This step-by-step guide to carving pumpkins will turn any gourd into a doorstep-ready masterpiece.

By Melanie Mannarino
Updated July 28, 2020
Advertisement
Getty Images

The end of October is the time of easy Halloween costumes and Halloween movies on Netflix, but this spooky time of year is also famous for its pumpkins. Picking pumpkins is fun—learning how to carve a pumpkin and turning these orange gourds into works of art is next-level. Whether you’re using pumpkin carving stencils or going free-hand to display one of your favorite Halloween quotes on a pumpkin, knowing how to carve a pumpkin as well as any expert is key to a gripping Halloween display.

The first step to learning how to carve a convincing jack-o’-lantern actually starts at the pumpkin patch (or your local store). Set yourself up for carving success by selecting a pumpkin in its prime. Choose one with an intact stem—the greener the better.

“The stem is the lifeline to the pumpkin, providing moisture and nutrients even after it’s been cut from the vine,” says Marc Evan, of Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. “A missing stem or one that’s brown and brittle means your pumpkin won’t last as long.”

Keep your uncarved pumpkin out of direct sunlight and as cool as possible, and don’t carve it until right before your Halloween party or the big night itself. While an intact pumpkin can easily last a month or more, once you carve it, you’re looking at a life expectancy of as little as three days to maybe three weeks. “It is a piece of fruit,” Evan says. (For maximum longevity, he stores pumpkins—carved or not—wrapped in plastic wrap in a cool basement or refrigerator when not on display.)

Here, Evan and expert Tom Nardone of ExtremePumpkins.com offer their simple tips for learning how to carve a pumpkin. See the steps of pumpkin carving below, or scroll to the bottom for a handy visual guide to carving a pumpkin.

How to carve a pumpkin

1

Take this messy task to an outdoor table topped with a cheap, disposable plastic tablecloth, which you can roll up and throw out after you carve. Too cold outside? Gut your gourd at a kitchen table covered with that same tablecloth or kraft paper. Don’t pick a work surface that stains easily (like your antique dining table).

2

Standard pumpkin carving tool kits can get the job done. In particular, the short-handled, wedge-shaped pumpkin scoop can scrape and smooth the inside walls after most of the strings and seeds are removed. But the experts’ favorite tools are ones you likely have in your own toolbox.

Ice cream scoop: This tool—sharp on the sides and meant for scraping—is perfect for removing goop.

Filet knife: Find a knife with a thin, narrow blade. A wide blade just doesn’t stab through tough parts of the pumpkin as easily.

Paring knife: A paring knife is just the right size and shape for carving—the sharper the knife, the easier it’ll be to cut.

Lemon zester and vegetable peeler: Use these tools for creative decorative effects and textures. A melon baller can also be used to make eyeballs.

3

Cut a square or diamond-shaped opening in the back of the pumpkin, large enough to accommodate a hand and wrist (to scoop out the insides), and remove. Don’t damage the removed pumpkin panel—you’ll put that back when you’re done. While the classic move is to cut a hole around the stem, this structurally weakens the pumpkin and causes it to degrade quicker.

4

Put a big empty bowl in the center of the table to hold the seeds and string, then use your hands or an ice cream scoop to remove the gloppy mess. Make sure to remove every last bit to prevent premature rot and also to keep squirrels and other critters away (essential if your carved pumpkin will be spending any time outdoors). A tool-kit wedge works well for this task.

5

Sketch your pumpkin design on paper, then draw it onto your pumpkin using a dry erase marker, washable colored marker, or grease pencil, all of which wipe away more easily than a pen or Sharpie. For elaborate designs, use transfer paper to recreate your design directly on the pumpkin. If you’re using a pumpkin carving stencil, tape the print-out directly over the pumpkin and carve through the paper.

6

Using the sharpest knife in the house, carefully cut along your design, making sure the hand that’s stabilizing the pumpkin is not in the path of the hand wielding the knife.

If a piece you’ve cut doesn’t pop out, try pushing it in. (You can retrieve it through the entry hole in back.) If it gets stuck, cut it in half. Cut too deeply and a jack-o’-lantern tooth fell out? Use toothpicks to connect stray pumpkin pieces.

7

Spray your pumpkin inside and out with a bathroom cleaner containing bleach. Let it evaporate for at least five minutes. This trick keeps the pumpkin from rotting too quickly and protects it from hungry squirrels and other animals.

8

Ball up LED holiday string lights inside your pumpkin, letting the cord trail out the back panel to an electrical outlet. Battery-operated flameless candles are another way to glow. Can’t resist a real candle? Be sure to cut a vent in the top back of the pumpkin so the smoke can escape.

Libby VanderPloeg