How to Carve the Perfect Pumpkin

It’s Halloween time, and that means pumpkin carving time.  Carving a pumpkin is the main event for young and old alike.  Whether it’s to sit on the door step or for holding pumpkin carving parties and contests, this age old tradition is a core part of the Halloween tradition.

  pumpkin by fire

Table of Contents

  1. Selecting the Perfect Pumpkin
  2. Pumpkin Carving Tools
  3. Cutting out the Top
  4. Scooping out the Insides
  5. Using Stencils as your Guide
  6. Carving your Pumpkin
  7. Lighting your Pumpkin
  8. Preserving your Pumpkin

The more pumpkins the better.  Four or five pumpkins in a group have more visual effect than one large one.  So think quantity – and let’s get started.

Selecting the Perfect Pumpkin

Selecting the right pumpkins you'll carve for your Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns will make your job easier. 

Pick your pumpkins based on what you want to carve on them.  Depending on the variety, pumpkins can range in size anywhere from very small to gigantic.  Medium sized ones work best for most stencils that you'll make or buy.  Very large pumpkins can be carved with elaborate designs and used as "center pieces" on your porch or tables.  Smaller pumpkins work best for carving traditional faces since they can be done quickly and you can scatter them around for parties, haunts or up your sidewalk as a lighted pathway.

Before buying your pumpkins decide what designs you will be carving into them. This will allow you to create a shopping list of the shapes and sizes of pumpkins you'll need.

For traditional carving without a stencil, the pumpkin shape can enhance or define the personality of the final Jack-O-Lantern.  Select pumpkins that are uniformly orange meaning that are ripe, have no bruises, cuts or nicks. 

The Perfect Pumpkin

Thump a pumpkin – a ripe or hallow-sounding one will be easier to scoop out.  Make sure it has no soft spots anywhere and has at least one smooth, unblemished face for carving.  Make sure there is no major discoloration on any side since this may be an indication of early rotting.  It should be as smooth as possible, and free of scratches, dents or gouges.

If you will be using a stencil to carve your pumpkin, select a pumpkin that is large enough and as close to the same shape as the pattern you're going to carve.  Be flexible.  A tall, skinny pumpkin may be just the thing for your design. 

Pick a pumpkin with a stem.  Having a strong, well-attached stem is a sign of a healthy pumpkin.

Never carry a pumpkin by its stem - it may break.  It’s part of the visual allure.  Losing its stem can also accelerate the pumpkin’s rotting.  Care should also be taken not to bruise the pumpkin during transport or storage, as this will shorten their life-span.

If you find the perfect pumpkin but it's missing its stem, have no fear!  You can still use it!  Just carve the bottom out for the opening the same way you would do the top.  Then, you just sit your light source on the cleaned bottom piece and sit the pumpkin over it. Works great and you don't need the stem for a lid handle!

Balance is also important.  The pumpkin needs to be able to stand up on its own without rolling over.  A solid bottom that supports the pumpkin means less chance of rolling over and being damaged.

TIP: Store your uncut pumpkin in a cool, dry place.  Once pumpkins ripen they will deteriorate fast.  Heat and light speed the process.

TIP: Wash the exterior of the pumpkin well before carving.  Use a solution of 1 gallon water and 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach.  This will help prevent mold.

Pumpkin Carving Tools

You don’t need any fancy tools to create a masterpiece.  A basic set of knives will get the job done.  But new tools have arrived on the market to make the job easier.  Specialized saws, scoopers and even an electric saw make the job more enjoyable.

Basic Tools Include:

Old Newspaper
Masking Tape
Sharp chef’s knife – 6 to 8 inches long
Thin-bladed serrated knives or saws
Large, strong table-spoon
Sharp-tipped marker
Ice-pick or sharp nail for poking pattern outline

Pumpkin Carving Kit


Pumpkin-carving kit or
PowerMaster Power Saw from Pumpkin Masters
Monster Scoop from Garden Works


Cutting Out the Top

With a long, thin bladed knife, cut out the top of the pumpkin around the stem of the pumpkin.  The hole should be large enough to allow you to scoop out the guts (seeds and stringy membrane) by hand and with a large spoon.  Generally, the size of the hole should be about two-thirds the diameter of the pumpkin.

While you can cut a round circle out, you'll find that cutting a five or six sided opening will work the best.  As you cut out the top hole, angle the knife so that the lid and hole will be somewhat cone shaped.  This will help prevent the lid from falling into the hole.removingtop

When using a candle, cut a hole on the upper, back part of the pumpkin. The hole will work like a chimney by allowing the candle's heat to escape.



Scooping out the Insides

There are several tools you can use to clean the insides of the pumpkin.  If you don’t have special “pumpkin scraping” tools, you can use a large spoon.  If you buy one of the retail carving kids, they often come with a scooper. 

MonsterScoopMy favorite is the heavy-duty Monster Scoop which is sold at many hobby/craft stores such as Michaels.

