Cucurbita Maxima Carving: A How-To Guide

Every year people ask me how in the world I carve my pumpkins, so this year, since I finally have a blog, I decided that I would make a how-to guide on how to do portrait pumpkins. Hopefully this answers some of your questions as to how this all works.

First off, we need to pick the right picture for our stencil. Unfortunately, you can't just pick any old photo and make a pumpkin from it. There are some certain characteristics that you have to look for, mainly dealing with the brightness and darkness of your subject. If there is too much brightness, you are going to be left with a lot of empty space and possibly a collapsed pumpkin on your hands. Too much darkness and you will just have a pumpkin with some small holes in it. You want to find a photo that will let you have some structure to your pumpkin along with the intricacies of a nice portrait. Let's take my example this year, John Flansburgh:

I found this photo after a lot of searching on Google and decided that it would make a nice composition. If you look at his face, there is plenty of highlights as well as plenty of dark spots that will lend itself to a carving quite nicely.

After I have the composition that I want, I need to prep the photo for making a stencil. I tend to use Photoshop and Illustrator for these next steps, so I'm sorry for those of you that don't have a copy of yours at home. I know that there are some other alternative solutions such as Photoshop Elements and Gimp that you can use. Heck, you can even try Microsoft Paint if you want, but I wouldn't recommend it. First off, I need to convert the photo into grayscale with no color. Once I have that, I adjust the levels (or brightness and contrast, so that I get roughly three values: white, 50% gray, and black. You could take the picture right from here, blow it up to letter size, and print it off, but I like to take it one step further for my own sanity.

I import the file into Illustrator and essentially re-draw it into a stencil pattern that I can print off on a letter-sized piece of paper. You'll notice that I also drew a little 'halo' around the hair. This will help pop your portrait out from the rest of the pumpkin and make it float. You also can see that I took a few liberties in defining what was a highlight and what was a shadow, but that is because of one important thing: structure. Unfortunately, carving a pumpkin isn't as simple as drawing a picture because if you cross the lines on your pumpkin, you could wind up accidentally cutting off part of your design. When creating the highlights, remember that these are the areas that you will be cutting out. Keep asking yourself, "If I cut this out right here, is there going to be enough pumpkin left to support the rest of it?" Take some liberties if you have to in order to make sure that it is going to keep itself together. Once you have created a satisfactory stencil, print it out and take it to the kitchen... or wherever it is that you butcher your fruit.

Now it is time to collect your supplies. Here are the tools that I primarily have handy, all of which you can pick up from the grocery store:

  1. Sharp knife - You'll only use this for cutting the top hole to get the guts out.
  2. Pumpkin Saw Set - You can pick these up pretty much anywhere, but this is the primary tool that I use for cutting.
  3. Ice Cream Scoop - By far my favorite tool for removing guts as well as carving out pulp.
  4. X-Acto Knife - Used for cutting detailed lines. You'll only need one blade.
  5. Box of Pushpins - Used during stenciling process.
  6. Flashlight - Use it to check your work.
  7. Toothpicks - For unseen (and seen) structural support. You may also want to use a pair of needle-nosed pliers to push them in.
  8. Super Glue - For unwanted mistakes.

Next you want to identify which part of the pumpkin you want to carve on. I know that seems like a no-brainer, but that is an important part to pay attention to. Typically the pumpkin will always have a flat side that it sat on while it grew. I tend to use that side mostly because it is easier to carve on a flat surface than a rounded one. This will also help you identify how far in to cut your top hole. You don't want to cut so far in that you cut into your 'canvas.'

Next is the part that most kids love. Cut out your top hole and pull the guts out. However, don't stop there. You need to actually carve out the stringy pulp on the inside of the pumpkin on the side that you actually are going to carve on. Most pumpkins will have about one and a half to two and a half inches of pulp. I like to get mine down to about three quarters of an inch. That allows for plenty of structural support, but also is thin enough to be sort of translucent when you take the skin off of it. Plus, it's easier to carve a thin-walled pumpkin than a thick one.

Next, use your pushpins to put your stencil on. One of the first things you will notice is that your pumpkin is not flat like you would like it to be, and thus your stencil won't lay flat. This will cause you to wonder how Amerigo Vespucci ever managed to map North America. This is where you can cheat a little, but cheat with caution. First, pin your four cardinal points as shown above.

