Light up your Halloween

Tips for carving your own jack-o’-lantern masterpiece

This collection of jack-o’-lanterns, made by Journal staff, are brightening up the Journal house for Halloween.
This collection of jack-o’-lanterns, made by Journal staff, are brightening up the Journal house for Halloween.
Expert carver Michael Shulist says anything goes in terms of a design for your pumpkin, but every jack-o’-lantern starts with cutting out the lid and scooping out the insides.
Expert carver Michael Shulist says anything goes in terms of a design for your pumpkin, but every jack-o’-lantern starts with cutting out the lid and scooping out the insides.

Some celebrate Halloween by renting over-the-top slasher films or heading to a costume party in scandalous attire, but nothing says Halloween quite like picking out a bright orange pumpkin and carving a spooky-faced jack-o’-lantern to sit on your front doorstep.

You may think jack-o’-lantern carving is just a fun treat for kids, but don’t be tricked. There’s a lot of skill involved in this activity.

Michael Shulist started carving pumpkins when he first had kids more than 20 years ago, but his background in woodcarving probably gave him a bit of an edge when he tackled this Halloween tradition.

“I still do a lot of woodcarving. Carving a pumpkin is a whole lot easier, actually,” he said.

The first part of carving is picking out your pumpkin. Shulist said any shape of pumpkin will work for your jack-o’-lantern.

“In each pumpkin there’s a face waiting to get out,” he said. That doesn’t mean all pumpkins are created equal, though.

“The thicker the wall of the pumpkin, the better. … If you tap them, there will be a dull thud.” Shulist said having a thick-walled pumpkin is useful because it allows you to create a more three-dimensional design.

“The thicker the wall is, the less light comes through. The thinner the wall is, the more light comes through,” Shulist said.

Varying the thickness creates different gradients of light that come through when you light up your jack-o’-lantern, he said. These different gradients range from the outside orange skin to the lighter orange beneath the skin, allowing for a translucent glow when lit up. Finally, the clear space where the wall’s completely carved away allows for light to shine through.

Kenneth Paul, owner of Fruition Farms in Kingston, said you should pick out a pumpkin that inspires you.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of different types of pumpkins: there are white pumpkins, there are red pumpkins and there are blue pumpkins,” he said. “It’s just a personal preference.”

These pumpkins could be smooth, or have lines or bumps. Paul said a warty pumpkin might be perfect for carving a witch.

But for Paul, would-be pumpkin carvers should seek out one kind of pumpkin that’s superior to the rest.

“Make sure it is a fresh Ontario pumpkin because Ontario grows some of the best pumpkins in the world and you’re supporting local agriculture.”

He said you also want to make sure the pumpkin you pick out is bright orange and still has the stem on it.

“It shows that it’s a healthy pumpkin,” Paul said. “If there’s a drought, the stem is the first thing to go.”

Paul said a healthy pumpkin should last a long time. Even if you pick up your pumpkin in September, if you keep it cool and dry you shouldn’t have any problem keeping it until Halloween as long as you wait to carve it just a couple days before Halloween.

The walls of the pumpkin should also be firm.

“A soft pumpkin means that it is already starting to decay [and] it’s not going to last,” he said.

When you start your carving, Shulist recommends first cutting the lid of the pumpkin with a four-inch kitchen knife.

“I usually cut [the lid] square so it can only go one way back on the pumpkin,” he said. “I use a long, thin kitchen knife and cut on an angle so the lid doesn’t fall back into the pumpkin.”

After he scrapes out the insides of the pumpkin with a big, metal kitchen spoon, Shulist said he draws the features on his pumpkin.

“I use a washable Sharpie to mark out the features. Black is probably my choice of colour because it stands out so well.”

Shulist prefers to draw his own features rather than use a stencil.

“Stencils, to me, are kind of like the lazy man’s way out,” he said.

Anything goes in terms of the design you choose to draw and the more creative, the better.

“They can be a Cyclops or have three eyes,” Shulist said. “Look at the pumpkin and see the face that can go on it.”

Faces aren’t the only thing you can carve, Shulist added.

“Generally I’ve done two or three faces in past years, but I try to do something that’s kind of topical as well.”

Shulist has carved a variety of different images—from the North by Northwest movie poster to the Blue Jays logo to the front page of the Journal—all lit up on the side of a pumpkin.

“There’s really no limit,” he said.

Shulist said carvers shouldn’t be afraid of making a mistake.

“If I make a mistake, no big deal: I just incorporate that mistake into the design,” he said.

“If the first one doesn’t turn out, pumpkins are cheap. You can go buy another one.”

Shulist said the most important thing to consider when carving your design is your tools. Though a long, sharp knife is often best, he has found you can also use tubes to cut rounded grooves, melon ballers to make circular cavities, or even cheese graters to add details to your design.

“Almost any kitchen item can be used to shape a pumpkin,” he said.

Shulist said, for him, the best part of making jack-o’-lanterns is the reactions of the kids when they see them.

“The other thing is that the whole art form is very transitional. It only lasts for one day.

“I kind of like that,” he said.

Shulist said you can make your jack-o’-lantern last longer by wrapping it in plastic wrap and keeping it in the fridge.

“The colder you can keep them the better they last.”

For anyone who wants to become an expert pumpkin carver, Shulist recommends looking at the designs of some really talented carvers to get inspired.

“The pinnacle of pumpkin carvers—the Michelangelo of pumpkin carvers—is at It has always been an inspiration for me to look at.”

After you’ve been inspired, plan two or three hours on Halloween day to carve your pumpkin. Whether you turn out to be the Michelangelo of pumpkin carving, or more of a Picasso, you will be sure to have a lot of fun and get into the Halloween spirit.

Save your seeds!

When you clean out your pumpkin to make it jack-o’-lantern-ready, be sure not to throw out your seeds or you could miss out on one of the tastiest parts of Halloween. Pumpkin seeds are not only a delicious and festive snack, but a healthy alternative to munching on bags of mini-chocolate bars from trick-or-treating. They’re quick and easy and there’s a flavour for everyone.


1. Preheat your oven to 250 F.

2. Thoroughly wash your pumpkin seeds and pat them dry.

3. Mix two cups of pumpkin seeds in a bowl with 1-1/2 tablespoons of melted margarine or olive oil.

4. Add 1-1/2 teaspoons of Worchester sauce and 1-1/4 teaspoons of seasoned salt. (See below for variations.)

5. Spread on a baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally for 45 minutes to one hour or until seeds reach desired crispiness.

For spiced seeds, replace seasoned salt with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of garlic salt .

For cinnamon salt seeds, replace Worcester sauce and seasoned salt with one teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

For sweet and spicy seeds, replace seasoned salt with one teaspoon of salt, one tablespoon of brown sugar and two drops of hot pepper sauce.

For sweet pumpkin spice seeds, replace Worcester sauce and seasoned salt with six tablespoons of white sugar, divided, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice.

For taco seeds, replace seasoned salt with one tablespoon of taco seasoning mix and 1/4 teaspoon of garlic salt.


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