Is It Halloween Yet?

Pumpkin Carving - Before & After

It’s never too early to start on your Halloween decorations! Taking a slight departure from my normal posting of photography stuff to put up a tutorial on how to make your own custom carved pumpkins.

You can now get Halloween pumpkins that are made out of foam instead of the real thing.  While not quite as fun to carve, they will last from year to year.  So all your work into making your perfect pumpkin masterpiece doesn’t rot away at the end of the season.  You can safely store it away and bring it out again next year!

Foam Pumpkin

Along with these new pumpkins, new carving techniques came about.  It was in 2005 when I first did a carved pumpkin like this.  Found some information on the web and gave it a try.  Turned out pretty good and it really wasn’t that hard to do.  The hardest part is making the template so it looks good.  Once you have a good template, the carving goes fairly quick.  I’m going to walk you through how I carved the dog pumpkin so you can do one yourself.  And since I’m posting this at the beginning of September, you’ll have plenty of time to do this before Halloween!

Foam Halloween Pumpkin

Before you start, you’ll need to buy a foam pumpkin.  Before Halloween it’s super easy to buy these.  Just go to your local Michael’s store (or other craft store if you don’t have one of them nearby) and you can purchase as many as you’d like.  They come in various sizes, I suggest the largest version since they are the easiest to carve.  More room means more details you can carve.  If you do go to Michael’s to buy it, don’t just run off and buy one!  All you have to do is google “Micheal’s coupon” and you’ll find 40-50% off coupons you can use on a single item.  Why pay $25 for a foam pumpkin when you can pay half that!

Creating The Carving Template

The first thing that we need to do is create a nice carving template.  Without a good template, you won’t end up with a good carving.  For the starting image you’ll want to find one that’s nice and clear with good detail.  Most of the detail will be lost during the conversion process, but having the detail to start is better.  It’s also best to have an image where the background is fairly plain.  A busy background will just make the process harder.  For this part, you can use something like Photoshop or GIMP.  This isn’t a tutorial on using either of those products, so I’m going with the assumption here that you know how to use them.

One thing you need to keep in mind while you are making the template is how many “colors” you have on a carved pumpkin.  You really only have three colors that are easily controlled.  First, you’ll have dark areas where the orange skin on the outside is intact.  This will mostly block all the light from inside the pumpkin, so these areas will be dark.  Next, you’ve got areas of the pumpkin where the orange skin has been removed but there is still foam “meat” remaining.  These areas will glow orange.  You can make them glow more or less orange by how thick the foam is, but that gets to be more difficult and is definitely a much more advanced type of carving!  Finally, you have the areas of the carving where you’ve removed everything.  The skin and the foam meat are gone and you can see inside the pumpkin.  These areas will be the brightest, they will glow very strong.  When you are making your template you want to keep this in mind, there’s only really 3 colors.  You’ll have dark areas where there is skin, glowing areas where the skin is removed, and very bright areas where everything is cut out.

Let’s get to making the template, here’s the image I started with:

Starting Image

Starting Image

While this is a decent starting image, it’s not without it’s problems.  The main issue is the wooden stair tread behind the dogs ears.  They blend into the ears, so we’ll need to remove those stair treads eventually so that we get a nice clean edge for the ears.  First thing we do is desaturate the image and turn it into a greyscale image.  You can either desaturate the colors or convert the image to grayscale, either works:

dog_pumpkin_02

Desaturated

Converting to B/W isn’t enough, we still have too many shades of grey.  What we really want is only three colors – black, white, and grey.  To do this we’re going to use the posterize command.  Posterize lets us convert an image with many colors into one with less colors.  Here we are going to select three to start with.  When we do that though you can see that the ears are completely blended into the background:

dog_pumpkin_04

Notice ears aren’t separated from the background

Not what we want.  To overcome this I used the dodge tool to lighten the wooden stair tread and separate the ears from the background from the desaturated image:

dog_pumpkin_03

Using dodge tool clean up background

Now when the image is posterized we get a nice clean separation from the background:

dog_pumpkin_05

Ears now separated from the background

The posterization step is the hardest part of the whole process.  Converting the image down to only three colors is what’s going to be the most difficult.  This image luckily converted over very easily.  But others (like the portrait one in this post) are much harder to convert.  What I’ve always done when it doesn’t convert over that well is increase the number of posterization colors.  You’ll probably find four colors look good for one area of the image, but six looks better in a different section.  What you have to do is start to convert in sections.  Posterize to four colors and then hand convert that into three colors for the one good section.  Then posterize the original B/W to five colors, again hand convert the section that looks good now into three colors.  This is the artistry part of doing this, it’ll take time and lost of trail and error to get a good final template.

At this point I changed the background over to black.  Really didn’t need to because in the end I changed it back into white.  Ok, now that we have a good template we have to cut out what we want to carve.  For the dog I just wanted to do his face.  Now I could just cut the head off but then I’ll have a smooth line below the face which really won’t look right:

dog_pumpkin_07

Having a smooth edge doesn’t look right

To fix this I then cloned, rotated, and warped portions of the dog’s fur from the side of the face to the bottom of the head:

dog_pumpkin_09

Clone pieces of fur for bottom of head

dog_pumpkin_10

dog_pumpkin_11

The end result is the bottom of the head looks more natural, it looks more like fur rather then I took a pair of scissors to a picture!

dog_pumpkin_12

Bottom of head looks better now

Once I had the face like I wanted it I then removed the excess background and resized the image to fit properly on the pumpkin.  Take your pumpkin, measure the side of it, and figure out how big of a carving you want and can fit on the pumpkin.  Once you’ve figured that out you can resize and print out the template:

dog_pumpkin_13

Final image ready to be carved!

