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How To Safely Carve Halloween Pumpkins
When I was a kid there were no real “safety” tools for carving pumpkins. It was just like in “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”: We bring home a pumpkin from the pumpkin patch, lay down some newspapers on the floor (or on the kitchen table) and use a very sharp, and dangerously large kitchen knife, scalp the top off of the pumpkin and scoop out his "brain guts". Then we would draw our basic pumpkin face design and carve it out. (They never looked as good as we hoped they would.) Then we put a lit candle in it's head, put in out on the porch and that was it for the yearly Jack O Lantern!
Today, some 30 decades later, there is a lot more care and safety placed on this extremely fun and very dangerous holiday tradition. There are books, after books, after books with different halloween designs that can be used on a pumpkin (some with varying levels of difficulty / age groups). There is a plethora of child-friendly carving tools that children as young as 4 or 5 years old can use safely without fear of injuring themselves.
Having gone through the vast majority of my life refusing to truly “grow-up” (I was still dressing up and trick or treating until I was almost 20 years olds—lucky for me, my girlfriend is the same way), I continue to carve Halloween pumpkin every year.
The following instructions are for the safest way to carve a Jack O Lantern without fear of injury, especially if you want to make it a family event and want to ensure that your children can enjoy the experience first-hand without hurting themselves.
(I've also included some tips for easy cleanup.)
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Step One: Selecting the Pumpkin
I remember as a child that I always wanted the biggest pumpkin, but I could never lift it. Too bad for me, but if you can't lift it, how are you going to move it around to house to carve it...?
But it is important to remember that the larger the pumpkin the more work will have to be done on it just to scoop out the seeds and membrane.
Of course, children, in the excitement of the moment, will love doing this part.
So to each his own on size.
Remember, there are two types of pumpkins: Sugar Pumpkins (also known as baking pumpkins—you use these to make fresh pumpkin mash for pumpkin pies), and your standard Halloween Pumpkin or carving pumpkin.
The Sugar Pumpkins are much smaller and more expensive (around 3 to 4 dollars each)—don’t worry, you won’t find them in the large bin with the other large pumpkins.
The Halloween Pumpkins are clearly labeled stacked in big bins (usually outside) and usually priced around the “3 for 10 dollars” sale.
Step Two: Where to Carve It
I remember as children we (my brother and I) would either carve up our pumpkins on the living room floor (with a healthy amount of newspaper laid down) or on the kitchen table.
Later years, I actually started doing the carving in the backyard; mainly because of the smell and mess that the pumpkin membrane would leave behind if we just threw them away in the kitchen trash can.
Doing the work outside was simplier because the garbage can was right there so I didn’t have to make an extra trip outside to the trash can.
If you choose the floor, make sure you have enough covering to ensure that there is no leakage (especially on a carpeted floor; the smell alone is bad enough, but there is also the possibility of staining and mold). A good idea is to use a large plastic garbage bag with newspaper on top of it.
If you choose the kitchen table, do the same thing as the floor, minus the plastic bag (you can use a table top cleanser to clean up and leaks).
Step Three: The Design
This is definitely one of the highlights of the process: designing your Jack O Lantern before cutting it out.
There are many, many options here: you can draw a freehand image (the classic triangle eyes and nose with the jagged mouth is the classic image and the most convenient one).
There are also those Halloween books available with the picture pages that you place over the face of the pumpkin and “pin prick” through the paper and then start cutting.
Whatever tickles your fancy: It is Halloween—goes nut!
Jack O Lantern Poll
Do you still carve pumpkins on Halloween?
Step Four: The Tools
This step is very important, primarily, because if you are worried about injury, you need to be readily prepared beforehand.
As much as Halloween is about all the horror movies and monster makeup and blood and guts, a real injury will completely ruin the day.
If you want to be safe, and you DO, you should get the safety tools for carving pumpkin. You can get them at the grocery store for $1.99 or an entire carving kit for $6.99.
The $1.99 one is just the safely cutter. The $6.99 kit includes a carving design and a scoop.
If you don’t have the ability to get a hold of the store bought safety cutters, there are a few options. DO NOT under any circumstance allow a child to use a sharp knife. Let them do design on the pumpkin and you do the cutting. THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION WITH THIS STEP. SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT!
When it comes to household cutting tools, the best thing to use is a basic serrated bread knife or a steak knife. Do not use a butter knife; they are too flimsy and have no cutting ability.
DO NOT use any kind of butter knife or large, sharp knives. They are not needed (I know, we all used them when we were kids, but that is no excuse to endanger yourself or anyone else; mistakes and accidents happen. However; it is best to avoid them at all cost.)
Step Five: The Cutting Work
Be careful when you cut out the top of the pumpkin (around the stem). Is it best to draw the section out first; depending on the size of the pumpkin, you want a large enough hole to get your hand down inside, so you can scoop out the seeds and membrane.
If you have a really large pumpkin you can cut a good 6 to 8 inch diameter hole, but for the smaller pumpkins, you should only do about a 3 to 4 inch diameter cut.
If you have the safety kit available, use the scoop to remove the membrane and seeds (hold on to them, because you can save the seeds (and throw away the membrane): You can wash them, dry them and put the seeds in the oven for homemade toasted pumpkins seeds—they are great with pepper and a little paprika (or even garlic powder!)
If you don’t have the kit, use a large metal scoop (that’s what I used as a kid) and it will do the job just fine.
After the pumpkin is properly hollowed out, you can start on the design cutting. Depend on your choice, just follow the image you have CAREFULLY (supervise the children if they are cutting-- even with the safety tools).
Go slow and don’t try and murder the pumpkin; getting into the spirit of the holiday doesn’t mean bad table manners, even with the pumpkins.
Step Six: The Placement
Now that you have finally finished your Halloween Horror Masterpiece, it’s time to put it on display. When I was a kid, we put lit candles in our pumpkins. Today, that is not so popular and realistically, not as safe. Nowadays, there are many types of fire-free lighting options, from glow sticks to battery powered bulbs (some of them even come with different colored lights!).
Although I am somewhat of a purist, I normally don’t put a candle in mine. However, if you have children, the last thing you want is for them to burn themselves either lighting the candle when it’s inside the pumpkin, or trying to place a lit candle into the pumpkin’s head.
The best thing to do is use the glow sticks; they are available at the store in the same section as the other Halloween pumpkin carving stuff.
Now, depending on where you live, you are sure to have many options are WHERE you place your Jack O Lantern.
1. The standard place is right outside the front door, so people can see it when they come up to ring the doorbell for candy.
2. If you have a balcony, like I did, you can put it up there (that’s a good place if you’re worried someone will try and smash all your hard work).
3. Some people even place them in the window inside the house. That way, everyone can see the pumpkin, you don’t have to fear Billy Corgan and if you use a real lit candle, the house will have a wonder pumpkin scent.