Scoop out the insides of the pumpkin making sure you get all the strings and seeds.  Leave the wall of the pumpkin about an inch thick.

Make sure that you have scrapped the bottom of the pumpkin flat, so that the candle will sit level in the pumpkin.

cleaning out the pumpkin

When the pumpkin is empty, wash and dry the outside skin.  This will help preserve the pumpkin by removing any mold.

pumpkin all cleaned out

Using Stencils as your Guide

Even if you decide to go with the traditional pumpkin face, it is still preferable to draw it first on a piece of paper to later use as a stencil.  This is easier than drawing right on the pumpkin, and makes revising the patter a snap.

Pre-made stencils are sold by many different companies and also can be found on the Internet.  Pumpkin Master makes a complete line of carving stencils and tools.

Inspect the surface of the pumpkin to decide the best side to carve you face.  This is usually the flattest side.

You can use a copy machine to reduce or enlarge your pattern to fit your pumpkin.

pumpkin with stencilTo transfer a pattern to the pumpkin, cut it out and tape it to the pumpkin with masking tape.  Then use pinpricks to mark the shape of the lines on the pumpkin.  Another option is to use a utility knife and trace the pattern on the pumpkin skin by scoring around the pattern.

If the design is hard to see you can connect the dots with a pencil.  Another trick is to rub flower over the pumpkin to make the dots more visible.

Carving the Pumpkin

You should seriously consider buying a pumpkin carving kit – although not absolutely necessary.  They cost just a few dollars and contain small saws that aren’t commonly found in the typical toolbox.  They work especially well for doing detailed carving work.

Start by washing your hands and tools with anti-bacterial soap.  This will help eliminate the bacteria that will try and rot your new jack-O-Lantern.

Try to carve the small pieces first.  Then work from the center of the design outward.  This will help support the edges of the design especially when working on intricate patterns.

When cutting your shapes, always use a sawing motion.  Go slowly and gently.  A small serrated saw is best for detail work.  Never try to cut your pumpkin with a straight-edge knife.  Doing so will result in damage to the pumpkin and possibly yourself!

pumpkin sawing with big knifeRemove and reinsert the saw to make corners.  And push the cut-out pieces with your fingers – not the saw.

Carve edges at an angle for smoother lines and better illumination.

Don’t just carve the front of your pumpkin.  Small designs in the back will cast wonderful shadows against a wall or door behind the pumpkin.  Remember to keep these “shadow” designs small since the light that emerges gets magnified.

pumpkin with back shadow

Another technique is to just remove the skin of the pumpkin rather than carving all the way through.  These thin areas will still light and create a different look.  If you have a Dremel tool, using it to create these thin-walled areas is a snap.

Lighting your Pumpkin

Consider using batter-powered lights instead of candles to light your Jack-O-Lantern.  They are safer, and give a fairly realistic flicker.

If you decide to use candles, regular Votive candles, placed in clear glass candle holders are safer, brighter and will last a lot longer than exposed candles.  This size candle is suitable for medium to large pumpkins.  For small candles you may want to use the small tea-light candles.  Votive candles and clear glass candle holders are available at most department, hardware and art stores.  If you use candles to light your pumpkins, or for any other Halloween activity, remember, to never leave a lit candle unsupervised.  Never use a lit candle in an artificial pumpkin.

Think about putting two or three candled in a pumpkin – especially if you’re going to photograph it.  The extra light makes the design stand out better.

pumpkin vent holeIf you're using candles to light your pumpkin, cut a small vent hole in the rear of the lid to let the heat and smoke escape.

Create the smell of Halloween spice.  Just sprinkle a little cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin spice on the bottom of the pumpkin lid.  Once the pumpkin is lit, it will create a wonderful seasonal scent.

Preserving Your Pumpkin

Mold and dehydration are the enemies of your newly-carved pumpkin.  A carved pumpkin may last anywhere from a couple of days to a week.  After all that hard work you want it to last as long as possible – or at least through Halloween.

Because heat will speed the dehydration process, it is important to move the pumpkins to a dry, shaded area during the day, especially if you live in a warmer climate.

Remember to wash your hands and tools with anti-bacterial soap before starting to carve.  When you are finished carving, spray the pumpkin with Lysol spray to kill the bacteria.

You can slow the deterioration of your masterpiece by using a paper towel to rub petroleum jelly over all the cut surfaces, inside and out.  This will help seal in the pumpkin’s moisture and slow the dehydration process.
Pumpkin Fresh

There is also an easy-to-apply product, environmentally-friendly preserver called Pumpkin Fresh that contains all natural ingredients to deter bugs, rot and mold.  It comes in a spray bottle and you just spray your pumpkin inside and out to prevent rotting.

TIP - If your pumpkin has lost a lot of moisture and begun to shrivel up, you can sometimes restore them back to their original condition by soaking them in water overnight.