Friday, October 31, 2008

Carving Pumpkins: How To Carve A Traditional Jack-O-Lantern


Author: Len Q

Would you believe that Halloween has been celebrated for over two hundred years? Would you believe that it was celebrated for much longer than that in Ireland? Yes, it's true. This wonderful tradition originated on shores far, far away. And wouldn't you know it, but Ireland didn't even have pumpkins back then. Really. They used carved out beets or turnips for lanterns. When Irish families came to America and discovered the gigantic pumpkin, they marveled at its size and at how easy it was to carve. From then on, pumpkins became the choice vessel for the ever changing face of jack-o-lanterns.

The traditional way to carve a jack-o-lantern is to do it freehand. There isn't a stencil in sight. You'll need the right kind of pumpkin and a handful of tools. Once you're done, all you'll need is the lighting.

◦ Choosing the Right Kind of Pumpkin. You should already know how you want your pumpkin to look after the carving is done before you actually go get one. This will help you decide what size and shape to get. Very large pumpkins are great for center pieces or for window displays, for display on porches, tables or even for the yard. You can really let yourself go. Small pumpkins are great for simple faces or simple images. They can be used to light a path, light your yard, for parties or just strewn about.

For traditional jack-o-lanterns, medium sized pumpkins are best. You'll need to decide whether you want it to be a short and squat pumpkin or a somewhat tall and thin pumpkin. Avoid those with bruising, scratches, gouges, dents or damage of any kind. It'll affect how you carve, and how pleasing you're jack-o-lantern will appear when you're done.

Safety Tip. Never carry your pumpkin by the stem. It really could break off on you. If that happens, use toothpicks or a similarly narrow shaft to hold the stem in place.

◦ Traditional Carving Tools. You won't need much in the way of tools for traditional carving. At most, you'll need two knives: one long, thin bladed knife and one short, thin bladed knife. Both knives could easily come from the kitchen. You've just got to make sure that they're as sharp as can be.

Safety Tip. Sharp knives are safer than dull knives. You won't have to exert extra force or extra leverage to make clean cuts. Your knives should be sharpened before any carving begins. Once you've started, the moment it seems like you're having to use more force, it'd be a good time to sharpen up those blades. Don't just assume that your knives will always stay sharp, especially if you're carving more than one pumpkin.

You'll need something reliable to draw the jack-o-lantern's features onto the pumpkin. A grease pen, a permanent marker or a crayon will work great for this.

Gutting spoons are necessary for removing all of the flesh from the inside of the pumpkin. Ice cream scoops or thick ladles are fantastic. Any large sturdy spoon or scoop will do.

◦ Traditional Jack-O-Lantern Carving. Begin by carving the lid. This would be the immediate area around the stem. Use the long knife to cut a pentagon or a hexagon (most workable shape) around the stem. As you cut into the top of the pumpkin, make your cuts angle towards each other beneath the stem. In effect, you'll be cutting a cone shaped chunk out of the top of the pumpkin. This will prevent the lid from falling in. Make sure that it is big enough for part of your forearm to easily pass through when you to gut the pumpkin with a spoon. Remove the lid. Go on and get in there with your gutting spoon and scrape all of the soft flesh out. Do a thorough job.

The floor on the inside of the pumpkin should be firm and flat. You want to know that the candle inside is secure in its setting. It shouldn't move from its position if you give the pumpkin a little smack on its side. You'll figure it out.

Find the flattest outside section of the pumpkin to create the face of your jack-o-lantern. If you're not sure how it's supposed to look, you can easily find examples online, at specialty stores or in a library. A traditional jack-o-lantern has simple features with very little detail, if at all. The idea is to keep it simple.

Determine what your jack-o-lantern's face will look like. Sketch it to be sure. You don't want to be changing your mind once the carving's begun. Take your drawing tool and make your sketch on the pumpkin's surface. Using either the long or short blade, dependant upon the cut you're making, cut through each line that you've drawn. Cut all the way through to the inside space of the pumpkin. Push the cut pieces into or out of the pumpkin, whichever is smoothest.

◦ The Best Lighting. The best lighting for a traditional jack-o-lantern is candlelight. While battery powered lighting alternatives exist for jack o' lanterns today, if it's traditional that you want, it's candlelight that you need. That's what was used then and so it is now.

The preferred candlelight for jack-o-lanterns is a Votive candle placed in a glass candle holder. The candle will last longest this way. If you can't get Votive, just be sure that the candle can safely burn down inside of a glass holder. This set up is used for medium to large pumpkins. For small pumpkins, tea-light candles are best. As long as you've got candles that can safely burn down in sturdy glass holders, you're set.

Safety Tips. Never leave a candle-lit jack-o-lantern unattended. There should always be supervision. Just imagine what may happen if the flame goes astray. And never put a lit candle inside of an artificial pumpkin. It's really very dangerous. There's a good chance that it'll melt and catch fire. Just don't risk it.

Okay, your jack-o-lantern is carved and complete. How can you make it last? Get some petroleum jelly and coat every exposed surface left from a cut. This means the entire inside surface of the pumpkin, too. When it begins to wrinkle and shrivel, it's a sign of dehydration. Soaking it in water over night will help to restore it. Keeping it in a refrigerator during the day will slow its decomposition way down. And because this is a good bit of work, try not to carve your jack-o-lanterns too early from when you'll need them.

Jack-o-lanterns could really be fun to make. There are many modern carvings that are detailed and quite amazing. But the simplest one to make is the traditional jack-o-lantern. Just as it was done centuries ago. It's a very nice skill to pass on. Happy Scary!

Len Q. is a master blade sharpener and an adventurer who strives to protect the natural world. If you would like to find out about ▪ Knife Sharpening: How to Sharpen Knives, Maintain and Store Them ▪ Sharpening Other Edges (e.g. Lawn Mower Blades, Chain Saws, Gardening Tools, Axes) Find it here at http://www.MakeKnivesSharp.com .

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