If anyone knows how to design and execute a jaw-dropping attraction, it’s Terri Hardin. Hardin is a puppeteer, a Muppeteer, and a Disney imagineer who has worked as an actor and artist on many iconic movies. For 30 years, she worked as a sculptor and performer for the Jim Henson company, appearing in movies like The Flintstones and Dinosaurs.
Her career highlights include building the iconic stillsuits from the original Dune movie and working as the puppeteer for the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (and temple dog!) in the original Ghostbusters. She also designed and sculpted attractions for Disneyland Paris and created collectables for Disney, Mattel, and Nickelodeon.
Now, Hardin is one of the judges on the Food Network’s Outrageous Pumpkins. We asked the master pumpkin carver for some of her best tips on how to jazz up your jack-o'-lantern. Don’t forget to pick up one of our recommended carving tools kits on the way.
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How to Find the Perfect Pumpkin
Every pumpkin patch hides misshapen, discolored pumpkins, but those are the pumpkins you want for an interesting creation. “The first thing I’m going to do is walk up to the [pumpkin farm] counter and say, ‘Let me see your gnarlies,’” Hardin said.
“The gnarlies sometimes tell you what you want to sculpt by their shape, and half the work is done,” Hardin said. Find a few that appeal to you and see what their shapes suggest. Is one a skull? Or a demon?
Of course, to put Hardin’s first tip into practice, you need to actually find a farm—a real pumpkin patch, with pumpkins growing on the vine and not a yard filled with perfectly round, picked pumpkins arranged on hay bales.
Master pumpkin carvers try to find pumpkin varieties like Big Macs, which are hybrid varieties that can grow to as much as 200 pounds and have walls that are around 3 to 6 inches thick. Thick walls give sculptors plenty of leeway to carve 3D shapes, but these pumpkins can be expensive. If you’re able to search by variety, Hardin suggests looking for Wolf pumpkins, which have walls of around 1.5 to 2 inches and thick, distinctive handles. A Wolf pumpkin might cost around $30, which is much more reasonable.
You can’t make a thin wall thicker, but you can thin a thick wall by scraping the inside with a loop tool. Hardin has a quick trick for finding out how thick the pumpkin’s wall is—cut a hole in the bottom. You can also use that hole to empty out the pumpkin.
“People always ask, ‘How did you carve it without cutting a hole in it?’” Hardin laughed. “I always say, ‘Are you sure I didn’t cut a hole in it?’”
Carving Fundamentals and Placement
It's important to remember: carving is the best part about a jack-o'-lantern. Carving is fun, creative play—or can be if you let it. Take the pressure off yourself, and just have fun. “The kids are not a problem … I have adult students that will sit and stare at a pumpkin and burst into tears,” Hardin said. “I say, ‘You know this thing isn’t going to be around for very long, right? Let’s calm down, breathe, and get started.”
When you’re designing a pumpkin, it’s important to keep a lot of different viewpoints in mind—the shape of the pumpkin, where it will be placed, and who is carving it. For example, if you’re a parent carving a pumpkin with a 3- to 5-year-old, you might not want to dictate a design at all. Just put down some newspaper, hand them a safe tool, and let them have at it.
Whatever they come up with will be much more creative, and much more fun, than forcing your small child to watch you painstakingly draw and cut out a silhouette of a cat on a broomstick. Will it be a tree? Will it be a ghost with chickenpox? “Whatever they create, you celebrate,” Hardin said.
But if you have bigger plans (and yes, more fine motor control), the next step is to consider where the pumpkin will be. If it’s going to be on a stoop by your door, orient the design closer to the top of the pumpkin, where people are going to be able to see it.
If you have an enormous pumpkin, keep in mind that for some reason, everyone kicks them! “If someone kicks it, then your new artist, who has worked so hard to create a beautiful pumpkin, will go inside the house to get a meat cleaver,” Hardin said. Secure your squash with a sign or another obstacle (and hide the sharp objects in your home).
Another trick Hardin suggests is to place the pumpkin in a yard or garden to watch it change as it starts to decompose. “If you do a face, they start to grow little beards, they start to distort in on themselves,” Hardin said. “But you don’t want it in your home. When they go to juice, they go to juice very quickly, and there’s a lot of juice in these guys.” If it decomposes in your yard, the pumpkin carcass can go toward fertilizing your garden or straight into the compost.
Lighting That Lantern
Let’s get one thing straight: Nothing is more annoying than seeing the light source inside the pumpkin. Luckily, there are ways to get around this. For example, rather than cutting all the way through the wall, you can use a sculpting tool to thin it. This lets light shine through and will give your pumpkin interesting dimensionality.
“It glows in orange or red, so it plays with color as well,” Hardin noted.
Battery-operated or rechargeable lights now come in all shapes, sizes, and price points. There’s no need to use candles to light a pumpkin, especially if you’re planning to put them outside or in a place where they can be easily kicked over.
Finally, once you’ve put all this work into creating the perfect pumpkin, you want to preserve it for as long as possible. If your pumpkin is small enough, you can keep it in the fridge at night. But if you’re keeping it outside, you can spritz it with a solution to help preserve it. Hardin likes to use a 50/50 solution of bleach and water. “It’s like rocket fuel,” Hardin said. “Nothing’s getting through.”
If you prefer less harsh solutions, mixing an 80/20 solution of water and vinegar (80 percent water, 20 percent vinegar) will work—and may smell a little more funky. But even with rigorous maintenance, it’s a pumpkin and won’t last forever! So enjoy it while it lasts, then let it go.