How to Carve a Pumpkin

Here are tips for fun and easy pumpkin carving with templates and simple stencils to help you carve the perfect pumpkin.

Jack O Lantern
Photo by Getty.

How to Carve a Pumpkin

Step 1. Choose Pumpkin Carving Designs

What's your pumpkin's personality — sweet, scary, silly? Here are some simple pumpkin carving templates, including classic jack-o-lanterns, witches and cats, scary creatures, and more.

Step 2. Choose a Pumpkin Shape

Pick a pumpkin that's the right shape for your carving pattern. Check the surface for soft spots. You'll want a smooth, unblemished surface for carving. Give it a nice thump with you finger. You should hear a ripe, hollow sound. A strong, well-attached stem is also a sign of pumpkin healthiness. Choose a pumpkin with a stable bottom. Balance is important; a solid bottom that supports the pumpkin means less chance of rolling or being knocked over.

Three pumpkins
Photo by Meredith.

Size Wise. A medium-sized pumpkin is easier to work with than a huge or tiny one. But be flexible about the shape -- a tall, skinny pumpkin may be just the thing for your design. Choose pumpkins that are at least 9-10 inches high so there is adequate room for a votive candle to burn safely.

Tip: A clean pumpkin lasts longer. Wash it and let it dry thoroughly. Before you start carving, let your pumpkin sit at room temperature for a while.

Step 3. Trace Your Design

For a freehand design, draw an outline on the pumpkin surface with a washable marker.

Trace your design on the pumpkin
Photo by Getty.

If you're using a stencil, enlarge or reduce the design to fit your pumpkin's size. Print the stencil and tape it to the surface to be carved. Follow the design lines with a rotary tracing wheel or use an awl or thin screwdriver to make holes along the design lines about 1/8-inch apart. Remove the stencil pattern when finished.

Step 4. Cut Out the Top

Using a sharp knife, cut a circular hole in the top of the pumpkin at an angle toward the center. This will create a support ledge for your lid.

Cut out the top of the pumpkin
Photo by Getty.

Or, if you prefer to keep your top in one piece, cut a hole straight up through the base.

Tip: Before you remove the lid or bottom, make a mark or notch on the pumpkin and the cut piece so it's easy to match them up afterwards.

Step 5. Scoop the Seeds

Using a metal spoon, scoop out the pulp and seeds. For easier cleanup, do this over several layers of newspaper or the kitchen sink. Scrape the walls of your pumpkin until it is clean and the areas to be carved are about 1-inch thick.

Scoop out the pumpkin seeds
Photo by Getty.

Tip: Save your pumpkin seeds for roast pumpkin seeds. But if you're tossing the pumpkin innards, put them in the compost or trash, not the disposal; they'll really gum up the works.

Step 6. Get Carving

Use a crafts knife, fine-toothed saw, or pumpkin-carving tools to cut out the design. (You can find pumpkin-carving tools at grocery, retail, and drug stores.) Work from the center of your design outward to avoid putting pressure on areas already carved. Keep your saw perpendicular to your pumpkin as you saw in an up-and-down motion. Apply gentle pressure, and remove and reinsert the knife to make corners; don't twist the blade. Use your finger to carefully push out cut pieces from the inside.

Pumpkin carving tools
Photo by Getty.

Step 7. Interesting Extras

After you have cut out all the openings, create interesting effects with color and light by removing the skin of the pumpkin with wood-carving gouges or a citrus zester The depth of removal will cause the variation in color when the pumpkin is lit.

Carving a Halloween Pumpkin
Photo by Meredith.

Step 8. Light It Up

Illuminate your jack o'lantern with a battery-powered light or candle. To use a candle inside, place it and light it after all the carving is complete. When the candle smoke has blackened a spot on the lid or the top, use a saw to cut a 1-inch-diameter hole at that spot for a chimney.

Pumpkin Lantern
Photo by Meredith.

Tip: Use a paper towel to rub petroleum jelly over all the cut surfaces, inside and outside the pumpkin. This will help preserve your pumpkin for several days and reduce shrivelling.

Advanced Pumpkin Design Tricks

Shadows and light. Part of the art of great pumpkin carving is thinking about shadows. Small designs in the back of the pumpkin can cast a wonderful shadow on a wall or door behind the pumpkin. Remember to keep the design small, because the light that emerges gets magnified.

If you are going to do this, be sure to scrape the inside of the back of your pumpkin to slightly under one inch in thickness.

Carving the mouth. You can make more realistic teeth by peeling off only the outer skin of the pumpkin within the mouth and leaving the pale flesh beneath. You can then carve lines between individual teeth. The candlelight will shine through the fleshy teeth. Also make an opening between upper and lower teeth for more light to come through.

Adding pieces. You can use the pieces of pumpkin that you have carved out to fashion ears and fit them into slits. Or you can use corks for ears (make holes and wedge them in). You can carve hair at the top of the pumpkin by scraping straight or curling lines all around the cap. Use a chisel or a linoleum cutter for this. Try a carrot for a nose or maybe a radish.

Paint Your Pumpkin. Not of a mind to carve? Grab some painting supplies: permanent markets, water-based markers, tempera paints, small paintbrushes, and stickers. Then go all Pollock on your pumpkin.

Painting your Halloween pumpkin
Photo by Meredith.

Have a Pumpkin Carving Party

  • Create a mini patch where guests can pick their own.
  • Set up a carving table. Cover it with several layers of newspaper taped into place with masking tape. If you're indoors, protect the floor, too.
  • Lay out markers, stickers, paints, cutting tools and any large spoons, ladles or ice cream scoops you can find on table.
  • Fill a few glasses or empty yogurt cups with water and set out for painters. Set out sponges so kids can wipe off mistakes.
  • Heat cider in slow cooker.


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