Next, keep adding pushpins in-between until you flatten out over the surface of the pumpkin. If you look at the photo above, I did have to fold the stencil in a couple of parts in order to get it to lay on the surface. That is fine, just pick a spot where everything looks somewhat similar and you won't get thrown off by the small change in the stencil.

The next step is to transfer your stencil to the pumpkin using a pushpin. This is the most tedious and time-consuming part of the whole process and halfway through it you'll curse yourself for starting on this project in the first place. I do it every time. However, stick with it and just get it done. What you want to do is poke a hole across the dividing line between every change in shading. Basically, poke holes around all the shapes until it looks like a connect-the-dot puzzle from hell.

Once you are done remove the stencil, but don't throw it away. You'll need it to reference your shapes when you are carving. You'll see all of your pin holes in the skin of the pumpkin. This is your guide, but don't just start carving anywhere. There is a certain order that I have found to work best so you don't wind up cutting off the wrong thing.

Using your saw, cut out all of the highlight parts of your pumpkin, starting with the smallest ones. I've found that if you cut the small, intricate highlights first, it is much easier. If you cut the big ones out first, a lot of structural support will be lost and you could easily saw through something you didn't mean to. Once you get done with that part, it will be like looking at a negative of a photo, so don't worry if it looks odd. (I once did a self portrait and when my roommate saw it in the light his first thought was, "Oh no. He ruined it! It's going to look terrible!")

One thing I should mention right now is to save the 'halo' around the back of the hair for last. Otherwise, you'll be dealing with a very wobbly surface when you are trying to cut out more parts.

Once you are finished with the highlights, the next part is the mid-tone. This is achieved by simply cutting off the outer layer of skin of the pumpkin in the places that you would want it to appear (that is, if the pulp is thin enough to let light come through it). Take your X-Acto knife and cut along the dotted line. Essentially, you are just scoring it so that you can lift it off later.

Once you've done a section, take your knife and slide it under the unwanted skin. Most of the time, it will just pop off from the pulp, but sometimes it takes some work in order to get it off. If you accidentally cut off too much skin, don't worry. You can still glue it back on with the super glue.

I like to check my work as I am going along by taking the pumpkin into a dark room and shining a flashlight on the inside of it. This gives roughly the same effect as a candle and should give you a good idea if you are doing a bad job or not. Hopefully by the time you have gotten to this point you aren't doing a bad job. That would just be sad...

The last step is to cut the 'halo' out around the hair. Remember that you still need to think about structure as you are doing that. If you have some parts that are sort of floppy and are worried about them breaking off or something, just take toothpick and shove it through the piece and into the pulp. That will usually strengthen it enough to endure for the rest of the holiday.

Give it a final rinse in the sink and you should be done!

Viola! You have created a pumpkin portrait... hopefully. Either that or you're crying into a pile of pumpkin guts as you read this. I sincerely hope that it is the former and not the latter.

A word on timing: A pumpkin like this will never keep for more than two days, usually, before it dries up or something like that. I typically carve mine on Halloween day or the night before if I can. If you do need to carve it sooner than that, there is a way to preserve them. First, make sure that you give them a good rinse, inside and out, in the sink. That will keep the pulp a bit moist. Next take some Glad Press-N-Seal and cover the carved portion of the pumpkin. I've found that won't stick very well to the pumpkin skin, so take some masking tape and wrap it all the way around the pumpkin, sealing the edges of the Press-N-Seal. You'll need to do that for every edge of the sheet of Press-N-Seal in order to lock in the moisture. Just as a precautionary measure, I also use masking tape to seal off the top hole from which you remove the guts. After you have the pumpkin sealed off, store it in a cool place out of the sunlight. Last year I stored both my pumpkins in the fridge for about five days without any adverse effects to them.

Hopefully those tips will help you out, should you ever have the desire to try one of these on your own. As I've said before, it's not difficult, just time-consuming. You have to have patience and want to see the finished product to get it done. I promise, it's worth it to have random strangers ring your doorbell not just for treats, but to compliment you on your creation.

Until next year, Happy Halloween!


Adam said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

sean said...

I love you in so many ways.


Nathan said...

Holy crap!