Pumpkin Template

Prepare The Pumpkin

At this point I like to prepare the foam pumpkin.  By that, I mean cut a hole in the bottom and clean out the inside.  Yup, even though it’s a fake foam pumpkin we’re going to need to clean up the inside a little bit.  First, take a knife and cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin.  Doesn’t have to be too big, big enough that you can fit your hand inside.  Once you’ve got a hole cut in the bottom, take a look inside the pumpkin.  What you’re going to see are molding ribs inside the pumpkin.

Pumpkin Ribs 1

Pumpkin Ribs 2

That’s what we need to clean up.  If there’s a bright enough light inside the pumpkin you’ll see the ribs because the body of the pumpkin will glow, but the ribs will glow darker since there’s more foam at those spots for the light to travel through.

Pumpkin Ribs 3

Ribs need to be cleaned out

To clean out the ribs we’re going to use a surform shaver.  It’s a small rasp file that removes material when you pull it against the material you are trying to shape.  The problem is the normal size of the shaver is too big for us to use:

Surform shaver

Surform shaver

The solution is to cut down the handle so that it’s just the head of the shaver.  You’ll still be able to grasp it and use it inside the pumpkin to shave off the extra rib material.

Surform Shaver

Surform shaver cut down in length

Once you’ve used the shaver the ribs inside the pumpkin will be much less then they were before:

Pumpkin Ribs Removed

Just be careful, if you shave too much you’ll cut a hole right through the pumpkin!  Not what we want.

Glue The Template On The Pumpkin

Some people transfer the template to the pumpkin by using a pin and poking holes into the pumpkin.   That will not give you very good results.  What you want to do is glue the template onto the face of the pumpkin, that way you’ll know exactly what material you need to remove.  For gluing onto the pumpkin you want to use Elmer’s Washable Glue:

Elmer's Washable Glue

The glue you’re looking for

We want to use this specific glue because after we’ve carved the pumpkin there will still be some of the template left on the pumpkin.  That remaining template is removed by soaking the pumpkin in water so it disolves the glue and the paper template comes right off.

Take your pumpkin and place the template on the outside spot where you used the surform shaver inside the pumpkin to remove the ribs.  All you are doing is determining where up/down you want to place the template.

Pumpkin Template Fit

Once you’ve found your spot flip the template over and coat the backside completely with glue.  You don’t have to go overboard with the glue, but just make sure all the surface of the paper is covered.  After it’s all covered in glue flip it back over and start pressing it onto the pumpkin.  You also want to put some more glue on the front of the template:

Pumpkin Template Glued

What you are trying to achieve is that the paper is completely soaked with glue.  When it’s completely soaked with glue you’ll be able to press it into the groove of the pumpkin.  You want to keep smoothing it out till there are no air bubbles or excess glue under the template, so it’s flat against the pumpkin skin.  After it’s all flat against the pumpkin set everything aside for at least a day to dry.  You want to be sure all the glue has dried, otherwise trying to carve the pumpkin will make a big mess.

Time To Carve The Pumpkin

For carving the pumpkin we’re going to use a rotary tool.  The most common one is the Dremel rotary tool, which just about everyone has probably heard about.  But you can use other brands too, I’ve got one by Durabilt and it works just fine:

Pumpkin Carving Tool

Pumpkin Carving Tool

 

One thing you do want to get is the Dremel flex shaft.  It makes doing the carving a whole lot easier.  Instead of having to hold the entire weight of the tool, you just have the weight of the end of the flex shaft.  Makes it much easier.

You will also need some bits for the rotary tool.  You can use the cutting bits, but what I’ve found works the best is diamond bits.  They work by sanding the foam away.  The bits are extremely cheap and they come in all sorts of different sizes and shapes which is nice.  This is the set I use:

Diamond Rotary Bits

If you use these and a dremel tool it doesn’t take long to carve out the pumpkin once the template is on it.  Here’s the final template glued on ready for carving:

Pumpkin Ready to Carve

 

Here’s a video of the pumpkin being carved out:

It’s really not that hard, just take your time.  Every template is kinda unique in the order you’ll want to carve it out.  Sometimes you’ll go over the carving and remove the skin since that’s what mostly needs to be done.  Then do the cutout portions.  Other times it might make more sense to do the full cut out sections first.  It’s kinda trial and error with you learning as you carve more pumpkins.

Clean The Pumpkin

The only thing left now is to place the pumpkin template down in a little water.  Let it sit in that for a couple hours, then the glue and extra template material will wipe away easily.  At this point you’ll probably look at what you carved and think it looks horrible!

Pumpkin carved

But luckily it’s when there’s a glow stick or LED candle inside and it’s dark that the pumpkin comes alive!

Pumpkin done in darkOne thing, NEVER EVER put a real candle inside these pumpkins!!  Only use glow sticks or battery operated lights.  Flames and foam pumpkins do not get along together.

Portrait Pumpkins

As you saw from the beginning of this post, you don’t have to just do pets.  You can also do portrait pumpkins too!  Maybe my pumpkin carving skills are good enough and you are into HDR photography so you will recognize the portrait.  Here’s the template before it was carved:

Trey Ratcliff Pumpkin

And a video of the portrait being carved into the pumpkin:

Hopefully Trey Ratcliff won’t be too upset with me carving his face into a pumpkin!  (Trey, if you are, let me know and I’ll take down all images, video, and mention of this ever happening!).  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do an HDR carving in the pumpkin, otherwise I would have definitely carved him that way!

Conclusion

I do hope that some of you out there will follow my tutorial and carve your own pumpkin.  If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask by leaving a comment.  I’ll try my best to answer it so you and others will know how to do these.  If you do carve a pumpkin though, let me know and send a picture!  I’ll add it to the post so others can enjoy your handy work.

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