If you want your kid to carve an elaborate pumpkin but aren’t quite German enough to trust them alone with knives, look no further than Mike Conner. This father of 3 not only taught pumpkin sculpting to his own stab-happy little punkins, he’s a master carver behind made-to-order jack-o’-lanterns who spends his weekends at a winery teaching tipsy couples how to sculpt vegetable masterpieces without slicing their fingers off. Kids are basically miniature drunk adults anyway, from their poor coordination and impulse control to their penchant for peeing themselves, so Conner’s techniques are particularly relevant.
His carving method isn’t just safer than traditional pumpkin stabbing; it depicts actual photos, so you can sculpt your kid’s favorite superhero in detail instead of a triangle-eyed thing that vaguely resembles a head. By tracing an image, shaving for varying levels of thickness, and rarely if ever penetrating all the way through the pumpkin, his style allows for shading, texture, and depth. Conner himself aims for priceless paintings, iconic photography, and portraits of living people that are eerily accurate. But he says the average father-kid duo can find an image a few steps simpler than that, like Minions, and still make the neighbors jealous.
Before You Start
Conner says pumpkin carving is hit or miss with toddlers and preschoolers, while kindergarten is the sweet spot for introducing the hobby. There’s no danger in trying as soon as they can waddle through a patch; just don’t expect someone who still calls you “Da-da” to carve the Mona Lisa (even if, like Conner, you can actually carve the Mona Lisa). Especially for the very young who can do little else, make them feel involved by giving them the power of choice.
- Let your kid select what you’re going to carve into the pumpkin
- Take them to the a pumpkin patch so they can choose the pumpkin, too
- Let them light the candle that brings it to life
A word of warning: If your kid is like Conner’s daughters, pumpkin entrails might be a turnoff for the whole process: “That part of scooping out the guts is when my daughters changed their mind and thought, ‘Eh, maybe watching TV would be more fun.’ That part may be something you want to leave out for the introductory phase.” Your kid’s gag reflex, your call.
Procedural Order Of Pumpkin Operations (POOPO)
- Print out the image you want to carve into your pumpkin
- Find a pumpkin with a suitable shape for the image
- Make a hole somewhere to reach in and gut the pumpkin
- Tape the image to the pumpkin and trace it with a knife just enough to break the skin
- Shave the inside wall behind the entire tracing so that it’s an even one-quarter inch thick
- Carve your design
- Put a light inside
Don’t skip step 5 before carving. “You want to get down to where you have like a quarter inch of pumpkin that you’re going to be working with,” he says. “Then, when you take the skin off that, it will be thin enough that the light shines through. If you don’t do that and you just peel the skin off then put a light in it, it’s going to be dark because the pumpkin meat is too thick.”
Match Your Kid’s Image To Your Skill
Your kid gets to pick the image, but you may need to trace it onto the pumpkin so that you can both carve. Go online and search for a traceable image to print out in one of 3 ways:
- Easy: Google image “pumpkin carving templates,” and let your kid select from there.
- Harder: Google image anything you want followed by the words “clip art” for black and white images that convey the gist of a picture without harping on details.
- Hardest: Try an actual photo but cartoon-ize it in Photoshop before printing to mute those details you don’t need to trace.
Keep in mind that Conner’s technique still works for a traditional triangle-eyed, gap-tooth grinning jack-o’-lantern. The difference is that you’re not cutting holes, which means you only need a big knife to cut out the top of the pumpkin. Once that’s done, you’re kid can pitch in using pretty harmless tools.
Use The Best Tools
Your most important carving tools are the safe ones that borrow their design from pottery tools to shape clay. The 3 ways to trace a design in ascending order of precision and danger: hole puncher (which comes in those cheap pumpkin carving kits you’ll see everywhere for the next 2 weeks), kitchen knife, and X-Acto knife.
Transferring your image to the pumpkin with an X-Acto knife is more dangerous but easier than using any other kind of knife or a poker. “Now the design from it when you’re done doesn’t have those little poke marks,” he says. “And you can be much more precise with exactly where you want to cut.” But be sure to move your kid away and turn on some Kenny Loggins, because you just entered the danger zone.
Carve Inside The Lines
Once the outline of the template has been cut into the pumpkin’s skin and the inside wall has been shaved, it’s all about leaving the dark places (lines, shadows) thick and the bright places (eyes, haunted house windows) thin by scraping away the pumpkin skin with various levels of enthusiasm.
Think Outside The Box
If you’d rather hack away without an image to trace and see where you land (or if your printer is broken) there’s no shame in following your own procedure. Just make sure your POOPO doesn’t stink by adding something unique about it:
- “You might carve a spider on the front and a web in the back, so the web gets projected on the porch wall, and the pumpkin shows a spider on it,” he says.
- Sculpt body parts from pumpkin chunks — noses, ears, etc. — and attach them with toothpicks.
- Paint the outside so it has personality even in the daylight.
- Instead of a candle, use an electric window lamp from Christmas decorations, and change out the color of the bulb.
- Center the carving around the stem to use it as a nose.
- Use the guts as the jack-o’lantern’s puke or, well, guts.
- Line the inside with aluminum foil to add shimmer to the flame.
Follow Conner’s lead and you and your kid won’t just be keeping up with the Jones’s this Halloween — you’ll make the Jones’s pull their lame pumpkins into the garage out of shame.