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How to carve like a king this Halloween season

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Ryan Lisson poses with a pumpkin as he completes a surface carving on it.
Ryan Lisson poses with a pumpkin as he completes a surface carving on it.
Courtesy of Ryan Lisson

You see them on doorsteps, in windowsills, in the produce section and across farms all over — it's officially pumpkin season. Pumpkins are a staple Halloween decoration and they provide family fun for the masses ... so long as you know how to carve them.

Ryan Lisson, owner and master carver at Pumpkin King Creations, knows a thing or two about carving pumpkins. He's been carving for 10 years and has been selling his creations professionally since 2013. Lisson shared his pro pumpkin carving tips to help you have a spookier, happier Halloween season. 

You can see Lisson in action at Pumpkin Nights on Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 29 at the Minnesota State fairgrounds, where he'll be carving pumpkins weighing upward of 800 pounds.

Pumpkin carvings by Ryan Lisson of Pumpkin King Creations.
Pumpkin carvings by Ryan Lisson of Pumpkin King Creations.
Courtesy of Ryan Lisson

1) It all starts with selecting the right pumpkin

To carve the perfect pumpkin, you need to pick the perfect pumpkin. When searching for a pumpkin keep an eye out for the healthy ones: look for pumpkins with no soft spots and ones with a green, fully-attached stem. 

Lisson recommends picking a pumpkin on the heavier side, especially if you want to use it for sculpting. 

2) Store it properly

Storing a pumpkin with care is a major key to avoid rotting. Keep your pumpkin out of the sun and freezing cold conditions. Lisson says a common mistake people make is leaving pumpkins out overnight, this will only cause them to rot faster. He recommends storing pumpkins in the garage when you're not using them as decoration, usually on top of a piece of cardboard for insulation. 

3) Consider the styles and how long you want your pumpkin to last

• Jack-o'-lantern: This is your average hollowed out, lit up pumpkin. They typically last a week before rotting. 

• Surface carving: This involves scraping the outer layer of the pumpkin off to create a design. These can last around a month.

• 3-D face sculpture: This is a more complex carving, so make sure you get the heaviest pumpkin for this kind. Like a jack-o'-lantern, these last a week or so. 

4) Know your tools

A 3D sculpted zombie pumpkin by Ryan Lisson.
A 3D sculpted zombie pumpkin by Ryan Lisson.
Courtesy of Ryan Lisson

If you plan on doing a surface carving or making your pumpkin into a 3-D face sculpture, Lisson recommends using clay sculpting tools. You can find the tools at crafts stores, or you can use an exacto knife if you're in a pinch. 

Lisson uses tools with sharp edges and ribbon loops for pumpkins with detailed sketching for precision. He said you should avoid using a kitchen knife to carve jack-o'-lanterns and stick to the saws that come in pumpkin carving kits instead. 

5) Make the memory last

Lisson says the only "foolproof" way to preserve your pumpkin is to take a picture. Besides a photo, it's important to keep the pumpkin wet and cool. He recommends spraying the pumpkin daily with a solution of one part lemon juice and one part water, covering it with a plastic bag and storing it properly.  

6) Minimize mess (...or try to) 

You can avoid a lot of the mess of traditional pumpkin carving by opting for a surface carving. If the jack-o'-lantern look is more your style Lisson recommends finding a scoop with a long handle to hollow out the pumpkin. And if you really don't want to touch pumpkin guts you could wear plastic gloves, but you might miss out on some of the fun. 

7) Think about lighting

Lisson says one common mistake people make is carving the top off a jack-o'-lantern and then lighting the pumpkin with LED lights. If you're going to use an LED light to illuminate your pumpkin, leave the stem intact. The stem will keep providing the pumpkin nutrients, potentially allowing it to last longer.