Making Jack-o-Lantern templates

For carving cool Jack-o-Lanterns, the instructions in any pumpkin-carving tool kit will do. The steps of taping the template, dotting the pattern with a toothpick or pin, and the actual cutting are pretty standard. About the only additional tip that I can add is to get a pumpkin-carving kit that includes a scoop/spoon (or use something like an ice cream scoop), because these are awesome for scraping the pumpkin walls to get them thin. The thinner, the better for more complex carvings. (Also, this is a very rare occasion for me not to recommend getting something at the dollar store. The pumpkin carving kits you get there have fat, wide pumpkin saws with sparse teeth, and they’re not very good. A better recommendation is to buy one of the nicer kits on the day after Halloween, when you can find them marked down even more than Halloween candy.)

To make your own template, though, you only need a few of things: A source picture that already has a pretty high contrast, any basic photo editing software that has brightness and contrast controls, and a bit of imagination/artistic enthusiasm … but not much.

This is the picture I chose for this year’s Batman template:

Batman template picture candidate

Batman pictures are generally good, anyway, because they typically have very high contrast and a lot of great shadows. If I’d looked for more than 12 seconds for a source picture, I would have found hundreds more to choose from. These were also contenders, and would have had the advantage that I could have skipped the photo-editing step:

High contrast picture practically ready for carving

After choosing the source picture, open your favorite photo editing software (I like the free Paint.NET software) and play with the contrast and brightness settings. I normally crank the contrast to the very highest level, and then I play with the brightness in the 80% to 100% range. This is what I got out of my source picture:

Editing Contrast and Brightness settings

What you’re looking for is a lot of connected black areas, with enough interesting white areas to be able to make out recognizable details.

With this particular template, this was as far as I actually ended up going. I didn’t need to do any more. I had to make some changes on the fly (like completing the bottom of the chest-symbol oval, connecting the dark area of the mouth to the rest of the dark area, etc.), but I just printed this off and went with it.

What I normally do, however, is print out this picture, place some tracing paper over it, and trace the template out. Along the way, I make sure that all dark areas are in some way connected. Any black areas that are not connected, obviously, will fall out when you carve the white areas around them.

Here’s the Iron Man stencil I used the other year. I ended up only using the top half or so:

Iron Man Jack-o-Lantern pumkin stencil template

Iron Man Jack-o-Lantern stencil template

Anyway, that’s about it. I did the large Batman symbol freestyle at the end, and that’s why it suxx0rz, but it works well enough.

Remember to cut away the small, detailed, delicate parts first, and the big wide cut-aways last. Here are some of my past Jack O’Lanterns from my super hero series. Some are cut in real pumpkins, some are cut in foam pumpkins so I can keep them for a while. (When cutting foam pumpkins, use a very fast sawing motion with the pumpkin saws, and don’t push too hard.)

Batman Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin

Batman Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin

Superman Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin

Superman Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin

Captain America Jack-o-Lantern pumkin

Captain America Jack-o-Lantern pumkin

Spider-Man Jack-o-Lantern pumkin

Spider-Man Jack-o-Lantern pumkin

Iron Man Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin

Iron Man Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin

Balloon Animals: Because I hate my child.

I’ve got a Woot! related project that’s going on, but I don’t have time to finish up the paint on it right now.  My Beetlebot write-up is taking as long as the project itself did.

I’ll be talking instead about one more reason why I shouldn’t be a parent.

Talc has been linked to cancer and respiratory issues, which is why you won’t find much baby powder in many diaper bags anymore. Bits of thin, flexible rubber are an obvious choking hazard to all small children.  Contact with latex is the leading cause of latex allergy, followed by inhalation of small latex particles.

What do all these things have in common?  Balloons. (Minute amounts of talc coat the inside of balloons so they don’t stick together on the inside when you try to blow them up.)

In completely unrelated news, I’ve started learning how to make balloon animals the other day.  Either three or four days ago.

It’s insanely simple. I’m surprised it’s a fairly rarely practiced skill.

When I was rooting through the pack of balloon rejects I got at the dollar store for the Hover-Crap project I found a twisty balloon.  I thought it was pretty funny, so I blew it up, and twisted together the classic dog shape from what I remember them looking like.

It does take some practice, I suppose. I think some people might be put off because that practice takes specialized equipment like a balloon pump.  Thankfully, I finally found a use for years practicing trumpet and paying for private lessons: I can blow up even the really difficult ones by mouth. So no special equipment, just the balloons.

Speaking of twisty balloon pumps, I found one at a NEW dollar store in our neighborhood, the Dollar Dollars store.  As the name hints, it’s NOT actually a dollar store.  It’s faking.  It’s like the Family Dollar.  Everything in the store that costs 99 cents costs 99 cents.  Other items will cost other amounts.  As for the pump, it lasted for 0.05 balloons.  It got about 1/20 of the way in, and then stopped pumping.

So in the last couple of days since the first dog, I’ve made a poodle and giraffe, which are pretty much dogs, a teddy bear, which is pretty much the dog, a turtle, which is a very, very small dog, an alien (two dogs and a water balloon), a couple of swords (half dogs), elephant (which is a large turtle, but still a small dog), and several different Tiggers.

