How To Kill A Pumpkin: A Tutorial

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I used to decorate and carve pumpkins like crazy. I don’t celebrate any more; I haven’t seen a trick-or-treater in my neighborhood for years and I don’t see the point of it when there are no little beggars to scare the crap out of. I was also having a problem with my hands and carving made them really hurt.

When I do carve a pumpkin, I use the Bardeen method, invented in the 1940s by Paul John Bardeen, an engineer from Racine, Wisconsin. After Mr. Bardeen died, in 19883, his children got together to produce a carving kit and pattern to honor their father by sharing his tradition. Son John Bardeen formed the company Pumpkin Masters in the mid-1990s.

Pumpkin 101: it all depends on the weather during the growing season. Some years, the walls are thick and watery; easy to carve. One year the wall was thin; I thought these would be a snap to carve, but the meat was hard and dry and it was like carving concrete. Another year, the pumpkins ripened in mid-September and by Halloween, they were starting to mold, it not rotten. Since they were so soft, it was easy carving. Which comes first, the pumpkin or the design? It depends, but I usually choose the design first and then find a pumpkin to fit. Sometimes there is that one pumpkin that you can’t pass up, like the skull shaped one I found one year, and the zitty, warty one another year; then you look for a design to fit the “canvas”.

Tips and Common Mistakes:

Tools- Most people get out their biggest knives for carving. Forget the butcher knife. A smaller knife is easier to manipulate and safer. If you don’t want to invest in the Pumpkin Masters tools, use a small, thin, short serrated blade steak or fillet knife. Use a small handled spoon or paint scraper; big handles get in the way, they should be not much longer than the width of your palm. Nails, t-pins and awls can be used to punch holes; a thicker handle is more ergonomic and your hand won’t tire as fast.

Lid- Most people cut the lid wrong; they just cut a circle and then the lid falls in. The lid should be cut as close to a square as possible with a notch in the back to anchor.

Scrape- Don’t thin the wall enough; the pumpkin will be too hard to carve if the wall is too thick. It should be no more than an inch and a half and no less than 1/2 an inch.

Don’t cut, saw: Cutting is more difficult to control and dangerous. Insert the knife all the way through the pumpkin and saw in an up and down motion, keeping the blade as perpendicular as possible. Don’t turn the blade at corners; for a more precise cut, saw to the corner on each line. And go slow. Using this method correctly will keep you from being carved, result in precise cuts and avoid breaking blades.

Mold and Rot- to keep your Jack looking fresh by waiting to carve 1-2 days before the big Revel, unless you’re going for the caved in toothless smile. I spray my pumpkins with Lysol after I scrape the inside to slow the rotting process; if you can, do this out doors and wear a mask over your mouth and goggles to avoid getting gassed, spray the inside thoroughly (it should look foggy in there) and place the lid on and let it et for a half hour to let the Lysol soak into the meat, then carve away. If your pumpkin is drying out too fast, mist the inside with water in a spray bottle. You can also rub (carefully) petroleum jelly on the cuts; wipe off any moisture first and use q-tips, wooden skewers, etc.

Original designs- think of it as designing a stencil; there must aloways be a connecting point (think of the letter P). Recommend that you black out the areas to be removed. Make a photocopy and cut it out with scizzors or exacto knofe to make sure that there are no design errors that will result in big gaping nothingness. Easier to correct a mistake on paper first then after carving.

Pumpkin Carving the Bardeen/Pumpkin Masters Way:
I highly recommend purchasing one of their carving kits which come with several size saws and a pattern. They are safe if used correctly. I have used them with children as young as First grade, with supervision, of course!

1. Photo copy your design before you start, enlarging or reducing is needed.
2. Cut the lid.
3. Scrape out the insides and thin the wall where the carving will take place. I highly recommend the Pumpkin Masters scraper; very ergonomic.
4. Pin your pattern on pumpkin on the lines. Poke holes along the cutting lines. Remove pattern.
5. Carve following the pinholes, as in connect the dots. Doing this with a sharpie pen before carving helps to see them better.
6. Light your pumpkin and display. If using a candle, then you need to make a chimney- let the candle burn for a while; remove the lid and look for where the heat had made a dried or burned spot. Cut or poke a small hole in this place.

Photographing Pumpkins: Set up the pumpkins; if displaying and photographing several, stager the height- use different height tables (small, sturdy plant stands are great) or stack large books. If you are going for a studio effect, choose a place that will be dark enough (I use a hallway with no windows). Use a black drape for contrast, especially if the walls are light colored. When you have the pumpkins set up, set up the camera on a tripod. Set the frame, choose your settings and focus while the lights are still on (I usually auto focus,
then flip the switch to manual for the actual shot. Douse the lights and start shooting; I use a remote to eliminate camera shake. If shooting outdoors, set up as much as you can while it is still light. Don’t forget the flashlight. If you have an auto flash that you can’t turn off, tape a piece of cardboard over the flash, but don’t block the sensor, which could prevent the shutter from engaging.

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