These pumpkin carving tips will bring out the artist in any budding Halloween decorator and give you a fun decor item to share in your home.
If you have tried your hand at pumpkin carving, you will know that an easy Jack o Lantern design is not too difficult. But attempting more elaborate designs may make you wonder why you ever ventured away from Jack!
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Now that summer is fading and the crisp, cool nights of autumn are with us, it’s time to think ahead to some favorite fall activities. Whether it is apple picking in order to make your favorite cinnamon baked apple recipe, getting prepared for everything pumpkin season in the kitchen, or other fun fall activities, this is the time for enjoying the fun ahead of us.
Halloween is such a fun time of the year, and carving a pumpkin with friends or your children is a great activity that all will love to share in.
There are some potential issues to consider, though.
Done incorrectly, you will have a lopsided design that rots before Halloween arrives. Done correctly, though, you will have a creation that you will happily display for all to view and admire.
Never fear, these expert carving tricks will have your pumpkins looking and smelling good for the entire trick-or-treating season.
Why do we call the Jack O Lanterns?
A Jack O Lantern is a carved pumpkin or other vegetable that is associated with Halloween, but where did the term originate?
One of the origins of the words is an old Irish legend about Stingy Jack, a drunk man who bargained with Satan and then was doomed to roam the earth with just a hollowed out turnip to light his way.
The practice of carving pumpkins came to the US from Irish immigrants. The British term jack-o’-lantern dates to the 17th century and refers to a night watchman, or a Jack (man) with a lantern.
Pumpkin Carving Tips
There are a few things that you will need to know if you want to end up with the best looking design that also lasts. Check out these pumpkin carving tips and tricks for some help.
Choosing a pumpkin
At the top of my list of tricks for carving pumpkins is to pick out just the right pumpkin. Make sure there are no soft spots that could indicate spoilage.
Be sure the pumpkin has a sturdy stem and try to get one that will sit flat after it is carved. This is important. If you have to cut off a piece of the bottom for it to sit straight, the pumpkin will rot more quickly.
Have a flat bottom also means that the pumpkin won’t roll around while you are carving it, and this will be a big help.
Another tip is to go for a big pumpkin. Those large pumpkins are easier to carve and if you are not an experienced pumpkin carver, you might find that you’ll have better luck with more room for your design.
Light-colored pumpkins tend to be softer and easier to carve.
Inspect the Stem
Pumpkins are a vegetable that grows on a vine and also rests on the ground. The stem is not meant to support the weight of it. If you find a pumpkin that has no stem, this means that the farmers or pickers may have handled it. (and perhaps MIS-handled it!)
For a really fresh pumpkin, look for one which has a slightly green stem. If it has been sitting around for a long time after being picked, the stem may get brittle and dry out and will likely be more brownish looking.
I’ve had the pumpkin stem come off in my hand one time while carving. Not unsurprisingly, this pumpkin did not last long when carved.
Also, if you have a pumpkin with a stem, you can get creative and use this part of it in a side ways design by using the stem as the nose of the pumpkin!
In this case, you would make your opening on the bottom of the pumpkin to remove the pulp. (An added benefit of removing the bottom is that the job of scooping out the pulp and seeds is easier.)
Basic tools for carving pumpkins
Even though some designs would indicate that a maniac pumpkin carver executed them, carving an intricate design is not as hard as you might think.
You will need a few basic tools for best results, though. A plain kitchen knife will cut the pumpkin but not give you the professional results that you want.
Start with your pumpkin and then have some tools handy. A pumpkin carving kit with tools most commonly used for carving can be a great investment. It will help you get the professional results you are wanting.
At the minimum, be sure to have these basic tools:
- A pumpkin scraper to remove the pulp and seeds. Ice cream scoops work fine, too.
- A sharp knife to cut shapes.
- A drill to make small circular openings.
- A small saw to cut easily.
- Pumpkin Carving Stencils for your design
- Tape to position your stencil.
- A candle or light for the finished pumpkin for the glow.
How to use special pumpkin carving tools
Each of these tools is used differently. Read on to find out how to use them.
Using the scooper on a pumpkin
The scooper is used to pull all the pumpkin seeds out of the pumpkin and then to make a smooth wall on the inside that makes it easier when you start carving.
