Home Decoration – Halloween Pumpkins
In the far back recesses of my memory, Madame Leota floats in her glass ball performing her psychic invocations: “Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween. Awaken the spirits with your tambourine.”
Ssshshshshshh goes the instrument in the background as Madame Leota eyes her visitors.
“Creepies and crawlies, toads in a pond; let there be music from regions beyond!”
Weird off-key music sounds through my head and takes me back to when I was 7 years old sitting awestruck and mesmerized (and I admit, a little scared) in the carriage of the Haunted Mansion as it tracked its darkened way through nooks and crannies of ghostly behaviors.
And that is what Halloween is all about. The excitement I felt trick-or-treating, running up and down the neighborhood sidewalk, checking out all the wonderful front yard graveyards, skeletons hanging from trees; and especially the pumpkins with their haunted glowing faces sitting on the front porches is a memory that pulls the youthful spirit right into my soul. I screech to myself, “It’s pumpkin carving time!”
And then I begin to fret. As a kid sitting home at the kitchen table, hacking away at the pumpkin, my brother putting pumpkin guts in my hair, I was perfectly content with triangular eyes and nose and a toothless grin.
Having my carved pumpkin sit outside my home in view for all has made this tradition become a wee bit personal. I used my own invocation and dialed in master carver Gene Granata on the phone. I immediately felt at ease with his humor and ghoulish wit and stepped into a whole new world of pumpkin carving.
Q: You are a master carver of pumpkins. What exactly does that mean?
A: It’s a name coined through the internet to all of us pumpkin carver aficionados. It means I carve about 200 commissioned pumpkins a year. Master carvers utilize many techniques to carve intricate designs in a pumpkin because they are crazy enough to do it! And when available pumpkins run out, we simply use watermelons. Same tools and techniques apply. For some funny reason a watermelon with a picture of Bugs Bunny on it tastes infinitely better.
Q: How can I, a mere writer and artist of stick figures, turn out a cool-looking pumpkin for Halloween?
A: Commission someone to do the design work! First and foremost step to creating a great pumpkin is the design. Anyone can carve up a pumpkin. But designing the pumpkin takes a whole other animal to create. You can also find many places that carry design patterns, such as your local grocery store or on the internet. Take care to look for the difficulty level of the design.
Beginners beware! Stay away from the brain bashing design that scrambles your wits into many screaming parts. Best bet for the once-a-year carver, keep it simple. Here’s your first carving tip: when you go to pick out your pumpkin, bring your design with you so you can pick a pumpkin that will add to your carved design – odd shapes, long stems, different colors. All these nuances bring character and personality to your creation.
Q: What about the pumpkin itself. What do I need to look out for regarding the perfect pumpkin?
A: No soft spots, no mold or mildew, few dings or scars and nothing else growing on it! For kids, get a pumpkin with smooth skin and feels light to pick up. But I must warn you that these kiddy pumpkins don’t last long, so have the kids cut them up a day or two before Halloween. For adults, pick a pumpkin with nice ridges and feels heavy. These pumpkins last longer, but it also means they have a much thicker skin and more work to carve.
Q: Ok, I got the pumpkin home and have my design. What’s next?
A: Hollow it out first. And to do that take the knife and cut a hole in the bottom. Yep, that’s right, not around the stem. Cutting a hole beneath the pumpkin is smart in two ways. First when you pull out the bottom cut, the seeds just follow along with it. Throw the bottom part away and you can place the pumpkin right over the light source. This is so much easier instead of opening the top and reaching in to set the light down inside the pumpkin.
OK, now the scooping part. Scooping out the pumpkin walls takes two steps. You need to de-string it first. Best thing for that is a scoop with teeth to scrape the walls free of the stringy stuff. Thinning the pumpkin is next. Remember in the olden days, a spoon and hard work? That’s the old fashion way. It’s a whole different ball of pumpkins these days. And this is where the men get separated from the boys.
Two words – power tools.
It’s called a pumpkin gutter and looks like a giant eggbeater. The gutters fit into a high speed drill and in two minutes there is a pile of pumpkin shavings to dump. Be sure you have the right thickness. The carving face of the pumpkin actually needs to be thin and even – ½” to ¾” thick.
Q: Is there a trick to know the right thickness?
A: Take your pattern, place it on the face of the pumpkin you are going to carve, tape it down and then take pushpins and stick ‘em in the pumpkin. Be sure to place them in the piece of the pattern you know you’ll be cutting out. Look inside the pumpkin. If you see the tip of the pin sticking through when you look in the pumpkin, you’re good. If no pin shows through, it is still too thick. Once you get the right thickness, take the pins out and you are ready to carve.
Q: I’m digging this. I didn’t realize pumpkin carving was anything other than a goopy pumpkin and a knife. Any other tricks?
A: Carving tip No. 2: sewing transfer paper. Easiest trick in the book. Put the transfer paper in between the pattern and your pumpkin. Use the pushpins or tape it down on the pumpkin then follow the lines of the design. Be sure the transfer paper is facing towards the pumpkin, not the design. After your finish, put the design off to the side for reference to look at while you carve.
Q: What’s your secret to easy cutting?
A: Use little saws. They are sold in stores, usually in the seasonal section. Start with a corner and carefully insert the saw and try not to bend it. Move it up and down briskly while you move it forward slowly. Follow the lines on the pumpkin and at a turn, take the saw out of the pumpkin – do not bend or twist – and insert back in to follow the curve.
So in other words, use straight and forward cuts, and then reorient the blade after a turn.
It’s always better to start in the center of the design and work your way towards outer parts. This allows for a more stable cutting surface.
Very important: once you complete carving a section, just leave it there. Don’t try to pull the cut piece out. Once you are finished cutting, start to push the pieces from the inside out. Don’t force it out. Just get the saw again and re-cut. If the design does break, you can use a toothpick or clear invisible tape to patch it up.
Q: Great. It’s time to light it up. What’s the best candle to use?
A: None! Never use an open flame in your carved pumpkin. Battery operated lights are safer and have a side benefit: The lights don’t generate heat so your pumpkin lasts much longer. You don’t want to bake your pumpkin masterpiece after all the time and effort put into your project, Plus the lights are very short and small, like a little hockey puck and you can’t see them in the background. With these lights, you can change colors, utilize strobe light affects, or display a theme.
Q: When is the best time to carve a pumpkin so it will last until Halloween?
A: Best bet is a couple of weeks in advance. Naturally when you carve a pumpkin, after some time it does dry out and shrivel up. Tip: fill up a sink full of cold water, put the pumpkin in for ½ hour, then take it out and gently pat it dry with a paper towel. It’s good for another few days. You can do this 2-4 times. The water causes the pumpkin to swell up.
Take caution though, mildew is the prime enemy of a pumpkin. Some serious carvers with more intricate designs display their pumpkin for just a day or two at a time, then bag and tag them in plastic and store in the refrigerator. If you opt for refrigerator space, family members be forewarned: open the door and a scary pumpkin masterpiece might be staring out at you!
Gene Granata will hold a Pumpkin Carving Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 4 p.m. at Roger’s Garden.