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To carve or craft? It’s the great pumpkin debate.

Thanks to the crafting revolution, the traditional jack-o’-lantern is being ditched in favor of perfectly painted pumpkins, gold lamé gourds and no-carve bedazzled squash. “No carve”? No thanks.

Then there’s the terrifying trend of people skipping pumpkins altogether and instead carving Halloween pineapples. (A cursory survey of Instagram tells us this is officially a thing.) Forget the Pinterest fails this year. Let’s get back to the messy, centuries-old tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns.

If you’re looking to go beyond the classic toothy-smile-and-triangle-eyes design, look no further. Local pumpkin-carving master Jennifer Benke has helped us put together a guide to help you carve the perfectly imperfect pumpkin. Benke, 49, of Chaska, has been carving pumpkin portraits for more than 15 years. She’s carved everyone from Harry Potter to Robin Williams. “This year, it’s all about Prince,” she said. Here are five tips for carving like a pro.

First, assemble your tools

• Soap and water

• Washcloth

• Towel

• Small woodworker’s gauge tool, vegetable peeler or melon ball scoop (to scrape away pumpkin flesh)

• Large and small pumpkin saws

• Drill bits (to cut perfect circles)

• Scalpel or X-Acto knife (to outline parts of the design before scraping)

• Spoon or scraper

• Surgical gloves (if sensitive to raw pumpkin)

• Vaseline

• Toothpicks

• Pattern (Find one using Google)

• Tracing paper or carbon paper (office supply store)

• Ballpoint pen or a very dull pencil

• Tape

• Scissors

• Bright light for checking your work


1. Choose the right pumpkin

• Pick a fresh pumpkin free of spots where rot could have worked into the inside of the gourd.

• Look for smooth skin and make sure it sits so that the “face” side is level or tilting upward.

• Choose one with an intact stem ­— the greener the stem, the longer the pumpkin will last.

2. Prep work

• Clean the outside of the pumpkin with soap and water.

• Cut a generous hole in the pumpkin (you don’t have to take off the top, you can also take off the bottom or the back) and clean out seeds and pulp until dry. Don’t worry, your pumpkin will go from “Eww” to “Ahh” in no time.

• If the skin is thick, scrape away excess from the inside, focusing on giving the face/design side of the pumpkin a uniform thickness of about ¼ to 1 inch.

3. Transfer the pattern

• Trim the pattern and cut slits into the paper so that the pattern conforms easily to the curve of the pumpkin.

• Tape the carbon paper to the back of the pattern with the carbon facing the pumpkin.

• With your pen or pencil, firmly trace all lines of the pattern onto the pumpkin face. If you’re using the poker tool (provided with carving kits) to trace the stencil, then use dark food coloring on a cotton ball to highlight the small holes. This will make them easier to see and reduce the risk of making a mistake.

4. Carve away!

• Starting with the gray areas on the pattern and using your blade, cut around all edges ¼- to ½-inch deep. Now thin the skin to about ½-inch thick using your gouge or peeler.

• If the pattern has very small holes, use a drill bit to poke through to the inside.

• Working smallest to largest, use your saws to carefully remove pieces from the design. Cut out large pieces in sections.

• When sawing, don’t force the blade. Use a gentle sawing motion and allow the blade to do the work. Refer back to the pattern often to make sure you’re cutting along the right line.

• Poke pieces through from the outside to the inside and remove them from the pumpkin’s cavity.

• If you make a mistake, use a toothpick to hold a piece back in place.

• Check your work periodically with a bright light.

5. The big finish

• Carve your pumpkin as close to Halloween as possible. If you need to preserve it, you can soak it face down in ice water with a capful of bleach (to kill bacteria and fungus).

• When you’re ready to display your jack-o’-lantern, use petroleum jelly on the exposed edges to keep them from drying out.

• Use a bright lightbulb or a string of lights inside the pumpkin. Candles don’t usually provide enough light to get the full effect of your design.

(Below is a beginners' pattern. Download to your device and print.)