Master Carver Thomas Olton on Carving Pumpkins with Kids

Master pumpkin carver Thomas Olton, creative director of the annual Rise of the Jack O’ Lanterns at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island, gives tips on how to carve pumpkins with your kids in a fun, safe, and easy way.

rise of the jack o lanterns

How do I choose a design for my child’s skill level?

You want to look at the overall complexity of the design and decide whether you want to spend that much time tracing. A big part of doing jack-o’-lanterns at home when choosing a design is actually applying the design to the pumpkin and physically carving it out. If you have a lot of lines and a lot of intricate small detail, then you are going to have a much harder time carving the actual pumpkin.

A good rule of thumb is the larger and simpler the shape, the younger you can go. As the shapes get smaller and more complicated, it’s going to take someone a little older with a little more skill. So for a young child, big triangle eyes and a zig zag mouth are the way to go. For older folks, you can do more complicated imagery.

What kind of tools should I use for carving?

A lot of the tools I use are for sculpting actually, because I do a lot of sculpting of pumpkins. So I’ll use loop tools and ribbon tools that are typically reserved for carving clay, but I use them to carve pumpkins because the flesh is soft enough that you can really get in there and use this kind of tool. It helps to sharpen them up a little bit because they are typically for clay.

I also use any of the available Exacto knives or a small precision razor blade with a nice sharp blade. A lot of people think when you get into sharper knives that that’s too dangerous. But a sharp knife used carefully is a lot safer than a dull knife that you have to force through the pumpkin. You can go slow or use a lighter hand with a sharp knife. If you have a dull knife and you’re trying to force it, that’s when you slip and hurt yourself.

I also use commercially available pumpkin saws. You’ll see them in pharmacies and supermarkets along with scoopers. They’re fantastic. They do exactly what they’re supposed to do and they’re very safe. A lot of times they’re rounded off so they aren’t even the least bit sharp but they provide just enough resistance to cut through the pumpkin, and if you’re going to be allowing small children to take part in the carving itself you’re going to want to go find some of these small, very dull, but still effective pumpkin carving tools.

Of course there is no substitute for supervision. Basically if you run it across your hand and you feel like you can cut yourself on it, you probably shouldn’t give it to your child.

You can buy a package of pumpkin-carving tools at supermarkets and pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, and they are always available online.

Are there any household items I can use to carve my pumpkin?

Really don’t be afraid to go fishing through your cutlery drawer or your junk drawer. I got started in carving pumpkins using screwdrivers because they were the right size and shape for what I was trying to do with the pumpkin. Basically anything that has a little bit of an edge to it or can actually make a dent or a divot in the pumpkin is fair game when it comes to carving them. You want to be creative and you want to look around. Open up that old junk drawer and look inside and find any little strange thing that you think might make the right shape or might make the right impression in the pumpkin and feel free to use that. That’s the great thing about Halloween. It pushes people to be creative and to figure out what they enjoy and what they want to get out of it. So don’t be locked down into just the knife or the pumpkin saw or something like that. There are any number of things around your house that might be perfectly suitable for carving a pumpkin and if you’re old enough and have the skill level feel free to use whatever you like.

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In my bag, for example, I have tiny eyeglass screwdrivers. Those are great for gouging out material in the pumpkin. I have a melon baller. It happens to leave just the right divot when I cut through (the pumpkin). I have broken pieces of old hacksaws. Any kitchen utensil will work. A metal skewer is fantastic. You can scratch along the surface if you want to make a pumpkin that looks all scarred up in the face. Anything metal that you can make an impact on the pumpkin. I didn’t start using professional pumpkin carving tools till just a few years ago.

How can I safely get my kids involved in pumpkin carving?

There’s always a part that the child can do. So if you’re carving a pumpkin with your child, you cut the bottom off the pumpkin and then give them something like a spoon or an ice cream scoop and let them go to town ripping the guts out of it. That’s the messy and the fun part. Another way you can get kids involved is if you have a small child do a very simple face and simply hold their hand and help guide them as they cut along the line of a triangle or any circles you might have on there.

The other thing as far as getting kids involved is a lot of times kids like to decide what the design is going to be. So ask your child what kind of face it should be – a scary face, a happy face, an angry face? Then have them take a black magic marker and physically draw the image on the pumpkin and then you can have them scoop out the pumpkin and then you carve the image out. The child’s still going to take ownership of it because they drew the face on the pumpkin and they like that. That’s their face.

How can I transfer an image onto my pumpkin?

TO: There are two ways of transferring an image on to a pumpkin that are generally accepted. Most people will take the picture you draw onto the pumpkin and trace it out with a small pin. When you peel the paper off, you will have all these dotted lines that make up your image.

Another very effective method is to take a piece of charcoal, and rub the back of the piece of paper with it to make it completely black. Place the paper on the pumpkin, charcoal-side down, and then trace the image with a ballpoint pen. That will leave a pencil copy of the image that you just traced. Essentially you’re making the piece of paper into a piece of carbon paper, because carbon paper is a tough thing to find these days.

How can I preserve my pumpkin?

The number one thing you want to do when preserving a pumpkin is to kill bacteria. Bacteria breaks down the pumpkin and the pumpkin rots. The safest way to do this is with some solution that includes bleach, so a little bleach and water or any bleach based bathroom cleanser sprayed inside and outside the pumpkin. That’ll kill all the bacteria that’ll break your pumpkin down and will help your pumpkin to survive a few days longer.

There are a lot of other techniques like rubbing Vaseline on them or oil-based products. I’ve had limited success with them and it’s really messy. The easiest and simplest thing to do is get your pumpkin as sterile as possible with some kind of cleanser.