As a bit of a start, I point you in the direction of Zombie Pumpkins: www.zombiepumpkins.com/index.p… They've got a great tips page that will detail most of everything I could explain in detail here, so I'll just refer you there. They've also got a great selections of patterns for a minimal subscription. I do a few ZPs a year as you've probably seen.
So... I present the guide on how I does it!
1 - The Patterns.
These come before the actual pumpkins, so I know what general shape and size I'm looking for. My personal style tends to be something that I can connect to the edges of a cut out shape at a few points. I also want to be careful so there are no hanging bits that won't be connected to anything, jack-o-lanterns haven't mastered the art of anti-gravity as far as I know. If it's going to be shaded, as my pumpkins tend to be, I look for something with maybe three or four distinct colours, five at most, else it gets a little too crazy. (I can do up to six on a watermelon, but that's another journal.)
2 - The Pumpkins.
Need a pumpkin to carve a jack-o-lantern, right? Let it be noted that I don't use foam pumpkins. I have nothing against them, but I'm just a purist at heart. Once I have a design in mind, I look for a pumpkin to match. If it's a vertical design, I look for a taller pumpkin. Round ones are pretty good for most anything though. Good pumpkins are free of any open wounds and scratches, have a good length of stem, and won't have any soft spots. I'm also looking for a pretty flat surface that's free of any old scarred over scratches and dents, it just makes life easier.
* At this point we get to actual carving, so I want to make a note about safety! Pumpkins like blood, but it's bad to give them any. Make sure your tools are in good shape: clean, rust free, and not about to break. If in doubt about the safety of the tool your using, better play it on the cautious side. I've heard some horror stories about people actually losing fingers and slicing nerves and tendons, so this is serious. Be careful guys.
3 - Pop the Top
I'm a lid cutter, not a bottom cutter. I actually have a sturdy little kiddy saw I use for lid slicing. It's not sharp at all, but it's thick, got a nice big handle, and gets the job done. The brand is E.Z.Halloween, and the knife itself is called the E.Z.Pumpkin Carver, but I can't for the life of me remember where I bought it. I start by making a notch opposite where I plan to make my design, it helps me remember which side it is sometimes, and remember which way the lid fits on. Then I cut at and inward angle, so the lid doesn't fall in.
4 - Gutting!
Here's where I start getting fancy. I use The Pumpkin Gutter: www.zombiepumpkins.com/shop-gu… A drill attachment that is irreplaceable for gutting a bunch of pumpkins in a short amount of time. I do one pass to loosen up all the seeds (them be good eats) and then a second run to really clean out the inside and think the walls. It's kinda messy, but I keep a trashcan next to my workplace to dump out the guts as needed. (If you're really worried about a mess, do this outside or line your workspace with newspaper. I'm not nearly as neat.) It takes me only a few minutes per pumpkin.
5 - Pattern Transfer
It saddens me to admit I'm a design poker. It's a painstaking process that takes too much time but it gets it done in the detail I want, other methods I've tried haven't. My tool of choice is a custom one, I took an old corn on the cob end poker that's shaped like a soccer ball and cut off one of the prongs, leaving me with a very sharp needle on an easy to hold round thing. I love it. To transfer I just tape the pattern, which I've printed out to the right size for the pumpkin, onto the surface, cutting little notches to make it fit better, then poke through all the lines using the poker. It leaves a dot pattern on the pumpkin once you take off the paper. If it's hard to see, I rub over the dots with a bit of flour. I keep the pattern around so I know what I'm doing later.
6 - Wall Thinning
I usually do this by hand instead of with the pumpkin gutter, it give me more control. I like my pumpkin to be about an inch thick, so I use a different poker with a notch at the one inch mark to measure the depth, making sure to poke through in places I know will be cut out later. If I can feel the end of the poker through the pumpkin, I know I'm at the right spot. If I can't, I thin it down using my nice metal scoop with teeth from a
brand called Pumpkin Works, or if it's a smaller pumpkin, the plastic toothed scoop from Pumpkin Masters. I also use that flat scoop that you get from every Pumpkin Masters kit ever. The flat one is nice for smoothing out after you get it to the right thickness, while the toothed ones are better for the real thinning work. Getting a pretty uniform thickness is good for the shading.
7 - Shading
Here we get fancy again! I shade before I cut out pieces because it keeps stuff from caving in by accident. To start, I trace slightly outside the dots around where I'm going to shade using an exact-o-knife, using pretty shallow cuts. Then we get to super fancy tool #2, the Dremel: www.amazon.com/Dremel-764-04-M… A new addition to my artillery this year, I'm not sure how I managed without it. I just kind of follow the lines and shade out where I need to. It gets a little tricky in sharp corners, which is when I turn to my other custom tool, a small flat head screwdriver. I'm not kidding you guys on this one. It's great for getting into those spots the dremel can't, and just being really versatile all around. Also good for detail work is this other thing, which is like a small plastic stick with two loopy blades at either end that I got from this kit: www.amazon.com/BuyCostumes-Pum… The rest of the kit sucks, but the scraper is a great tool. The 4-in-1 Carving Tool from Pumpkin Masters: www.epartyunlimited.com/pumpki… does the job too. Generally what I'm trying to do with shading is take off layers of the pumpkin skin without cutting all the way through. If I'm doing more then one layer, I try and cut down to different depths, enough so they look different enough. about a fourth to an eighth of an inch will do it.
8 - Cutting
Now that the hard part is out of the way, I cut out all the rest of the parts that need it. I again go fancy here, with the Pro Pumpkin Carving Tool: www.zombiepumpkins.com/shop-pr… I have two sets, so one handle for each size blade to save me from switching them constantly. Cutting is pretty straight forward. I just cut out along the dot pattern, going very slightly outside so the dots aren't left on the finished pumpkin. I'm careful when taking the cut sections out, if they resist I just cut until they come loose, just yanking them is a great way to break a pumpkin. Once everything is out, I go through and cut all the edges at an angle to clean it up. For small details I use the exact-o-knife again, or pull out one of the standard Pumpkin Masters saws.
9 - Cleanup
At this point it's kind of a mess, with little bits from the shading everywhere, little pieces that didn't cut free, and it's pretty dried out. So I take my pumpkin over to the sink to hose it off and get a good look at it. At this point I make any finishing touches to the shading that may need it, and make sure all the cuts are clean.
10 - Lighting
Candles are the way for me. I have a whole bunch of different sizes depending on what I need, brighter for lots of shading, lower down ones so you can't see them through low cuts, it varies. If I'm feeling up to a weird colour, I have a few Howler Lights: www.zombiepumpkins.com/shop-ra… but they're not the best with shading.
11 - Photography
I take my pictures in the dark, using a tripod. Usually I play around with exposure and really low outside lighting til I find the shot I like.
12 - Preservation
If I can stick em in the fridge after I'm done, I will, but I usually can't so I tend to let nature take it's course. Really the saddest part of the whole process, all the pumpkins you see here are usually gone within 4-5 days.
So there you are! My wonderful twelve step program to pumpkin carving! Hope this has helped at least a few people out who are confused about this whole fancy jack-o-lantern thing. Mind you, this is just my way of doing it, there are tons of other methods that may work better for you. Heck, there are probably some people laughing at the way I do things! Either way, I'd encourage everyone to go and pick up a pumpkin or two this Halloween and experiment! Go nuts!
To bake pumpkin seeds, I take out most of the strings but leave the pumpkin goo, mix in a bowl with a bunch of salt and a touch of cayenne pepper, then spread on a sheet pan and bake at 300 degrees F for about 30 mins. Let cool, brush off any excess salt, and enjoy!