The Great Pumpkin

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Carving a jack o’ lantern is one of those lovely holiday traditions the whole family can enjoy, like hunting for Easter eggs or choosing a Christmas tree. But unlike wearing green on St Patrick’s Day, carving a jack o’ lantern can lead to gory mishaps and scenes that look like the movie Halloween rather than the holiday. Luckily, there is a way to carve a cool pumpkin and still enjoy using all 10 fingers: pumpkin shaving.

“All fancy pumpkins are shaved pumpkins. Shaving looks ten times better than cutouts. The pumpkin will also last a lot longer,” says Alex Wer, who calls himself “The Pumpkin Geek.” Wer is a carving expert who has sculpted the likenesses of Bob Dylan, Boba Fett, Harry Potter, Steve Jobs and many others into pumpkins and has been hired by companies such as Patron Tequila and Walgreens to carve corporate logos. 

Shaving involves scraping the flesh off the pumpkin until it becomes translucent. The light from inside a shaved pumpkin shines through in varying intensities, adding detail and 3-D-like depth to the image. It’s also much easier than it sounds.

Whether you’re shaving or carving, here are a few simple tips to stay safe and make your pumpkin stand out on Halloween.

Prepare the pumpkin: When it comes to decorating a pumpkin, the size and shape is all personal preference. But whether you get a short fat pumpkin or a tall narrow one, Wer recommends gutting it like crazy. “Even when you think you’re done, scrape it out some more until the interior is pretty dried out,” he says. 

Use the right tools:Shaving a pumpkin demands a specialized, albeit inexpensive, implement. “Get a clay sculpting tool from an art store like Aaron Brothers,” Wer says. “It’s like a little loop, and it lets you dig a little deeper and deeper. The deeper you go, the more the light will shine through.”

If you’re more of a traditionalist, Wer suggests buying one of those $3.99 carving kits. The cheap saw-toothed blade is amazing at cutting through pumpkins, much better than your $100 Wüsthof chef’s knife. “People grab a big steak knife that’s not serrated and go in and stab like Michael Myers. You want to saw, not slice. Stay away from the kitchen knives. Those are dangerous and will give you a trip to the hospital,” Wer says.

Wer also advises against trying to get clever and use a Dremel, which creates a huge mess. “It’s like putting a hand mixer into a watermelon,” he says. 

Find an image: Go online and find a black-and-white coloring-book image of whomever your kids are obsessed with at the moment, like Super Mario, Batman or Ninjago. Put it on the pumpkin and then shave whatever is not black. “Shave it a quarter inch, and when it’s lit, it’ll look fantastic, and it’ll last a month,” Wer says. 

Light it right:Wer eschews candles in pumpkins because the flame dries out the flesh and hastens the decay. Instead, he recommends small LED lights that can be doubled or tripled without becoming a hazard. For his artisanal creations, which he carves from polyurethane “craft pumpkins” that last for years, he uses a trick that also can be used on organic pumpkins. He will carve a port in the back of the pumpkin and run an extension cord to a 40-watt bulb. The extra light makes the detail of the shaving instantly jump out. 

Give it a bath: Let’s say you do create your masterpiece of Darth Vader arm-wrestling Rambo. Instead of watching it rot in three short days, extend its life by throwing it in the bathtub at night. “Pumpkins are alive, and when you leave live fruit out, it dries,” Wer says. “So when you aren’t using it on the front porch, put it in a bathtub filled with water. That will keep it from drying out. The first Halloween I found that out, I had eight pumpkins in my bathtub.”