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A carved pumpkin is the quintessential symbol of Halloween. It represents what the holiday is all about: creativity, fun and a little mischief.

A classic jack-o'-lantern -- with triangles for eyes and a big, crooked smile -- is always a welcome sight, but I like to experiment with different designs.

Here are some tips and techniques for creating wonderful jack-o'-lanterns.

Choosing a pumpkin

The traditional orange pumpkin is available in just about any size you could want. Shapes range from true spheres to elongated ovals to stout, flattened globes. Let the shape and size inspire you -- they often suggest the personality the jack-o'-lantern should have.

Lined up along a windowsill, counter top or table, miniature pumpkins are festive even when they're not carved.

The right tools

A serrated blade is good for cutting through a pumpkin's tough skin and gives you more control than a smooth knife. A narrow blade makes carving corners and curves easier. Use an X-Acto knife to smooth out rough edges.

Work with various tools for different decorations. Wood-carving tools are available at hardware and art-supply stores. A thin piece of pipe or tubing can be used for circular cuts.

Canape cutters, available in circles, triangles and other shapes, are very useful: Hammer one into the skin of a pumpkin, remove it with pliers and use your serrated knife to carve around the outlines.

Experiment with chisels, melon-ballers and other common tools or kitchen gadgets. Store these utensils in their own toolbox labeled "Pumpkin Carving Kit."

Carving a pumpkin

Follow these steps:

1. Decide on the design you want the pumpkin to have. It can have a simple or detailed face, as friendly or frightening as you care to make it. But a pumpkin doesn't have to have eyes, a nose and a mouth. Stars, moons, polka dots, zigzags, names, dates and abstract designs can all adorn it.

Draw the design on a piece of paper.

2. Cut a hole in the top or bottom of the pumpkin with a serrated knife. I like to make the opening at the bottom. It's less obtrusive than one at the top, and using the base as the candle holder is more convenient than lowering a candle into the pumpkin.

Scoop out the seeds with a large spoon.

3. On the paper with the design, make a few cuts from the edge toward the center, so the paper will lie flat on the rounded pumpkin. Tape the drawing to the pumpkin and use a pushpin to "trace" the design onto the pumpkin. More confident artists can draw the design directly onto a clean, dry pumpkin with a felt-tip marker.

4. Begin carving along the lines of the design, starting with the deepest cuts. Remember, not every cut has to go all the way through. Use carving tools to achieve different depths; the light will illuminate a thin layer of pumpkin flesh beautifully.

Take advantage of the entire surface; if you carve a face on one side, make some stars on the back.

Smooth out any jagged cuts with an X-Acto knife.

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