Using a poker on a pumpkin design
Use the poker to make small holes all along the design of your pattern. Once you have done this, you can remove the pumpkin stencil and save it to look at for reference when you start to carve the pumpkin.
Using a drill in pumpkin carving
If you are lucky enough to have a drill in your kit, it will make the whole process a lot easier.
A drill is used to make holes through the pumpkin along the lines of small holes that you make with a poker without much elbow grease. it will allow you to get the design through to the inside of the pumpkin. You may find this task easier if you hold the pumpkin in your lap.
Using a saw on a pumpkin instead of a drill
Once you have the design cut into the pumpkin, it is time to use a saw. Hold it like a pencil and move it up and down moving from hole to hole, smoothing out the edges of the design. Continue sawing until your design is done.
Basic pumpkin designs
It is important to prepare your pumpkin and choose the right time to carve it for best success. Here are some basic pumpkin carving tips that will help.
Don’t carve the pumpkin too soon
Pumpkins will last a long time without going bad as long as you keep them whole. You can purchase one early to make sure that you get the shape you want.
But once you have carved the pumpkin, it will slowly start to go bad. If you can wait until 24 hours before you wish to display the pumpkin, it will stay intact best.
Check the opening size
It is important to cut an opening in the top (or bottom) of your pumpkin just large enough to get your hands in to scoop out the pulp and seeds but not so large that the top will cave in later. You can make the opening round, or get fancy and use an irregular shape.
Be sure to replace the top piece that you cut out to use as a lid for your finished pumpkin design. This not only completes the look but keeps the light inside the pumpkin.
Cut the lid on an angle
When you make your opening for the top, don’t cut straight down into the pumpkin. Pumpkin flesh shrinks in size as the carving ages and the top will fall in on itself if you cut straight down.
Instead, cut the opening on an angle. This makes the outer area wider than the inside which will keep it in place.
Handy tip – cut the opening from the bottom!
If you don’t want to wrestle with getting a lit candle down into the pumpkin (or struggling to light the one that is in there), cut the opening from the bottom!
Most of the work of carving comes from cleaning the seeds out of a pumpkin. To make this easier, simply cut a hole in the bottom of your pumpkin, and remove that piece and discard it.
Most of the seeds and loose inside flesh will come away with the piece and you will only need to give your pumpkin a quick scrape on the inside.
Cutting the hole from the bottom also means that you can make use of all the top area of the pumpkin for carving and you won’t need to worry about the top shrinking and falling in.
Cutting from the bottom also means that will get a nicely smooth and finished design
Removing the pumpkin seeds
Before you can carve a pumpkin, you will need to remove the seeds. This is normally the messiest part of the whole job.
Using your hands and a scraper, scoop out the pulp and seeds of the pumpkin. It’s a good idea to have some sort of container nearby, or to place the pumpkin on some newspaper so you won’t make a mess.
The wall of the pumpkin should be about 1 inch thick when you are done. If you make the walls too thin, the pumpkin may rot before Halloween arrives. Thicker skins also take the heat of the candle inside better, too.
Most important of my pumpkin carving tips? Save the seeds!
Save the seeds to roast later. They are delicious and make a great healthy snack.
Looking for a recipe to use up the seeds? Here is a great one for Toasted pumpkin seeds. It has some different varieties of seasonings for you to try.
Look for weirdly shaped pumpkins
We all love the look of a traditional round pumpkin that is so commonly seen, but opting for a weirdly shaped pumpkin can give you all sorts of ideas for designs and room to execute them.
This large oblong pumpkin with pronounced ridges gives lots of room for the side to side carving of the snake head. The extra skin of the pumpkin has been put to good use by making scores that resemble snake skin.
Don’t carve your pumpkin, shave it instead
Some of the most interesting designs are made without cutting all the way through the pumpkin. This is called scraping.
Scraping the first layer of the outer shell will open up all sorts of design possibilities like the realistic looking design below.Linoleum block cutters make ideal pumpkin shell scrapers. They have a V-shaped blade and you can purchase them online or at art supply stores.
Use toothpicks to fasten broken pieces
Whoops! We’ve all been there. Your design is almost done and you make a mistake with your knife and cut off an essential part of the design.
Don’t worry – if you have some toothpicks, you will be fine. Just secure the pieces that have broken off by poking a toothpick into them and attaching them to nearby flesh.
