Pumpkins with personality
By Katie Scarvey
A generation ago, carving a pumpkin for Halloween was a pretty simple proposition.
If you could hack out the top of the pumpkin and then slash out a few triangles, voila, there was your jack o’ lantern.
But at some point in the 1980s, pumpkin carving went upscale and even average folks with little artistic talent could find the tools and the patterns that would enable them to create illuminated masterpieces.
We can thank Paul Bardeen, the man who more than 50 years ago started carving artistic pumpkins with small saws and drill bits. People loved his creations. Bardeen died in 1983, and as a tribute to him, his family came out with a pumpkin carving kit ó Pumpkin Masters ó that would bring fancy pumpkin-carving to the masses, including Gene Granata.
While most of the year Granata is a technical support engineer for a software company, when the leaves start to change his superhero persona emerges: the Lord of the Pumpkin.
Granata began carving professionally soon after he carved his first Pumpkin Masters design in the 1980s ó the “Draculantern,” which is still one of his favorites, he says.
(Pumpkin Masters kits ó which are widely available ó contain patterns, which are attached to the pumpkin. The pattern allows you to poke holes that provide a guide for where to make your cuts.)
“I just couldn’t wait to carve the next design, light it up and stand back to be amazed,” said Granata, who lives in California.
Granata, 48, started carving when he was 5.
“After years of carving for family and friends, it was my friends in business that convinced me to make a go at carving professionally,” Granata told me in an e-mail conversation.
“They said they were getting tired of trying to ‘bribe’ me to carve for them and would just feel more comfortable if they could ‘order’ carvings.”
Granata says that he pulled together all of his pumpkin photos and carried them around with him everywhere.
“I remember how embarrassed my wife was to see me carrying it when we would go shopping,” he says. “I hoped that people would see the interesting pictures, and inquire. It worked!”
The business really took off when he built his Web site.
Granata has done carvings for many celebrity clients. Many of them don’t really want their names being bandied about, he says ó but he will reveal that last year he enjoyed carving for Rachael Ray and her dog Isaboo and for the anchors of “Good Morning America.”
The most he’s ever gotten for a pumpkin is “around $1,000.” Most of his creations are in the $50-$300 range.
During pumpkin season, Granata works long days. During pumpkin-carving season he actually takes time off from his regular job ó as much vacation as he can save up, he says, adding that it’s never enough.
His household gets crazy during the fall, stuffed to the gills with pumpkins and a few watermelons mixed in for variety, he says.
“I refer to the house/garage areas as a ‘pumpkin war zone,’ ” he says.
Local teens are drafted to help scoop out the many pumpkins used for large carving events and displays, he says.
The Granatas have several refrigerators, but during pumpkin-carving season, you won’t find any food in them.
They’re filled with pumpkins.
Some of Granata’s favorite designs are scary faces, especially old movie monsters like Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff. He also likes to do intricate Halloween scenes, especially those with three-dimensional shading, and portraits of famous people and pets.
Granata also carves some artificial pumpkins (check out www.funkins.com) so not everything he touches ends up on the compost heap.
Through his Web site, Granata will do pumpkin designs on commission. So if you’d like a pumpkin that looks like your Grandpa Max or your English bulldog, he’ll come up with a design for you.
He’s also been commissioned to create graphic designs for various non-pumpkin uses, he says.
Granata advises that preparation is key to carving success.
The biggest mistake that he sees people make is not thinning the wall of the carving surface enough.
“The thicker wall is tougher for the small precision saws to work their way through and they can bind/twist/break,” he says.
The inside of the pumpkin should be scraped until it’s about 3/4 of an inch thick, Granata says. That allows the carver to do more intricate work than would be possible with a thicker wall.
Granata also opens his pumpkins from the bottom so he can set them directly over a light source.
When carving with templates or patterns, he suggests using transfer paper or carbon paper and tracing the entire design on the pumpkin surface. That’s especially effective for complex designs, he says.
He also recommends starting the design in the center and working outward.
You should leave the cut-out pieces in place until the entire design is finished being carved ó that helps stabilize the thin attachments and details, he says.
Remove pieces by pushing them from the inside, outward.
Of course after you spend the time to carve an artsy pumpkin, you want it to last as long as possible.
But carved pumpkins ó especially the ones with a lot of detail, won’t last for long, so you probably won’t want to carve more than a few days ahead of time.
If you’re willing to really put some care into your pumpkin, though, it can actually last for weeks, Granata says, adding, “You simply treat them like what they are ó produce!”
“You can wrap them completely in plastic wrap and store them in the fridge during the day when you aren’t viewing them, then bring them out at night.”
Soaking or spraying the pumpkin with water mixed with a little bit of bleach will help stop mold from growing.
Putting petroleum jelly on the cut edges of the carving slows down the drying process.
If your pumpkin is shriveling, you can revive it by soaking it in water for a few hours.
After removing it from the water, dry the inside with a towel to forestall mold growth.
When using a Pumpkin Masters pattern, look for a pumpkin that is 12-15 inches, or about basketball size.
If a child is going to carve ó and Granata says that with adult supervision, even young kids can carve ó choose a lightweight pumpkin with smoother skin, which will be easier to carve.
If a piece is being stubborn and not popping out, don’t force it. Use the saw to revisit each cut, particularly the corners, and then try again to pop the piece out.
After you’re done, you’ll want to illuminate your creation, of course. Using a battery operated light ó which generates less heat ó will help your pumpkin last longer.
For more pumpkin-carving tips and to download free patterns, go to the Pumpkin Masters Web site, www.pumpkinmasters.com.
Gene Granata’s Web site is www.masterpiecepumpkins. com.
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