Don’t get me wrong, the Tiggers are also dogs, but they’re all different kinds of dogs.  The first one was a failed monkey, and the only one I have a picture of currently. I’m already moving on to “designing” my own animals/characters.  There’s more imagination in it than I thought, and it’s difficult not to be tempted to just look on the Internet to see how someone else made a character, but it’s pretty satisfying.  At first you could only tell my Tigger because of the face I drew on him. The most recent version looks a hekuva lot like Tigger without any Sharpie whatsoever.

The Internet thing should be making balloon twisting a skill that everybody has. You watch a video, you twist the shape, and then you go do it in the London Underground until you get chased away. I’d think that people who learned how to do this professionally (the second most exciting four hour course at Clown College) would be pretty angry that it’s completely demystified.

My plan is to pull this out whenever I’m forced to attend anything where my child is part of a group being led by another adult. This includes recitals, sports games, other kids birthday parties, and exceptionally well organized food fights.

(I will not be practicing this when my baby is still in the respiratory risk zone. I’m already well versed in tracking every scrap of popped balloon to keep our puppy from choking on them, because she will swallow them if I leave them behind. Not much I can do about potential latex allergies, but I won’t be letting my children sleep with them.  I recognize how fragile an infant’s ear drums are and the balloons will be absolutely nowhere near him until he’s quite a bit older.)

Quick note about our son: He’s due in one week.  Our doctor is threatening to induce our wife before her due date. We will be laughing at him. Regardless, our next two or three weeks will be hours of walking a day, feeding her all sorts of weird and spicy foods, oils and teas, giving her foot rubs, and, uh, special alone time.  All to get him introduced into the world in as natural (and non-painful) a way as possible. So this is why my projects are already slowing down in advance of his arrival.

Three fast, easy and cheap geek projects!

I’m excited about this entry, because it’s a whole bunch of really fast, really easy and really cheap projects for the beginner geek in each of us.

None of these are quite easy enough for a child to do on their own, and at least one part of each of them should have parental supervision.  Which is a good thing, because it means more time working on something together.

These are the three projects: Hover-crap, Bristlebot and Slurpee Cup Lamp.


  • Time: About 2 minutes
  • Cost: Pretty much made out of garbage, so close to free
  • Most difficult part: Using a hot glue gun

The Hover-Crap comes to me out of making lemonade from lemons.  During the May, 2010 Woot!-off, I got the most generic, monetarily worthless junk in my Bag of Crap.  Which is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite, in fact, I look forward to it, so that I can find useful stuff to do with it … Like this.

One of the items (or six, depending on how you look at it) was a six-pack of Disney Flix Camera Cinderella Director Packs. It’s a whole mouthful to say: worthless CDs.  They’re software add-on packs for the Flix Camera, and absolutely, completely worthless without it.

I wondered if there might not be something useful to do with them, and Jeus linked me to a YouTube video.

Follow the YouTube link above, and that’ll show you everything you need.  Basically, a balloon, a CD, the push-top lid of a sports bottle from a bottle of water and some glue.  The video suggests super glue, I like a glue gun.  I always have problems with super glue and walk around with my fingers glued together for a few hours after I finish with a project.

Most of the 2 minutes of this project is opening the bag of balloons, choosing a color and blowing it up. I decided to color-coordinate with pink.  In a refrain you’ll hear a lot from me in my projects, I picked up the bag of balloons at the dollar store (Dollar Tree this time), and you really shouldn’t be paying more than a few pennies per balloon.

The result:

I’m happy enough with it!


  • Time: Between 5 and 10 minutes
  • Cost: About $2
  • Most difficult part: Soldering two wires to a motor

The Bristlebot was brought to me for the same reason as the HoverCrap. In my Woot!-off Bag of Crap from May, I also received five button-cell CR2016 batteries. Oddly enough, if they had been CR2032s, I would have had a use for them and wouldn’t have gone looking.

Do not solder wires directly to the batteries. They will in all likelihood explode.  In the non-cool way.

Anyway, I ran across one of the coolest-yet-quickest projects on the Internet: The Bristlebot.

Here’s what you need:

  1. Any 1.5v to 4.5v button cell battery, like a CR2016 or CR2032 watch battery (I found a 3-pack of CR2032s at the 99¢ Only Store)
  2. A toothbrush with slanted bristles that you don’t mind mangling
  3. Masking tape
  4. Two bits of wire
  5. Solder/soldering iron
  6. A miniature vibrating motor

This last item is the hardest to come by. Everyone on the Internet says to get them out of old cell phones or vibrating pagers. That would work, but who actually has those lying around? (Okay, I do, but I’m odd.) So eBay may be an idea, but the people on eBay have caught onto the idea that people are using these for Bristlebots, and they charge about $3 per motor. I had great luck with  They have multiple motors that fit this bill for $1.25 currently. (I wouldn’t go for the $1 one, as it looks like it would need to be mounted on-edge to get the vibration necessary.)

