With Halloween just a couple weeks away, now is the time to hit your local pumpkin patch. It's easy enough to find a great specimen (just choose one in size and shape that suits your space, look for a smooth surface so it's not hard to cut into, and make sure it's not too wobbly to avoid a fire hazard!), though carving can be a trickier, and more labor-intensive endeavor. Here, a dozen tips to create your own masterpiece jack-o-lantern:
Sketch out a template directly on the pumpkin with a water-based marker. If you mess up, mistakes can be easily sponged away.
Make your biggest cutouts (like the lid) with a sharp, straight-edged knife.
For safety, always carve away from yourself, and always keep part of the blade in the pumpkin and use slow, steady strokes (as opposed to stabbing it!).
If you're worried about you or your kids getting hurt, there are plenty of pumpkin carving kits out there that come standard with mini serrated saws, which are easier to manipulate (and therefore a bit safer) than knives.
A cut pumpkin will shrink a bit, so when you're cutting the lid, do so at an angle to the outer diameter is larger than the interior. That way, as the pumpkin shrinks, the lid won't fall inside.
To scoop out the seeds, use a big spoon or an ice cream scooper.
To make it a little easier to carve out the pumpkin's face, you can scrape out some of the pumpkin flesh where you're plotting your design. Just don't go overboard here-if the pumpkin wall is less than half an inch thick, the heat from whatever candle you toss in there later can lead to warping.
Carve facial features in the middle first and work outward. The big features can be tackled in sections.
For the details-teeth, eyebrows, etc.-use an X-Acto knife. A potato peeler is also handy for making little circles and curves.
You'll want to create a flat spot at the bottom to put your votive, though avoid digging too deep, since it can cause the pumpkin to rot.
Create a chimney for your pumpkin. Light a candle inside, close the top, wait a minute or two, and then look for the blackened spot on the interior of the lid. Cut a small hole there to let the heat and smoke escape.
To make your pumpkin last, coat the cut surfaces with vegetable oil or petroleum jelly, which seal in the moisture. When it's not on display, keep it covered with a damp towel.