The secret to the perfect jack-o-lantern

Tired of jack-o-lanterns that look like a preschooler attacked them with a butter knife?

The secret to nice jack-o-lanterns is mainly in the tools, said Sarah Gregga, who with her family carves six to eight large pumpkins and several smaller ones to line their Beavercreek Township driveway with an annual themed display. (Last year’s theme was Disney princesses; this year’s will be Tim Burton movies.)

We asked Gregga to demonstrate and explain the proper carving technique. We also consulted Judy Chaffin, organizer of the annual Stoddard Avenue Pumpkin Glow, which features over 650 lit-up, carved pumpkins at dusk each Oct. 30 and 31 in the Grafton Hill Historic District of Dayton. [How to go to the Pumpkin Glow]

Here are their tips for creating the perfect jack-o-lantern:

1. Use the right tools. The long, straight-edged chef’s knife that most people think of for carving pumpkins is actually the worst choice, said Gregga, who holds a bachelor’s degree in interior design and works in the custom framing shop at Michael’s in Beavercreek.

Small, serrated knives are key for precision, she said, noting it’s worth the $5 you pay for a kit of pumpkin-carving knives. She supplements with tiny tools for working with ceramic clay, especially a metal awl tool for poking holes.

2. Use the right pumpkin. Gregga recommends a pumpkin that has a flattish surface on one side and shallow ridges.

Chaffin suggested using a pumpkin that isn’t too thick.

“The big, round, orange ones are generally thick,” she said. “Look for the ones that are tall and pale orange. They’re usually a little softer and thinner.”

And don’t buy or carve them too early, Gregga warned, or they’ll rot before Halloween.

3. Choose your pattern. Pattern books often accompany pumpkin-carving tool sets. Or go online to a site like Some pattern websites are free; some charge a nominal fee. On, patterns are grouped according to ability level: beginner, apprentice, enthusiast, veteran and maniac. Gregga is going to attempt her first maniac pattern this year – an intricate, scalloped Cheshire Cat face. [Free, printable pumpkin patterns]

For us, however, she demonstrated a beginner pattern that any carver could master.

4. Cut the lid and scoop out. Or if you’re Chaffin, you might cut the bottom off the pumpkin instead. Pumpkin Glow carvers tried a few like that last year, and they stayed upright more easily.

Use the plastic scraper that comes with the carving tool kit to scrape the stringy stuff from the inner walls.

5. Transfer the pattern. Tape the pattern snugly to the pumpkin and use a pointy awl tool to poke little holes all along the lines of the paper pattern.

After removing the paper, rub the pumpkin with flour to make the pattern holes easier to see, Chaffin suggested.

6. Cut. Use a small, serrated knife and “saw with an in-and-out motion” where you poked the holes, Gregga said.

7. Light up. Gregga puts a tea light inside a jar to protect the flame from wind and the pumpkin from melting wax. Some people, she said, use small strands of Christmas lights inside their pumpkins; they just have to carve a small hole in the back of the pumpkin for the cord to poke through.

An alternative: Go ceramic

Or if you don’t want to fuss over something that will rot, visit The Splattered Platter in Middletown, where you can order — or make for yourself — a custom-carved ceramic pumpkin. Already this fall, owner Lisa Little has made 268 ceramic jack-o-lanterns for mail orders.

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