A pumpkin Jack-o-lantern is one of the most effective Halloween decorations you can make yourself and it also has the bonus of being very inexpensive and easy to make. Supermarkets start selling pumpkins in early October but it’s best not to buy them until a few days before Halloween or they will start to rot.
Pumpkins can be expensive, especially if demand is outweighing supply (there was a pumpkin shortage last year due to bad weather and many supermarkets sold out well before Halloween). If you manage to buy one on offer, keeping it in the fridge until you’re ready to carve will help it last longer. Pumpkins are also much cheaper in markets and from discount supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi. If they do happen to run out of pumpkins again this year there’s nothing to stop you carving a jack-o-lantern out of a different vegetable. Turnips are actually more traditional and squashes and even beetroots can be carved into impressive lanterns too.
Choosing a Pumpkin
Large pumpkins are great for decorating the house but if you want one to carry around as a lantern, it’s best to choose the smallest you can comfortably carve. Look for a pumpkin that’s as round as possible, although some more unusual shapes lend themselves well to creating spooky faces.
Look out for any soft spots, bruises, cuts or other damage to the pumpkin that will make it rot faster. Pick one that feels firm and heavy and that has an even orange colour all over. It’s a good idea to put the pumpkin down on a flat surface to check it will sit steadily after you’ve carved it.
Designing your Jack-o-lantern
If you’re happy with a basic and simple scary face, you can easily draw it on the pumpkin and get carving. If you’d prefer a more impressive or complicated jack-o-lantern, it’s best to look at a few pictures first to base your ideas off. I’ve included some photos of some amazing jack-o-lanterns I’ve found around the web to give you some inspiration:
Image credits: Logan Ingalls / Jim Murphy / Professor Bop / Philip Hay / Brandi Korte / Makelessnoise / John / Eric Frommer / Brandi Korte
If you’re carving a complex design into your pumpkin, draw or print out the picture first and then use this to trace around – you can take a craft knife or small sharp kitchen knife or pin and prick it through the paper and the skin of the pumpkin to form a dot-to-dot guideline for you to cut. For simple designs or if you’re confident drawing straight on the pumpkin, just use a sharpie or other permanent marker to draw the design before you start cutting.
If you have any Halloween cookie cutters, this is also an easy way to create your design as you simply need to press them into the flesh of the pumpkin and then cut around the line.
You can also buy pumpkin carving kits that come with tools to help you create your designs and stencils to cut around.
How to carve a pumpkin
Start by slicing the top off your pumpkin. Draw a circle on the top of your pumpkin, the same size that you want the lid to be. Remember that this needs to be big enough to fit your hand inside. Use a paring knife to cut around the guideline at an angle, pointing in towards the centre of the pumpkin. Remember you need the lid to rest on top of the pumpkin without sliding off. If your pumpkin is small and you’re not going to be carrying it around, you can just cut the top straight off. Cut all the way round in a gentle sawing motion until you can remove the centre piece. put this to one side.
If your pumkin isn’t level on the bottom you may also want to slice the bottom off your pumpkin so that it sits straight. The easiest way to do this is with a bread knife or long serrated knife. Cut straight across in a sawing motion, being careful only to remove a thin slice. When you’ve finished cutting, this piece can be discarded.
Now it’s time to scoop out the flesh from your pumpkin. Use the scoop from your pumpkin caring kit if you have one, or any spoon will do. Start by scooping out the seeds and the stringy stuff from the middle of the pumpkin and put this to one side. Don’t throw it away as pumpkin seeds can make a tasty snack.
Next, use your spoon or scoop to scrape down the insides of the pumpkin to remove some of the soft flesh. Be careful not to make the sides of your lantern too thin, as this will weaken the pumpkin and it may collapse. Aim to make the sides about an inch thick. You can check the thickness by inserting a pin into the pumpkin in different places.
IF you’ve not already marked out the guidelines for your design do it now. Decide whether you want to cut the design all the way through, or just carve part of the skin away to form a design on the surface of the pumpkin. The second option will create a more complex and sophisticated look and allows you to create designs with shading as the light from the inside of the lantern will be brighter where you have carved the skin thinner. Here’s a pumpkin I carved a few years ago using this technique:
If you’re just partially carving through the thickness of the pumpkin, use a craft knife to remove the skin and then a small spoon or other tools to scrape away the flesh to create your desired design.
IF you’re cutting all the way through, use a small saw blade, the pumpkin cutters from your kit or a small, thin knife to pierce all the way through the flesh of the pumpkin and then cut out your design with a sawing motion.
You can also create some beautiful and intricate designs by using a drill to make holes in the pumpkin in patterns.
Once you’ve finished cutting your design, rubbing vaseline over all the cut edges will help your pumpkin jack-o-lantern to last longer. If you’re creating a small lantern for carrying around trick-or-treating, pierce holes in either side of the pumpkin near the top (not too near) so that you can tie on a string handle.
It’s traditional to place a candle inside pumpkin lanterns but if you want to avoid the risk of fire, you could use a small battery-powered electric candle like these ones. These are great especially for lanterns that children will be carrying round as there’s no risk of fire or injury – you probably saw the stories in the news last year about how most commercial halloween costumes are highly flammable. I love these little electric tea lights because they look just like real candles, especially when they’re inside a lantern – they even flicker just like real candles! They also come in different colours which can make for some impressive and spooky effects inside your lantern (blue always works well).
If you do decide to use real candles, go for tealights or small votives and wrap them in aluminium foil if they’re not already in a holder. Use a small blob of melted wax to secure the candle to the bottom of your lantern. If your lantern is small and the lid is close to the flame of the candle, or you’re using a design that isn’t cut all the way through the pumpkin, you’ll need to cut a chimney hole in the lid for ventilation and for smoke and heat to escape.