While those inexpensive pumpkin carving kits you see at the grocery store may seem appealing (they promise everything you need — and when is the last time a plastic saw ever hurt anyone?), they're actually not your best bet.
"I don't use them," says expert pumpkin carver Hugh McMahon, who heads a team that makes 300 jack-o'-lanterns a season (including portraits of Michael Jackson and Albert Einstein!). Not only do those chintzy orange knives break too easily, but they'll also never give you very detailed results. They're not always the sharpest, and you know what they about using dull knives (they're more dangerous than sharp ones!).
Instead, McMahon says there are only two tools you need to carve a pumpkin safely.
The Only 2 Tools You Need for Pumpkin Carving
1. A Serrated Vegetable Knife
The best tool for cutting the eyes, mouth, and nose out of your jack-o'-lantern is something that's probably already sitting in your kitchen: "I use a fruit and vegetable knife with a serrated edge," says McMahon, who notes that his is eight inches long. "You want one with a thin blade so you can turn it easily, which will give you a more precise shape."
Just as when you're cutting fruits and veggies to eat, a sharper knife is a safer knife (because you won't have to hack at the gourd with a dull instrument). "You want to saw through the pumpkin with it," says McMahon, explaining that the motion should be a slow back and forth — not a pushing one. This way, the knife has a better grip on the pumpkin and makes easier cuts, which means you're less likely to have an accident.
2. A Hacked Soup Ladle
You know how those plastic pumpkin-carving kits always come with a scooper meant for scraping out the seeds? McMahon has a much better suggestion: "I go to the 99 cent store and get a soup ladle — and then I break off the handle," he says. It's deeper than those kit scoopers and it can hold a lot more pumpkin guts at once. Note: You don't have to break the handle off; doing so just makes it easier to really get in there.
Bonus tip: McMahon actually likes to cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin (instead of the top, as is more traditional) and scoop from there. "Then you can hide the electric cord to a light, and it keeps the shape of the pumpkin better," he says.
You really don't need any extra tools, but if you're looking to create a super-intricate design this year, there are two other instruments that will come in handy.
1. An X-ACTO Knife
The best way to take your carving skills up a notch is to invest in an X-ACTO knife (you can buy them at any art-supply store) for detail work. McMahon says he uses these artist's knives when he wants to cut into — but not all the way through — the pumpkin's skin.
A word of warning, though: It is much easier to accidentally poke yourself with an X-ACTO knife than with a paring knife, so you'll want to be extra careful. That said, a sharp paring knife could also be used.
2. Clay Sculpting Tools
Wire-end modeling tools (similar to the one seen here; these are also available at art-supply stores) are meant for sculptors — and you are kind of sculpting a jack-o'-lantern when you carve it. Most at-home carvers probably won't need the level of precision that this tool gives you, but McMahon says he scrapes it against pumpkin skin to smooth it after he's cut into it with an X-ACTO knife.
A note on safety: No matter which tools you're using to make your jack-o'-lantern, you'll want to clear off a large workspace and keep all of the instruments you're using in one place, so you know where they are at all times. "What you don't want is to be blindsided by a sharp point when grabbing something," says McMahon. Because the only thing you should be cutting is your pumpkin.
What do you use to carve pumpkins?