutting off that lifeline that’s keeping the pumpkin fresh,” Evan says. “So we like to keep that intact.” Likewise, cutting off the bottom is a bad idea because “pumpkins give off so much water when you cut them that all that liquid can start oozing out onto the table or whatever surface the pumpkin is on and really make a mess.” Evan favors cutting a hole in the back of the pumpkin instead.
8. Wear rubber gloves.
There’s no getting around it: You’ll have to get a little dirty scooping out the inside of the pumpkin. But if you find the goop that gross, Evan suggests donning rubber gloves.
9. Scoop everything out of your pumpkin. And we mean everything.
Leaving bits of pumpkin goop inside your jack o’lantern is a big no-no. “Those are gonna start getting moldy and then it’ll spread to the walls of the pumpkin,” Evan says. “When we scrape the walls really thin and get every last little stringy bit out, the walls are almost drier and seem to stay that way longer before they start to break down.”
10. Use an electric light to illuminate your jack o’lantern.
Evan recommends LEDs or CFLs. “They get really bright, but they don’t give off heat,” he says. “You want to keep the pumpkin as cold as possible, and if you have a heat source inside of it, the pumpkin is gonna start to cook inside. Which actually can smell nice, but doesn’t help with the longevity of the pumpkin.”
11. To make your jack o’lantern last, pop it in the fridge.
Nothing you can do will add weeks to your jack o’lantern’s life, but there are things you can do to add a few days. “Our favorite thing to do is, when it’s done with display, we’ll wrap it up really tight with plastic wrap and keep it some place really cool, preferably a refrigerator,” Evan says. “If it’s cool at night, near a cool window or in a garage will also work.”
This post originally appeared in 2014.