Here’s a picture of the motors I bought, a two-pack of angled toothbrushes from the dollar store (I later found four-packs, so just 25 cents each for this part of the project), and what I was hoping would be a fantastic steal, a vibrating toothbrush.  I figured it would have a vibrating motor in it, and it did, but it turned out to be HUGE. (Note: If you can get the unbalancing weight off it, this motor is PERFECT for the BeetleBot project … Which I’ve completed, but haven’t written up yet.) It also came with a battery, making it almost as good a buy as the personal fans I bought there to get the motor.

The blog I found the project on tells you to use double-sided mounting tape to mount everything to the top of the toothbrush head, but I found that a half-strip of masking taped worked fine … The double-sided mounting tape I found was about $3.50, and that’s about $2.50 more than I was willing to spend.

Anyway, just follow the directions in the Bristlebot link above.  Mostly I’m just pointing out where you can get things.  Oh, and showing my results video:

I LOVE THIS THING!  How cool is that?  The back of my Bristlebot has raised bristles, which adds to its random nature and spinning around.  If yours does the same thing and you don’t like it, just trim them all off flat.

Slurpee Cup Lamp

  • Cost: Anywhere from about $7 to $30
  • Time: 15 minutes
  • Most difficult part: Using a drill (on some) and hot glue gun

This project comes to me from my sister Brooke, who has her own geek blog over at  It’s TV Geek Girl Chic.

She made one of these out of a collectible Slurpee cup with a Darth Vader lid.  Obviously with that one, there’s no need to drill a hole in the top, but you still need one in the bottom.  Also note that collectible Slurpee cups had harder lids in 2005 than they do now, so maybe look around for something else to use.  Old Coke bottles (like they still sell Mexican Coca-Cola with real sugar in) or interesting wine bottles would work, and is what the lamp kits are for, but I wouldn’t want to be the one drilling holes in the glass.  But there’s really no end to what you can do this with.

Here’s what you need:

  1. Bottle Lamp Kit — I found one at Walmart for $3 or $4.
  2. Collectible Slurpee Cup, bottle, etc. (you’ll see the one I found below)
  3. Lamp shade (K-Mart has smallish ones fairly cheap)
  4. Hot glue gun
  5. Probably a drill

Really, all you really need for this is to drill holes in the bottom of whatever you’re using, the top if necessary, seal things up with the glue gun, and following the directions that come with the bottle lamp kit.

In about 15 minutes, here’s what I made for our son’s nursery, and yes, that’s actually a collectible Slurpee cup.  (He’s due in ten more days.  Could be any minute, now!)

Welcome to Good Idea at the Time!

This is a pretty good day for my first post, because it’s a good “projects” example day.

First of all, how cool is this domain name?  Completely shocked when I saw it was still available.  I’ve been thinking for a while to start two blogs, one for geek projects (name never determined) and one for my bad parenting (called  I have no idea what used to host, but it’s a domain squatter now.  When I found this domain available, I realized it could be used equally well for both blog ideas.  Feel free to take and make me look like the amateur I am at being a bad parent.

My project for today (and yesterday, and now tomorrow) was supposed to be a Beetle Bot.  This should be a one-evening project.

The lesson learned the hard way last night was: Do not use Bondo to hold your beetle robot together.  Feel free to rebuild a Volkswagen Beetle with it, instead.

Tonight, I couldn’t even get to the project until much later than expected. As I was closing and locking the door of my car, the door’s lock fell inside the door.  (Yeah, I A) have manual locks and B) have to lock the car door from the outside using the key, by manufacturer design to ensure I don’t lock it in there.)

On the bright side, I’ve always wondered how hard it is to get inside a car door, with how entryless (not a word) their construction seems.  Now I know.  I also know that it’s not getting into the door that’s the hard part.

A while ago, I had one broken bolt in that car cost in the neighborhood of $600.  It appears to have happened again, but this time it cost me around $1.50.  (I don’t remember how much, but I know I used a credit card to pay for it. So I can find out exactly how much later. See how I totally paid for a $1.50 item with a credit card on purpose and not because my brain gets easily fried?)

Anyway, that set my robot building back an hour and a half.  I’d picked up the epoxy and this time I got the robot entirely built … But discovered I should have done more testing first.

See, the smallest motors that sells are 1.5 Vdc mini, mini, mini motors.  Which is great, since the Beetle Bot Instructions calls for 1.5 Vdc motors.  Except that they’re ACTUALLY 1.5 Vdc, and most AA and AAA batteries these days are closer to 1.3 V than 1.5.  So I could power one motor, or the other, but not both.

Solution?  Like so much else in the world, the dollar store. They had little hand-held personal fans that have the proper 1.5 Vdc motors that will (hopefully) work with slightly underpowered batteries.  Also?  They have cool little mini-frisbees in three or four packs (depending on which comic book character you want on them) which are perfect for the top shell to these Beetle Bots.  So much great stuff there to break to pieces and abuse.

So in one night, my project count is:

  1. Unexpected car project
  2. Failed robot project
  3. Domain purchased, blog created, and premiere post put up!

Even though it’s taking me past midnight to get all this done, at least I get to end on a success.  Looks like the Beetle Bot and the Bristle Bot will have to end up being weekend projects.