Keep the pumpkin in the fridge
There is not a lot that you can do to add weeks of life to your carved pumpkin, but there are a few things that will add days to the amount of time it lasts.
When you are done carving, wrap the pumpkin tightly in plastic wrap and keep it in a very cool place, preferably the fridge.
Other places to keep it cool are to leave the carving outdoors at night or in a garage. Check out the FAQ section below to find out more ways to keep the pumpkin fresh.
More pumpkin carving ideas
Anyone can manage a simple pumpkin face design just by keeping a few pumpkin carving tips in mind and with very few tools, other than a knife and scooper.
Carving a simple Jack O Lantern
For a simple pumpkin carving such as a Jack O Lantern, all you need is a sharp knife and a simple design idea. Trace your design on the outside of the pumpkin with a marker.
A plain design like triangles for a nose and eyes and a bit more elaborate mouth will work just fine or you can trace something more intricate if you are artistically inclined.
Tip: a dry erase marker is better than using a sharpie pen. If you make a mistake when you trace the pattern, it will be easier to remove the mark and begin again with dry erase marks than with permanent marks.
Once you have the design traced, use a sharp kitchen knife to cut the design from the outside to the inner area.
More advanced pumpkin carving instructions
With the basics perfected, it is time to move on to some more elaborate pumpkin carving.
To get a more professional look, there are some tools and techniques that will make the task easier.
Using cookie cutters as a design aid
If you would like something a bit more elaborate but don’t have the time or patience for a stencil, use a metal cookie cutter. Cookie cutters for Halloween come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Push the cookie cutter into the pumpkin shell. It will pierce the shell with your desired shape and you can finish the carving with a knife.
Cookie cutters have so many uses. See them in action in this project for making egg molds for fun breakfast shapes.
Using pumpkin carving stencils
Even though you can just cut pieces out of the pumpkin to make a basic Jack O Lantern design, using a more elaborate pumpkin stencil will allow you to carve pumpkins worthy of any pumpkin carving contest.
Take your stencil and tape it to the pumpkin. If it does not fit smoothly, just make small slits in it and tape it down on the pumpkin. This site has some great free stencils.
Using a stencil will give you designs with more rounded shapes and more intricate looks than a basic triangle face design.
Don’t be afraid of using stencils, thinking only master pumpkin carvers can use them. Some stencils are quite simple and others are for those that don’t mind taking hours carving their creations.
Think outside of a Jack O Lantern face
Don’t be afraid to get creative. We all know how common a pumpkin with a Jack O Lantern face on it is and many people only carve this way. However with a bit of thinking outside the box, you can go way beyond this in terms of creativity.
Bats, ghosts, witches hats and other scenes all look great on a carved pumpkin and with stencils these are easy to do.
One of the tricks is to make sure that there is plenty of shell left between cut outs. If you try to carve too tiny a design all over the pumpkin, you risk having it cave in on itself.
In the simple design below, a black cat stencil made it easy to carve out the main area. The moon was made by shaving only the outer shell into a moon shape and leaving the flesh behind. The effect is great!
I’ve also seen a whole pumpkin simply drilled with a holes made by a power drill and then lit from within that looked great.
And who says it has to be a Halloween scene? Kids will LOVE using cookie cutters with playful characters carved into a pumpkin.
Make use of props
If you don’t have the desire or time for an elaborate pumpkin carving, dress up your basic designs with simple props.
Props allow you to turn a basic pumpkin carving into some a bit more creative. Glitter, sequins and corn stalks all change the look of a pumpkin face.
Even adding a fun hat will change a very simple carved face into a really whimsical design.
Making a chimney in the pumpkin
Once you have carved the pumpkin it is time to make a chimney in your pumpkin to release the heat. Without a chimney, you’ll make a mess on the inside and encourage the pumpkin to rot more quickly.
Light a candle and place it inside the pumpkin and put the lid back on. In a few seconds, blow out the candle and see where the dark side is on the inside of the lid.
This is the place where you will cut a small hole with your drill or a knife. When you have cut this hole, the smoke will release through it and the heat can escape the pumpkin while the candle is glowing inside.
Tip: Use LED lights instead of a candle
We all love the look of a pumpkin with a real candle inside of it, but once you put a really hot heat source inside of the pumpkin it will basically start to cook from the inside out. (This is what gives it the nice smell!)
