Over jack-o-lanterns that look more toothless than they should and start rotting an hour after you carve them?
We were, too. So we went straight to the source: we asked pumpkin carving king Mike Conner of Xtreme Carvers for the scoop. Here are his top 7 tips to amp your carving game.
Our Carving Expert
His art skill is obvious, so pro pumpkin carver Mike Conner surprised us by opening with, “I’m an IT project manager.”
Okay…so how does he come up with his amazing designs?
Mike modestly says, “I kind of just fell into this. In 2005, I was carving pumpkins with my kids. I decided I wanted something a little more than triangle eyes.”
His very first leveling-up idea? To carve the famous Mona Lisa into a gourd. And while that’s what anyone might consider extremely ambitious, “I got some fantastic comments on the results,” Conner says.
After that, friends and associates began asking for their own personalized pumpkins. Connor was happy to oblige, for free. “I just kept pushing the envelope,” he says. “Each year I’d do a harder design. I’d try to make things cooler.”
Conner’s creations were cool, all right – some might even say they were lit. Eventually, though he didn’t ask for it, Conner made his first official sale…sort of. “I was paid with a free lunch,” he recalls.
Eventually Conner began selling his gorgeous gourds, creating his seasonal side business, Xtreme Carvers. Today his amazing creations sell each year for anywhere between $20 and $200 (depending upon the complexity of the work and the type of gourd – natural or permanent foam).
Yes, You CAN Carve a Cool ‘Kin
It takes about eight hours for Conner to complete one jack-o-lantern. But don’t be intimidated – you can make your own cool creation in record time…with results so awesome, you won’t believe your eyes.
Here are 7 amazing tips from Xtreme Carvers for gouging the perfect gourd.
You can bang on it and listen, but that won’t really give you the lowdown on whether you’ve got a good carving pumpkin, according to Mike Conner.
With consideration to the type of pumpkin and how deep its normal color is, bear in mind that “a darker pumpkin is often drier inside. That means it’s less messy to carve, but also a lot more work,” Conner advises. “Lighter-colored pumpkins cut like butter.”
Make sure the pumpkin is nice and dry on the outside before doing this, according to our expert. “Because you’re choosing a moist, fresh pumpkin, it’s going to be juicier, and your pattern might slip and slide while you’re trying to cut if you don’t tape it well.”
Use regular masking tape or a packing tape and make sure all the edges are taped firmly before moving to the next step.
Hey, he said it, not us. But size DOES make a difference, according to our expert.
“I recommend getting the biggest pumpkin you can afford. That way, there’s plenty of room for the pattern.”
It’s easy to enlarge a pattern, but reducing it for a smaller pumpkin will mean more intricate and more difficult cutting around tight spaces, so go large with this step.
You have two options here: sink little dots along the pattern’s edges, or just cut lightly into the pumpkin rind on all the lines of the pattern.
Either way, you’ll want to do this step fairly quickly, as moisture will leak out of the pumpkin as soon as you cut, potentially blurring the pattern if you take too long with this process.
We admit this tip surprised us. How will the light shine through if we don’t cut all the way through the rind and remove the whole section?
“You’ll be surprised how much light you see with only part of the skin removed,” Conner told us. “And with varying depths along your design, you’ll get all sorts of cool effects, from lighter to darker.”
To find out whether enough light is shining through, Conner recommends putting your pumpkin in a dark space such as a closet, then putting a miniature light bulb inside. “Test it out a few times. If you need more light, cut a little deeper.”
Believe it or not, the Darth Maul pictured above isn’t painted. All of the color effects came from the depth of the cuts. “Play around with your design,” Conner recommends. “Get creative.”
What’s surprising here is what you don’t need: “I’ve actually gotten some amazing results from off-the-shelf carving kits,” Conner says.
If you’re piecing together your own set, make sure you have these:
- a craft/X-Acto knife
- a basic pumpkin scoop, or an ice cream scoop
- a large knife to cut the top of the pumpkin
- small pumpkin-carving saws (or get a complete kit with various sizes)
- a wood carving kit for shadows, partial-depth cutting or special effects
Conner warns that while the results are long-lasting, carving a foam craft pumpkin will take more work and a bit of elbow grease. “These can be tough to cut through without ruining the pumpkin. Experiment with a dremel and different-size bits, as well as sturdy miniature carving saws.”
“This really does work,” Conner tells us. Okay, but why? “What speeds up decay on any carved fruit or vegetable is exposure to air. The edges will dry out, sink in or may even become moldy. And they’ll discolor.”
Petroleum jelly creates a barrier air can’t penetrate. “Make sure you cover every single cut surface, including your partial-depth details that you haven’t cut all the way through the skin.”
Can’t get enough? Here are a few top-secret methods from the pros:
- Use a miniature electric light to illuminate your finished design. Candles are traditional but can sputter, which could be dangerous. “And they’ll ‘cook’ your pumpkin if you don’t place them just right,” Conner warns.
- If you don’t want to use an electric light, “battery-operated candles can work too, but make sure you get a very bright one, or it might not light up the design well.”
- Cut a notch in the bottom or top (whichever you’ll be cutting in order to remove the pumpkin’s innards) so you can easily put it back on.
- For a traditional look, cut open the top of the pumpkin rather than the bottom. This will also make it easier to carry your pumpkin if you need to move it.
- Refrigerating a jack-o-lantern, provided you have room, can preserve the life of your design by up to two weeks depending upon other factors.
- Start out with relatively simple designs and work your way up to more complex creations. If you’re having trouble getting around corners or cutting details with your tools, enlarge the design and try again on the other side of the pumpkin.