Take your jack-o-lantern game from basic to geek-tastic with tips from master carver

“Beetlejuice” jack-o-lanterns carved by Stephanie Patterson.

There’s a jack-o-lantern in your future.

Have you settled on a strategy for carving it yet?

This Halloween, will you be playing it safe with the classic triangle eyes and nose, or getting fancy and tackling a design that’s a little more artistic and challenging?

If you’re up for trying something new, a Halloween pumpkin can be an ideal blank canvas upon which to express your enthusiasm for your favorite fandom, whatever that may be.

With a little practice, your geeky designs could elevate the basic grade-school gourd to a pop culture masterpiece.

To help you figure out where to begin, I spoke with master pumpkin carver Stephanie Patterson.

With a little help from her husband, Stephanie specializes in whittling out geeky pumpkin patterns that dazzle in the dark, from “Supernatural” to “Stranger Things.”

After a decade of honing her skills, doing carving demonstrations, and displaying her jack ‘o’ lanterns at an annual event, Stephanie went pro this year, accepting commissions from clients.

Apparently, the secret to carving awesomely nerdy pumpkins is to find just the right image to use as your pattern, start small and simple, use the proper tools, and practice until you perfect your technique.

A resident of Gig Harbor, Wash., Stephanie began carving about 10 years ago after her friend, Delia, introduced her to “more complicated designs than the standard jack-o-lantern.”

“I was so excited to see the vast array of patterns available,” she said. “My love of carving took off from there.”

Stephanie discovered pumpkin carving went “hand in hand” with her love for many fandoms, including Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the films of Tim Burton.

Among the favorite designs she’s carved are a “Stranger Things” pumpkin created last year, a pair of Han Solo and Princess Leia pumpkins, and a jack-o-lantern emblazoned with the logo for Disney’s “Haunted Mansion.”

These pumpkin creations are unique because they are based on patterns custom-designed by Stephanie’s husband, Jake. His designs tend to be her favorite, she said.

Stephanie began carving on real pumpkins, but quickly switched over to the foam versions you can find at craft and hobby stores.

Those were a “game changer,” she said.

“I hated spending so many hours carving just to see the designs wither and die after a few days.”

As her skills developed, Stephanie’s parents suggested she display her pumpkins at the family’s lavender farm during the annual Key Peninsula Farm Tour event in October.

An impressive array of Stephanie’s clever, carved designs were displayed on shelves inside the barn.

“It was so much fun to display them for a far larger crowd than I was used to,” she said. “I also did live carving during the event.  I got to do that for four years and I absolutely miss it.”

Stephanie Patterson does some live carving during the annual Key Peninsula Farm Tour on her family’s lavender farm in Washington.

Sadly, the lavender farm closed last October and Stephanie found she missed her pumpkin displays.

She and Jake devised a solution, cutting her pumpkins in half to be displayed on their apartment wall, plaque-style, and increasing Stephanie’s carving capacity.

“Jake rigged up a vinyl lattice and stapled white Christmas lights to the back,” she said.

“We then hung up the pumpkin halves on screws attached to the lattice and hung the whole setup on the wall. I can display up to 16 pumpkins at a time on the wall in our apartment now!”

Before you can dream of creating your own stunning jack-o-lantern display, however, you have to carve something worth displaying.

Stephanie said she and Jake begin the carving process with a Google image search for whatever design “strikes our fancy at the time.”

“Sometimes we find patterns, other times we find pictures of other pumpkins and adjust them.”

The Pattersons also frequent websites that offer patterns. A few of the sites are free. Others offer subscriptions, or you can pay per pattern.

Among their favorites are Zombie Pumpkins JP’s Jammin Pumpkins, Pumpkin Glow, StoneyKins, Orange and Black Pumpkins, and The Custom Punkin Stencil Company.

“There are so many cool geeky patterns out there, basically representing anything and everything you might be into,” Stephanie said.

Once you’ve settled on a pattern, whether it be Dobby the House Elf or the Tardis, it’s time to gather the necessary carving equipment.

Stephanie favors carving on foam pumpkins from Michaels.

For the task of carving, she uses a wood-burning tool with an Exacto knife attachment, specifically the Walnut Hollow brand, which can be found at Michaels or Hobby Lobby.

“The hot knife cuts like butter through the foam pumpkins,” she said.

“If you’re carving on a real pumpkin, obviously, the standard pumpkin carving saws are the way to go.”

Stephanie also uses a mini screwdriver to poke out foam pieces as she carves.

When it comes to transferring a design onto the pumpkin, Stephanie said she “doesn’t bother with the normal method of poking holes to transfer like the Pumpkin Masters kits suggest.

“For foam pumpkins, I print out the pattern and tape it to the pumpkin, cutting to fit as necessary. I just cut right through the paper with the hot knife and it works like a charm.

“Up until this year, I used a great product called Stick N’ Carve, which you can buy online or at Joann (craft stores). You print the pattern out on the paper and then peel and stick on the pumpkin. After you’re done, you just wash off the remainder of the material.

“It’s really cool, but it tends to melt and peel away when using the hot knife, making it difficult for me when carving complicated designs. So I’ve gone back to using plain, old computer paper and that works the best for me.”

After attaching and centering the pattern, Stephanie carves a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin to make it easy to clean out extraneous pieces.

“After the pumpkin is carved, I go back over it to clean up the lines a bit,” she said.

When it comes to illuminating your jack-o-lantern, Stephanie recommends white twinkle lights for foam pumpkins, but added there are “a ton of different lighting options like the LED pumpkin lights, strobe lights, colored lights, whatever strikes your fancy. Just remember never to put a candle in a foam pumpkin!”

If you’re carving a real pumpkin, Stephanie suggests scraping the inner wall of the gourd down to about an inch.

“A lot of people make the mistake of not thinning out the carving wall and it ends up looking bad as a result,” she said.

“It also makes it easier to carve when the wall is thinner. The light will show through much better on a thinner pumpkin wall, as well.”

Stephanie’s most important advice for beginners is to “start small.”

“If you’ve never done this kind of pumpkin carving before, you don’t want to be too ambitious. I tried to do a much more advanced design than I was prepared to do at the beginning of my pumpkin journey and royally screwed it up! Start with an easier design and move on from there depending upon your aptitude. You’ll get better as you go along also.”

While she highly recommends foam pumpkins – and using the hot knife to make clean lines as opposed to sawing away on a real pumpkin – she urged beginners to try carving a natural gourd a few times to see which they prefer.

It all depends on “how much time you’re willing to put into it,” she said.

“Most importantly, have fun!”

A “Supernatural”-themed pumpkin carved by Stephanie Patterson.

For Stephanie, the fun of carving elaborately geeky jack-o-lanterns turned into a side hustle this year as she fielded requests for custom pumpkins.

“The commission thing has been so rewarding,” she said.

“It has been so much fun to carve designs that I normally wouldn’t do (and don’t have the space for) and then get to see the joy it brings people in their own homes.

“It’s awesome to carve for money, but honestly, I love it so much I would almost do it for free!”

Photos courtesy of Stephanie Patterson. 

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