To prevent this, use other types of light sources such as LEDs. These lights get really bright but they don’t give off a lot of heat. This will allow the pumpkin to stay cooler on the inside.
Keep a water bottle handy
You know what happens to apples and avocados once they are cut. They go brown because of oxidation. A pumpkin won’t have this happen as quickly as these two fruits, but you will see a change if you leave it out on the counter with cuts in it.
Pumpkins lose a lot of moisture while we are carving them, so pumpkin carvers know that having a water bottle handy while carving will help it to stay workable. Just spray it occasionally as you carve.
Combine pumpkin sizes
Pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes. Get creative by using this to your advantage in your carving.
In this photo, the mouth of the large pumpkin is enlarged to fit the size of the similarly carved smaller pumpkin. It gives the impression of one pumpkin eating the other!
Using your scraps of pumpkin
When you are finished with your design, you’ll likely have some pieces of pumpkin left over. Don’t throw these away! Put them to creative use.
Some examples are to use the seeds to make a grotesque looking “night after pumpkin.”
Other examples are carving left over pieces to make a tongue or a pipe. You can also make hair pieces out of a discarded piece of pumpkin shell, for a unique look.
Don’t forget to carve gourds
It is not just pumpkins that can be carved. Members of the squash family have similar structure and shape and work well.
Gourds and butternut pumpkins also have hard skins and soft flesh that makes them ideal candidates for carving projects. The fun thing about gourds is their unusual shapes.
Instead of being large and round, gourds often have a large lower area and taller top, which gives them a totally different look when carved.
The main thing to keep in mind when carving gourds is the start the carving below the slim area and just consider the top part as though it is the stem. This gives you room to reach inside when working.
Pumpkin carving FAQs
I have covered quite a few details about pumpkin carving, but these are some common questions that I receive.
How long will a carved pumpkin last?
The short answer is really not that long. It depends on how open the carving is and how much air gets to it. Most pumpkins will last about 2 weeks.
However if yours has less air circulating around it, you will likely start to grow moldy after a week.
How can I keep a carved pumpkin from growing mold?
Soaking the carved pumpkin in a tub of cold water will make sure that it stays hydrated. If you add a bit of bleach to the water, this will help to prevent mold.
Petroleum jelly rubbed all over the edges of the carved pumpkin (both inside and out) also helps to deter mold.
How long before Halloween should I carve my pumpkin?
Pumpkins rot quickly as we have seen from some of the other questions and comments. It’s a good idea to carve as closely to Halloween as you can, but no longer than 5-10 days ahead of time.
If you live in a cool location, place your pumpkin outside on your porch. The cool autumn temperatures will help it last longer. Alas, here in NC, we often have warm fall days, so this won’t work for me.
My suggestion is to display the pumpkins along with other fall greenery, but wait until right before Halloween to carve them. This way, you will get the look of a decorated front porch without the worry of the pumpkins going bad.
A fun note: Folklore tradition says that a pumpkin should be carved right before Halloween night so that it is a means to frighten evil spirits away. (I think this is some handy folk lore person’s idea of how to keep pumpkins from rotting!)
How do I get a nice smell in a carved pumpkin kept indoors?
If you like to use a carved pumpkin indoors – perhaps on a table centerpiece, there are a few ways to keep it fragrant.
Sprinkle the inside of the carved pumpkin with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and you’ll be able to use the pumpkin as an autumn flavored air freshener.
Adding a small scented candle in a glass container as your light will also give off a nice scent.
What if I can’t display my carved pumpkin right away?
Nothing much will add weeks to a carved pumpkin but cold will add a few days. To prolong the life of a carved design, wrap it in plastic wrap and place it in the fridge to keep it cool.
Cool pumpkin carving designs
Need some inspiration for your pumpkin carving project this Halloween? Here are a few designs that might give you some ideas.
Some are just a cool simple pumpkin carving and others have a much more pumpkin carving ideas that will take quite a while to carve.
At first glance, one sees the eyes and expects a Jack O Lantern face, but this carver had something else in mind.
Instead of the grinning teeth, scary grasping hands make up the remainder of the design.
This trio of pumpkin carving designs is eerily funny and creepy at the same time. I love the way the square teeth form the focus of the design. They have a touch of the ET thing going on!
This pumpkin face is quite simple but just has enough interest to make it more than a simple Jack O Lantern. The rounded eyes look as though they are winking and the upward smile gives a happy look all around!
