Sunday, October 10, 2010

How To Carve A Badass Pumpkin

Here in the United States, we have a great tradition of wasting valuable food resources for decorative purposes, and this is a hobby I picked up in college. I realized early on that I happened to be quite skilled at it, and every Halloween I'm constantly fielding questions about how to carve these pumpkins. So I finally decided to carve a pumpkin and write a step by step blog post about how it's done. A few things I should note before we begin:
  • Kids, ask your parents' permission before wielding sharp and deadly knives. 
  • Adults, give your kids permission when they ask for permission to take a knife and go to town. Be cool, man.
  • This pumpkin is not quite as detailed as some of the other one's I've done, because I wanted to do it using only the tools available in the average supermarket pumpkin carving kit. So I bought a $2 kit from HEB and only used that. I actually have my own set of precision tools that I've created, but I wanted to show you that it can be done by the ordinary joe with ordinary tools.
  • Carving pumpkins takes patience. 

Alright, so let's carve a pumpkin!

Step 1: Select a pattern
There are a ton of great pumpkin patterns out there, ranging in difficulty from beginner to advanced or you can create your own from a photo or drawing. I'll be posting some instructions on how to make your own pattern out of a photograph here in a few days, but for now I'll focus on the carving itself, so if you have a pattern you don't have to create, you can go ahead and get started. For this exercise, I've chosen to immortalize the indomitable Professor Larry T. Bates, a man who strikes abject terror in the hearts of first year Contracts students every year. To get in the appropriate mindset, I cranked up some Van Der Graaf Generator and read a portion of Article 9 of the U.C.C. Here is the pattern I created: 
I can still feel the nausea that I felt after I read through the Contracts 2 exam.

Step 2: Select a pumpkin

The pumpkin you select should fit your pattern. That is, if your pattern is taller and thinner, as mine was, your pumpkin should be taller and thinner, and vice versa. You want a pumpkin that's got a good solid flat side on it with no or few scars or blemishes on it. Here's the pumpkin I chose: 

I like to mark the middle of the side I'm gonna be working on with a little +, so that I know which side to hollow out. But we'll get to that in a minute.

Step 3: Cut the top off

Now you've gotta open it up to get all the delicious food out. I prefer to cut a pentagonal top, so it doesn't fall into the pumpkin, which can happen with a circular top. Plus, pentagrams are in the spirit of Halloween. Rock on! To carve this pumpkin, as I mentioned before, I used only the tools that came in the standard pumpkin carving kit. Plus a nail that I found to punch the design into the pumpkin. But we'll get to that.
This is more complicated than what they used to perform brain surgery with in the 1600s. The results are similar.

Step 4: Scoop all the crap out of it

This is probably the least fun part, since you get pumpkin crap all over your hands and it's kind of a pain in the ass. But, it's important to get all the stuff out of it so you have a clean surface to work with. What you want to do is to scrape the inside of the side you'll be carving down to about 3/4 of an inch thick or less. You want it to be as uniformly even as possible; this will make carving about 10 times easier and will help your shapes be clearer. I kind of rushed this part on this particular pumpkin, which made carving it a little more difficult, so I again stress the importance of being thorough on this part.

This is what Bates' brain looks like after the 1970s. Nothing but psychedelic rock and contracts cases.

Once you're done carving it out, the pumpkin will look like this:

Because you couldn't possible visualize what the inside of an empty pumpkin looks like.

It's hard to see here, but I tried to get a picture of what the inside wall of the carving side should look like if you scrape it out evenly.

Step 5: Transfer the pattern to the pumpkin

This is certainly the least fun and most time-consuming part of the process. To transfer the pattern to the pumpkin, essentially what you do is tape the pattern on the pumpkin, then use a small pin or something sharp to punch holes around the edges of the pattern. The holes should be as close together as you can get them, and the finer the detail you want in your pumpkin, the closer the holes will need to be. First, tape the pattern onto the pumpkin:

It's ok to fold it a little at the corners so that it sits as flat as possible on the surface. Just remember that this will distort the edges of your pattern if you don't correct it, which is what happened to me. (Prof. Bates, I'm sorry your hair isn't as long and luxurious on the pumpkin as it should be. It's been 3 years since I've done this. No pumpkin could truly do it justice anyway.) I should also point out that it's important to have 2 copies of your pattern if possible, so you can reference what it looks like after the first one gets destroyed in the process of transfer.

Next, begin transferring the pattern to the pumpkin by punching holes through the paper and into the pumpkin along the pattern lines. Here's what I mean, in case that's not clear:

By the time you finish the pattern, your first paper copy will pretty much be shredded.

Continue punching the lines along the entire pattern, including the lines you are going to cut and the parts that will be shaded. In this pattern, the white areas will be cut out entirely, and the grey areas will have the skin peeled off and the flesh left remaining to provide shading.

Did I mention it's a tedious process? Better crank some Who to kill the time..

Once you've punched holes around the entirety of the pattern, if you've done it right, you should be able to see your pattern in lines on the pumpkin. It will look like this:

This is where it helps to have an artistic eye. It also helps to have another copy of your pattern around, so you know where to be cutting and where to leave alone. However, even a well-traced pattern can be hard to see, so I add a little flour to the pumpkin to help the lines show up better. Just sprinkle a little flour on the front of the pumpkin like so:

And then rub it in with your hand a little bit. Wipe off the excess and the lines become a lot easier to follow:

I am a genius. Also, this is kind of creepy.

Step 6: Carve it!

The next part is actually probably the least difficult part. You want to carve out the white areas of your pattern (or black, if you got one of those reverse ones) and leave the grey and black intact. To do this, make short, confident cuts with your saw, starting with the finest detail areas (it's much easier to carve a small hole when the rest of the pumpkin is intact than at the end when the structures are much more fragile). Also, for larger cutout areas, like the forehead in this picture, I prefer to section it up into 1/4ths or smaller, since smaller pieces are generally easier to cut and remove. Your mileage may vary.

You will probably be referencing your pattern quite frequenly during this part, since it's very easy to get mixed up at this stage. I forgot to get any pictures of me carving the skin off the pumpkin, but basically you just run a knife under the skin and peel it off of the shaded areas. In the end you'll end up with something that looks like this:

Frankly this looks like something you'd see on an acid trip. And not a good acid trip. 

Another thing I should mention is that these pumpkins really aren't that great for displaying for more than a day or two. The more detailed they are, the quicker the finer structures wither and deteriorate, and the person on your pumpkin ages about 30 years overnight. Also, they require a lot of light for the really fine details to show up, but 3 or 4 tealights inside will do the trick. For pictures, I just stick my desk lamp in it and take a picture.

Anyway, by the time it's all said and done, you should have a fine-looking pumpkin to put on your front porch and terrorize children with, especially if those children know anything about Article 2 of the UCC.

Again, Prof. Bates, sorry for failing to fully capture the true essence of The Hair.
To preserve, you can put it in the fridge or freezer, which tends to help keep it for more than a day. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them, and no, I will not make a custom pattern for you/of you.

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