Carving pumpkins is one of the fun traditions of Halloween and creative types (ahem, you!) often like to take things up a notch. With that in mind, I got in touch with artist Agnes Niewiadomski who is responsible for TSN’s amazing NHL pumpkins.
Recently asked back to carve pumpkins for a second year, Agnes gives us her best tips and advice regarding tools and techniques for carving an amazing pumpkin that will put your artistic talents to good use.
Can you tell us about the pumpkins you carved for The Sports Network?
I carved 9 pumpkins that included a mixture of hockey team logos and several of the network’s show logos. All of the pumpkins were carved in relief, meaning only part way into the flesh of the pumpkin instead of all the way through. This allowed me to create the intricate designs without worrying about piecing falling away, and changing the structural integrity of the pumpkin.
What are the best kind of pumpkins to use for carving?
What you want to look for when shopping for a pumpkin, especially if your design has a lot of details, is a smooth faced pumpkin that has no bruises. Bruises will quickly turn your pumpkin into a rotting mess. Also one that still has its stem attached in full (not broken in half by careless pumpkin pickers!). It is best to visit a local pumpkin patch if possible, since they will have traveled less, and it is easier to pick them out of a patch, rather than a giant bin at the grocery store when they’ve been tossed around by who knows how many people.
What are the best tools to use for pumpkin carving?
For cutting the lids of the pumpkins, I use a really simple homemade cutting tool. A jigsaw blade that has been epoxied to a piece of doweling. Something very similar to this, but using a jigsaw blade (thicker) instead of scroll saw blades will be much stronger and are great for fast simple cutting. Pro tip: I always include a square or triangle notch in my lid as a “key” so I always know how it fits back on.
For carving the designs I found my Swiss made Pfeil wood carving chisels came in really handy. Of course not everyone will have access to these (they do cost a pretty penny for the set), so as an alternate you might try lino-cutting blades, commonly found at arts and crafts stores. These won’t be as sharp, but if you’re only doing one pumpkin, it may be all you need.
I do have a tip for scraping out the inside of the pumpkin. Because, in my case, I am only carving part way into the flesh of the pumpkin, I still want to make sure enough light will be able to pass through from the inside shining out. So my secret is a plastic jar lid. I happen to use the one from my Magic Bullet set…but think of lids from any plastic jars….peanut butter, mayonnaise. Anything that fits nicely in your hand..about 3″ – 4″ diameter, and has about a 1/2″- 1″ lip. It makes for nice even scraping on the inside of the pumpkin walls. No one likes ooey-gooey stringy pumpkins. This way you are able to thin the walls from the inside without needing to carve too deeply into the face of the pumpkin. I suggest using a bright LED lantern to periodically check on the transparency of the pumpkin wall as you whittle down the thickness. Don’t go too thin, or you will be in big trouble.
Do you have any tips for creating a design? Things that work well or don’t work at all?
Want to create your own designs free hand? Try using a dry or wet erase marker directly to the skin of the pumpkin. You should be able to clean off the lines if the carving doesn’t go exactly as planned.
Using a paper template? Find some really sticky tape, or if you don’t mind a few extra pin holes…pin that paper template to your pumpkin to stop it from moving around while you transfer the design. You’ll definitely want to cut darts (triangles) out of the sides of the paper you’ve got your design on. These triangle cuts will help you force the paper to follow the curves of the pumpkin a little more faithfully. I’ve read online some people suggesting you use carbon transfer paper, I’m not sure who this is working for, but I have not has success with it. It doesn’t want to stick to the pumpkin’s skin. Once you have your paper template secure, you can then use a push pin, though I find a sharp awl is a lot easier to handle, and transfer the pattern by perforating the lines of your design into the pumpkin skin. It takes awhile, but I find it to be accurate.
What are your best pumpkin carving tips?
A pumpkin doesn’t always need a lid! Try cutting a hole in the center bottom of your pumpkin instead. Place the pumpkin upside down in a large cooking pot to stop it from rolling around…cut a large enough hole to allow you to get your hand in there to scoop out all the innards. When you are ready to display your masterpiece (after it has been carved) set up your candle/LED lantern where you want your pumpkin to sit, and just place your pumpkin over top. This would be a good idea for a pumpkin that is so perfect in every way, but has developed a bruise on the bottom. Once you cut out the infected area, it should live on.
Don’t carve too early, you run the risk of your pumpkin getting rotten and drying out. To avoid this I use a bleach/water solution of 1:1 in a dollar store spray bottle. I lightly mist the inside and outside of the pumpkin once daily, and keep it in a cold place. Garages are usually excellent for this.
If you screw up, don’t worry a tooth pick might just save your broken jack-o-lantern tooth…or you could always try gluing back a bit you didn’t mean to carve out. These will be displayed at night, so really all you’re trying to achieve is a nice glowing silhouette.
And finally, if working on a lot of pumpkins, or just a really hard design, take lots of breaks to rest your hands, they will end up sore from all the pressure needed to push around the carving tools. Treat them nice!
Agnes is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art & Design’s Sculpture & Installation program. She enjoys being a part of community events, and teaching crafty workshops at kwartzlab, her makerspace in Kitchener, ON. She loves all kinds of making– from CNC machining and hacking electronics to sewing, cake decorating and even butter sculpting. She loves to have a hand in it all. You can find Agnes on Twitter @agawaffle or Facebook at Agnes Makes.