Use a flower stencil and a poker and saw to cut sunflower design that will please any gardener.
Put your carving technique to good use by making a welcome sign for your front porch. This is thinking outside the box as its best.
In this fun design, instead of a traditional Jack O lantern, the pumpkin is carved into a bat figure with an enlarged head and wings with cut outs for extra dimension and detail.
Who says that a pumpkin has to sit on your front porch or steps? This simple design is placed in a tree and toothpicks are used to make a scarier mouth area.
Very little carving is needed for this traditional Jack O Lantern but the looks is very effective.
Some pumpkin carvings can tell a message about another culture or belief.
In this image, a carving of the Celtic Samhain symbol along with autumn/fall/harvest fruit, nuts and vegetables takes us back to another time and place.To make this creative design, two pumpkins are used to create one design.
A large round pumpkin is carved first into a Jack O Lantern design. Instead of finishing the traditional look, a second pumpkin is carved into a skeleton and then placed inside a cavity that just fits the size.
What a talent!
This is one for the pumpkin carving masters! The front skin of a green pumpkin has been removed, leaving the lighter colored flesh to be carved into a gruesome and funny face.
If you attempt this type of design, use a linoleum block cutter first to remove the outer skin and then carve the flesh with your pumpkin carving tools.
The design gives the impression of almost a wood carving and is very impressive. This is the technique used by Ray Villafane and other pumpkin carving professionals.
This pumpkin design is more simple than it looks at first.
The majority of the carving is done on the teeth, but the overall look is much more complex. The eyes are simply cut and then skin is removed to enable the carver to create an open mouth with large teeth.
The cut out of the bat comes from the mouth area and is attached to the stem to make it look like it is flying. I love the little bit of flesh that is left in the mouth area to make it look as though the pumpkin is still eating.
This pumpkin carving is for a more advanced carver. Trace your design first or use a stencil to give you the witch head.
Lighting the design from behind with a candle lets the witch head stand out.
For more interesting pumpkin carving designs be sure to also check out my round up of Creative Pumpkin Carving Ideas.
Pin these tips for carving pumpkins for later
Would you like a reminder of this post for my pumpkin carving tips? Just pin this image to one of your favorite Pinterest Halloween boards so that you can easily find it later.
Admin note: This post first appeared on my blog in October of 2015. I have updated the article to add new pumpkin carving tips, akk new photos, and a video for you to enjoy.
- 1 pumpkin
- A sharp knife
- A poker
- A Drill
- A Saw
- A Scooper (an ice cream scoop also works just fine)
- Linoleum block cutter
- Spray bottle
- Metal cookie cutters
- Cut off the top of the pumpkin so that you can see the seeds inside. Set the lid aside to use later.
- Use the ice cream scoop or other scooping tool to remove the pulp and seeds. (be sure to save the seeds to roast later.)
- For designs that use the top area, make the cut out on the bottom and remove the guts along with the cut piece.
- Attach a stencil or draw the design you want on the front of the pumpkin with markers.
- Use the poker to make small holes all along the design of your pattern.
- Once you have done this, you can remove the pumpkin stencil and save it so that you have something to look at for when you start to carve the pumpkin.
- Holding the pumpkin in your lap, use the drill to make larger holes through the pumpkin over the small holes. This will get the design through to the center of the pumpkin
- Once you have your design in place, use the saw to cut out larger pieces of pumpkin to finish the design.
- Cookie cutters can also be used to press design patterns.
- If more intricate designs are desired, use a linoleum block cutter to shave the outer shell instead of cutting holes for the design.
- Use toothpicks to secure any broken pieces.
- Keep a spray bottle filled with water nearby and use it to keep the flesh moist.
- Place a candle in the cleaned out pumpkin and light it. Replace the lid and allow the candle to light for a few minutes.
- Blow out the candle and look to see the dark area under the lid. This is where you need to cut a chimney so the smoke will release through the top.
- Use the knife or saw to cut a chimney for the pumpkin in this part of the lid.
- Light the candle, replace the lid and display.
- Keep the carved pumpkin in a cold place, outdoors or wrapped in the fridge.
Be sure to place the pumpkin on a plate if you display it inside. Carved pumpkins will deteriorate quickly and will make a mess under them if you don't protect the furniture.
It is best to carve the pumpkin close to the time that you will display it for this reason.
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