How to Carve the Perfect Pumpkin: A pumpkin carving tutorial.
As a kid, one of my favorite fall traditions was designing a jack-o-lantern. My sister and I would create designs that we thought were super awesome on pieces of notebook paper. We would then watch as our parents redrew our designs onto our pumpkins using markers and carved them with a kitchen knife. Popping a candle inside to see the finished result was the best (well, other than getting to eat freshly baked pumpkin seeds!). Of course, our amazingly awesome designs pretty much looked like this:
Then there was that year where I took my creativity to a whole new level when I had the idea to add eyebrows. Not just any eyebrows. Angry eyebrows. I told you, whole new level.
Triangle eyes and noses were all the rage then. And, you know, Pumpkin Masters carving books weren’t just hanging out on the shelves of our local store like they are now.
The closest thing I ever saw to the patterns that are so readily available today were the jack-o-lanterns on the Halloween episodes of Roseanne. At the end of the show, they would show pretty cool carvings of the cast members’ faces. I used to wonder, how do they do that?
As teens, my sister and I decided to try to create our own unique patterns. The results were a bit rough. Fortunately for us, Pumpkin Masters pattern books and tools began to appear in local stores soon after. We purchased one and were amazed at what a difference the right tools make. We still had a lot to learn, but over the years we’ve learned a few tips that can help you take your jack-o-lantern to a whole other level. (Several of the Jack-o-Lanterns in this post were carved by my sister, including the 3 directly below, and the Minion pumpkin.)
How to Carve the Perfect Pumpkin:
- Pick a pattern: You want to know what you’re working with. Purchasing a pattern book, or purchasing a pattern online will give you the widest range of options, but many websites offer free patterns as well. www.zombiepumpkins.com offers both free and paid patterns (Walter White and Minion patterns pictured are from zombiepumpkins.com). This year (2016), we found a great new, affordable, online resource for pumpkin patterns! www.stonykins.com offers a huge variety of patterns at just $3 for 5, or $5 for 25. This is not a sponsored or affiliate link, but I’m always excited to share a great deal. We purchased 5 patterns, three for this year, and two for next year!
- Pick your pumpkin: Look for a pumpkin with a smooth surface for your pattern. Press down around the stem of the pumpkin before purchasing. If the skin of the pumpkin seems soft near the stem, it is most likely beginning to rot. Pick one with a firm surface. You may bring your pattern with you to hold up against potential choices to see if a short, round pumpkin or a tall, skinny pumpkin suit your pattern.
- Wash: Wash the outside of the pumpkin to remove dirt if necessary. It’s been suggested that this may help your pumpkin to stay fresh longer!
- Gather your tools: Pumpkin carving tools are a must if you plan to carve an intricate design. You can pick up a set of tools, such as the Pumpkin Master’s Tools at Walmart or Target, or order one online. I prefer the kits with multiple saws. Once you have your carving tools, gather two large bowls, a large spoon and a thumbtack. You will also need a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch for step 10. You may want to place the pumpkin on a towel or newspaper to protect your work area.
- Carve the lid: Carve a large circle around the stem to create a lid. Make sure it’s large enough to allow you to reach into the pumpkin. To keep the top from falling into the pumpkin, carve at an angle, with the tip of the saw pointing towards the center of the pumpkin. Remove the lid and scrape or cut away any pulp clinging to it.
- Scoop it out: Here’s where things get messy. It’s time to remove the seeds and pulp! I put the seeds directly into a smaller bowl, untangling them from the pulp with my fingers, and put the pulp in a larger bowl. It will be squishy, and a little slimy. If you’d rather not get your hands dirty, you can use a large spoon to scoop out the pulp. I always use a large spoon to scrape any remaining slimy pulp away from the inner walls of the pumpkin once I’ve removed as much as I can with my hands. Try not to leave any slimy stuff. Your pumpkin will stay fresh longer if you remove as much as you can.
- Optional: Roast the seeds: If you’re roasting your seeds, you can pop them in the fridge until you have time to clean them, or put them straight into a colander and rinse. Then roast away!
- Attach the pattern: Tape your pattern to your pumpkin. I often cut the paper in several spots to get it to lie flat. Do not cut the shaded areas, or overlap them, as these mark the spots you’ll be carving.
- Transfer pattern to pumpkin: Using a thumbtack, poke holes along the black lines of the pattern. Your paper will start to get a little wet as moisture seeps out of the pumpkin. These holes will show you where to carve, so be thorough! Make sure not to skip any lines. Once you have poked holes around every line, remove the paper.
- Make the pattern stand out: Smooth the flour or cornstarch over the surface of the pumpkin, filling the holes you just made. This will make it easier for you to see.
- Begin carving! Some patterns show you a suggested order to use when carving the pieces. Following the order will help. If your pattern does not indicate where to begin, I find it easiest to begin carving the pieces in the center of the design, working my way out to the edges.
- Check your progress: Place a tea light candle inside the pumpkin. Carve away any pieces of the inner wall that are blocking the candle light. When I carved the Walter White pumpkin, shown above, I whittled away at the inner walls surrounding the carved pieces. This allowed more light to come through, giving the pattern more definition. The downside is that the thinner each piece is, the faster it will shrivel. Storing your pumpkin in the refrigerator overnight can help to preserve it.
- You’re ready to display your pumpkin! If you’re using real candles, you can sprinkle a little nutmeg and cinnamon, or pumpkin pie spice, on the inside of the lid for a sweet aroma as the lid grows warm.
Notes about the lifespan of your Jack-o-Lantern:
Intricately carved pumpkins shrivel and decay quickly. It’s best to carve no more than two days before you plan to display it. Keep it in the refrigerator, or immerse the jack-o-lantern in cold water to slow the shriveling process.
What’s your favorite fall tradition?
Love this and have never read anything about it before. So special when you have something unique to offer your readers. These are spectacular. I rarely find the time to carve but you say about 2 days prior to display…how long does a typical intricate pattern take to carve?
It takes about an hour, though when I first began it sometimes took up to three. If I know I’ll be pressed for time, I usually scoop out the inside 3 days out, then store it in the fridge and begin carving 2 days out.
What a great post about pumpkin carving. We usually only do the simple cut outs, but these look like art pieces!
Thanks! It’s a lot of fun, and seeing the reaction of the trick or treaters makes the extra time carving worth it!