(No Artistic Talent Required!)
It’s Halloween! This holiday is second only to Christmas in terms of the amount spent per year on decorations (in the USA, anyway). But for some of us, there is more to it than cheap, mass-produced rubber spiders, talking skeletons, and so on. It’s yet another excuse to be creative, in a geeky way.
So let’s carve pumpkins! When I was a wee lad, my brother and I took black markers and made an outline of what we wanted on our pumpkins, then dear old dad would cut them with a sharp knife (which we, of course, weren’t allowed to play with). Think triangular eyes, a simple nose, and a snaggletoothed mouth. Now that I am older, I find this is way too efficient, and much more time can be frittered away with this exercise…
Basic Carving Outline
(Apologies in advance for saying so many things you already know… or just skip this section.)
- Get pumpkins. You can grow them, get them at the store, or visit the kitschy farm down the road. Look for ones you can easily spread your hand across, they are the right size for single page (8 ½ x 11) paper patterns.
- Get a paper pattern. They come in books, but more sophisticated ones can be found online (carvingpumpkins.com is a favorite of mine), and printed out (laser printouts are preferred, as they are nearly impervious to pumpkin juice).
- Tape the pattern to the pumpkin (This means you don’t actually need artistic talent. Just trace it!). This is easier if you have cut some notches in the paper so it bends around the pumpkin. I say use lots of tape. Cover every bit of the paper with tape. That way, if it gets pumpkin juice on it, it won’t fall apart.
- Cut the top off. Angle it, so the top doesn’t fall in. (If you cut it straight up and down, this will happen quickly as the pumpkin ages.) Alternatively, some experts prefer cutting the bottom out of the pumpkin instead of the top. This may make the pumpkin last longer, especially if it is out in the weather. But then you may need a chimney. Either way, I leave a notch so the original orientation of the lid can be quickly reestablished.
- Scrape the guts out. Scrape the part where the pattern is applied extra hard, if you are going with a three-level pattern (explained next), so the light shines through nicely. Keep some seeds to bake and eat, if you are into that (I am not).
- Cut the pattern. Unless you are being really fancy, this can be done in three levels:
- Skin left on. This is of course the darkest.
- Skin peeled off. Much more light shines though.
- Cut all the way through. This is the lightest.
There are many tools for the job. For cutting through, knives really can’t get a high level of detail compared to the special-purpose pumpkin saws they sell these days. (Cut as perpendicular to the surface of the pumpkin as possible so the piece is easily extracted. If the piece doesn’t pop out easily, cut it into bits.)
For scraping the skin, I haven’t found anything better than a pocket knife. Just cut the edge around the area (this makes nice clean lines), then if the area is small/thin pick it out with the knife point, or if it is large, cut it into pieces to pick out. (Cutting up and down the grain of the pumpkin is easiest, if it is convenient given the shape of the area to scrape.) They also sell tools with little loops on the ends as part of store-bought kits, but I prefer to live dangerously and use my trusty knife.
The order in which the areas are cut out has a profound effect on how hard it is to execute the design without breaking anything. This is hard to pin down in words, but as you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner, you also don’t want to be cutting/scraping anything that has very little structural support. Starting with the smallest details is never a bad idea.
- Take the pattern and tape off.
- Cut air holes in the back if the pattern doesn’t involve many areas that are cut through.
- Put a candle in, light it. Pumpkins are >90% water, so putting them on your cement steps with real fiery candles in doesn’t sound that dangerous.
- Take pictures of your handiwork! (See the last section.)
- Invite some friends over, and have your sister-in-law with the Johnson and Wales degree make the snacks.
- Add beer and/or wine, to taste.
- There are also tailor-made power saws (reciprocating, not circular) available, and these are quite helpful for designs with lots of long cuts. Some people also use power tools to scrape the skin, such as a Dremel tool. This works, but I advise against combining this with #1, or #2 in particular.
How To Make Your Own Patterns
Making your own patterns is a great way to get geek technology involved in what otherwise would be a nice, earthy-crunchy hobby. This is not that hard, but you will impress people who don’t think of these things.
Get a picture using a digital camera, Google image search, or whatever. This could be easy, or not. But you won’t know for sure until later steps. Here’s what I used this year:
Crop the picture. Convert it to black and white. (I used to use PhotoShop when I had an employer that could justify the expense of having a legit copy. Now I use the GIMP.) If you look closely at the hair, you can see that I touched it up a little, in preparation for the next step…
Convert the image to three levels. I use black for skin, gray for scraped, and white for cut through. This gives an impression of the final result, but generally uses more precious toner than doing it the other way ’round. This year I just adjusted the color curve in GIMP, but I am sure I have used other means in the past.
This should result in a 3-level image:
There are a few things to note here. Obviously it is tricky to pick the levels to get something that is true to the original image. However, you also have to be aware that gravity will claim anything that is completely surrounded by a cut-out (white area). You can (in order of preference) either just erase these (in the image above they are tiny), keep fussing with the levels until there aren’t any, add supports to them, or go back to step 1 (pick a new image).
Cut the pumpkin. It may look like complete crap in the daylight:
Fear not! in the dark, things look better than you’d think, given the number of mistakes you may or may not have made in the cutting process:
Get addicted, and do more pumpkins next year. Here are a few samples from our parties. (See if you can spot the shameless plugs for our company.)
Taking Good Pictures
So even if your pumpkin doesn’t look that good, you may be able to salvage it by creative use of your digital camera.
- Use full manual mode. That way you can adjust the picture by trial and error, and keep the most appealing one.
- Unless you can hold still for 15 seconds, a tripod is a must.
- Stop the camera down. (This may not apply to your camera, but the one I got for a mere $150, 6 long years ago works best stopped down, as it blurs less. I realize that this is counter-intuitive since there isn’t a lot of need for depth of field, and the light is low. But that’s what I do.)
- Same goes for film speed. Use the slowest one, as you get the least noise in the dark areas. Even though this is counter-intuitive in low light settings.
- Then adjust the exposure time to make it look good. Take a few. Use 2 seconds, 4, 6, 8, 10, 15, and then keep whatever looks best. Usually, it takes a lot of work to get a digital photo to look almost as good as real life, but with pumpkins, it is pretty easy to make things look even better than reality, just pick the right exposure.
- The first photo shows approximately what the pumpkin looks like in real life (you will have to trust me on this). The second shows the exposure I liked the best, which soaked for a bit longer.
I’d like to thank my wife for starting this tradition, and cleaning the house before every party. And all our friends, for their contributions to our growing gallery.