Choose a hefty pumpkin with a fat stem – two signs of a thick skin that's good for carving, explains Clive Cooper, an extreme pumpkin carver in Vancouver. "Sometimes you pick them up and they're like Styrofoam," Cooper says. "Those are the worst ones to carve."
Those seeking to impress can hunt down a specialty pumpkin, such as the white Lumina. Cooper, who is a public servant by day, favours the Atlantic Giants – the skin is thick and, as the name suggests, they can grow as big as 400 kilograms. For the average carver, however, the traditional orange model at the grocery store gets the job done. Check the skin for soft spots, and try to pick one with wide ridges, which make for easier carving. Match the shape to your project. "I like ovals," says Cooper, "because I do a lot of faces."
You can use regular kitchen utensils – Cooper recommends a melon scoop for kids – but for more advanced carving, he suggests a set of clay sculpting tools. There are many ways to carve, but here's a simple technique: If you're carving a face – say, Chewbacca – onto the surface of your pumpkin, start with a stencil. Transfer to the pumpkin by making dots with a pin along the lines. Then carve along dots. "If you want a pumpkin out on your porch for a few days, don't hollow it out right away," says Cooper. Be careful not scrape too much out of the inside because your pumpkin will rot faster. And for better illumination, that won't make your pumpkin mushy, use LED lights instead of candles.
When he is doing a face, Cooper uses a mirror to study his own nose or teeth or grin, and then exaggerates it on the pumpkin. "The great thing about pumpkins is that you can warp things," he says. "It doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, sometimes the imperfections are better."
The trick to carving, he suggests, is to be open to whatever image emerges from your pumpkin. If that ear starts looking like a horn, go with it. "That's the best part."
Cooper's skill at pumpkin carving developed after he entered a contest at work 15 years ago, and won. His pumpkins became more intricate every Halloween, and, after seeing samples online, he eventually worked up to 3-D carvings. He now carves pumpkins, usually on his kitchen counter, for charities and businesses. He's also expanded to watermelons: Fox Entertainment recently commissioned two carvings for the social media campaign for the movie Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
Yet, this is the pumpkin carver's fate: No matter how wisely you choose your canvas, how carefully you carve it, how gently you treat it, it is doomed to rot. Last year, Cooper carved a magnificent 3-D lion into a one-metre-tall pumpkin for his company's annual pumpkin contest. He put it out on the back porch for the night. It disintegrated while he slept.
"There was a hole in it the size of a baseball," he says. (Cooper will try to buy an extra day by coating the skin with lemon juice. He does not recommend motor oil or bleach – too smelly and bad for the environment – or shellac, which will make your pumpkin look like plastic.)
On the other hand, watching a pumpkin decay can be part of the fun, he says, especially if it's a face. "They're here and they're gone," Cooper says of his work. "And it always inspires me to do more."