How to Make a Jack-o'-Lantern

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An adult or teen should handle all the carving with sharp tools.
Image Credit: JGI/Blend Images/Getty Images

The beauty of carving your own jack-o'-lantern is that there are no set rules for the design. From cute to scary and everything in between, any fairly simple idea you can come up with on paper can be transformed into a face for your Halloween pumpkin.


Picking and Preparing the Pumpkin

Think of a few general ideas for your jack-o'-lantern's face before selecting a pumpkin; for instance, a wide, oversized grin may work best on a wide -- rather than tall and narrow -- pumpkin. Choose a pumpkin that has at least one attractive, somewhat smooth side that looks nice enough to display, and can stand well on its own without tipping or rolling over. Once you've chosen the perfect pumpkin, brush off caked-on dirt outdoors with a work glove or a scrub brush. Hose the pumpkin off if it's extremely dirty, or wipe it down with damp paper towels if only slightly dirty. Wipe the pumpkin dry or allow it to air dry before carving it.


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Of Guts and Goop

Removing the pumpkin's innards is a messy yet necessary process when making a jack-o'-lantern. Place the pumpkin on newspaper or a plastic tablecloth. Cut a circular hole in the top to make a lid. Angle the knife toward the middle when cutting -- this ensures the lid stays in place when you put it back on after cleaning out the pumpkin. Use a sharp tool such as a pumpkin saw or serrated knife to cut the top hole in the pumpkin. Scoop out all the pumpkin's pulpy fibers and seeds using your hands and a spoon with a large bowl. Use the spoon to scrape the inside of the pumpkin to remove stubborn fibers and to thin the pumpkin walls if the rind is more than 3/4-inch thick. A special scraping spoon included in pumpkin carving kits has serrated edges that make the process easier. Place the loose pumpkin bits in a bowl to keep the mess off the table. Remove the seeds from the pulp, and then rinse them and set them aside to make toasted pumpkin seeds, if you like.


Defining Your Design

Sketch out a basic idea for your design on paper, if you're creating your own, or print out a premade pattern in a size that suits your pumpkin. Some websites offer free templates for pumpkin-carving projects. Tape the sketch or template onto the pumpkin using painter's tape, and then poke holes over all the lines to create a dotted outline on the pumpkin using an awl or a sturdy, thick needle. Remove the paper. If the design is complex, use different colors of markers to indicate areas on the pumpkin that should be cut all the way through, partially through or left intact; these variations create different plays of light and shade when the jack-o'-lantern is lit from within.


Carving the Pumpkin

To carve your design, connect the dots on each line to cut out the designated areas of pumpkin flesh. Use a serrated knife, keyhole saw or pumpkin saw to carve relatively straight lines. A sturdy craft knife or smaller blades in a pumpkin-carving kit come in handy for creating small details. Use scraping tools or melon ballers to remove pumpkin flesh without traveling all the way through, which results in a glowing backlit area once you light up the jack-o'-lantern. When you're finished with the entire design, preserve the cut areas by spraying them with cooking oil, which may make the pumpkin last a few days longer than it would otherwise. Use a powerful battery-operated candle or LED light inside the pumpkin in place of a candle to avoid fire hazards.


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