How to Carve a Pumpkin

Five Parts:Pumpkin Carving TemplatesChoosing a pumpkinDeveloping a designCarving the pumpkinLighting your carved pumpkin

What would Halloween be without a carved pumpkin sitting on your porch or at the window looking out at all the trick-or-treaters? Make this Halloween special by carving your own pumpkin. Here's how!

Pumpkin Carving Templates

Happy Jack-o'-lantern

Crazy Jack-o'-lantern

Scary Teeth Jack-o'-lantern

Missing Teeth Jack-o'-lantern

Scary Jack-o'-lantern

Nightmare Jack-o'-lantern

Graveyard Jack-o'-lantern

Witch Hat Jack-o'-lantern

Haunted House Jack-o'-lantern

Black Cat Jack-o'-lantern

Part 1
Choosing a pumpkin

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    Visit an area to search for a pumpkin. Visit your local supermarket, farmers' market, or pumpkin patch. Find a location with a healthy selection of pumpkins and that have a range of sizes.
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    Select a healthy pumpkin. When you're choosing a pumpkin, try to pick one that's free of nicks, bruises, and cuts. Look for a sturdy stem that doesn't feel too bendable, and for mostly consistent color all the way around. Knock or thump on the skin like you would a melon; if you hear a hollow sound, the pumpkin is ripe. Remember you can always wash the pumpkin with an old cloth when you get home. Remember if you carve it too early, keep it in a bucket of water so it'll keep its moisture.
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    Pick the size you need. If you're planning on an elaborate pumpkin carving, note that a larger gourd means more work. If you have kids and simply plan on drawing faces on your pumpkins with a permanent marker, try picking up several small to medium samples for them to put different designs on.
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    Time it right. Most pumpkins will be rotten beyond recovery after a week and a half to two weeks. With this in mind, buy your pumpkin about a week or less before Halloween.

Part 2
Developing a design

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    Choose a method for carving your pumpkin. The method will determine which materials you'll need. Here are a few popular carving options:
    • Carve a traditional jack-o'-lantern. Plan to cut out eyes, a mouth, and perhaps a nose. This design is easiest for beginners.
    • Carve a silhouette. Pick a shape––for instance, a ghost––and carve out the "negative space" around the ghost's shape, then carve out features like eyes or a mouth. You'll end up with a circle of light around the dark shape, with lighted details.
    • Carve down to the pulp. For a daytime jack-o'-lantern that you don't intend to light, use an x-acto knife to scratch away the pumpkin skin and reveal the pulp. Don't carve all the way into the gourd.
    • Carve in bas-relief. Carving a complicated image in bas-relief combines all three methods above––you carve through to the gourd in some areas, only down to the pulp in others, and leave certain sections entirely intact. It's a difficult method to learn, but rewarding to master. For bas-relief carving, you might need photo software to posterize your image for easier carving.
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    Draft your design on the pumpkin. For traditional, silhouette and pulp carving, use a permanent marker or dry-erase marker to outline your design on the pumpkin. (Dry-erase markings can be wiped off if you mess up.) If you're doing a bas-relief design, you might need a projector to put the image on your pumpkin in black and white.
    • If you're decorating pumpkins with children, letting them draw the designs can be a fun way to include them, yet avoid having them handle sharp carving tools.

Part 3
Carving the pumpkin

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    Find an appropriate knife. For pumpkin carving, use a serrated bread knife, a jab saw (used to cut drywall), or a purpose-made serrated knife taken from a pumpkin-carving set. When carving, draw the knife back and forth as if you're sawing through a tree trunk. Avoid using a straight-edge knife if possible; you'll have to use more force to cut through the pumpkin in addition to having less control over the blade.
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    Set up a spacious work area. Lay down some newspaper or a brown sack from your grocery store on a flat surface. Doing this protects the surface and makes for an easy clean-up when done. Lay out your tools, as well as a bowl for discarded pumpkin innards.
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    Cut a lid. Measure a circle with about a 2-inch (5cm) radius from the stem. You'll cut around this circle to make the lid. Do not make the cut completely vertical; instead, angle the point of the knife in towards the center of the circle. The lid will then sit in a bowl-shaped indentation that prevents it from falling into the center of the pumpkin. Additionally, carve a small protruding notch somewhere in the circle; this will tell you exactly where the lid fits back in. After you've removed the lid from the pumpkin, cut a slice off the underside to remove excess filling and flatten the bottom.
    • The lid doesn't have to be cut in a circle. Try shaping the lid as a square, star or other shapes. Just make sure you keep the knife angled toward the center of the pumpkin as you carve the lid and opening.
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    Remove the filling from the pumpkin. Use a large spoon or your hands to pull all of the strands and seeds from the inside of your pumpkin. Scrape it as clean as you can, so that more light shines through your jack-o'-lantern.
    • This step can be skipped if you're simply carving down to the pulp of the pumpkin, with no intention of hollowing it out.
    • You can save and toast the pumpkin seeds for a treat. Disentangle them from the stringy filling and rinse them off, then toss them with olive oil and salt and scatter on a cookie sheet. Toast for about 25 minutes at 400ºF (200ºC).
    • You can also plant the seeds next spring to grow your own pumpkins. Keep in mind that your pumpkin is probably a cross between several types, and the pumpkins you get from the seeds might look entirely different.
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    Decide if you need to level the bottom. If your pumpkin already has a relatively flat bottom and rests stably, you can skip this step. If not, flip the pumpkin upside down and carve a flat slice off the bottom. If your pumpkin can sit without wobbling, your slice was level enough; if not, try again.
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    Start carving your design. Use a gentle back and forth motion to cut into the pumpkin, and take your time. Discard cut-out pieces as you remove them. Keep following your pattern until you've carved out the entire design.

Part 4
Lighting your carved pumpkin

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    Choose a light source if you've carved an open pumpkin. Traditionally, jack-o'-lanterns were lit with candlesticks or tea lights, but flashlights and flickering LEDs are popular modern options. Make your decision based on potential safety concerns and what sort of base your pumpkin has––if you didn't carve a slice off the bottom, you might have a hard time balancing a candle inside the pumpkin.
    • Ventilate as needed. If you do choose to use a real candle, make sure your carving will provide the flame with enough oxygen to keep burning. If you've cut several large holes in your pumpkin, you should be fine. If not, consider cutting a small vent in the lid––or remove the lid entirely.
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    Choose a safe display area. If you're using a candle in your pumpkin, place it in an area away from flammable items. For instance, don't place it near a hay bale or scarecrow; those items could light on fire if your pumpkin gets jostled or knocked over. Additionally, take care that a trick-or-treaters' dangling costume won't get caught by the candle's flame.
    • If you're using a candle to light your pumpkin and placing it on anything wooden, place a 8"-10" (20cm x 25cm) dinner plate down first, to catch wax and avoid setting wooden porches, tables, or stairs on fire.


  • If your pumpkin starts to shrivel, fill a deep sink and soak the entire carved pumpkin for a couple hours; it will rehydrate and swell slightly, reviving enough for another couple of days of display.
  • Leaving your pumpkin outside in the cool air will extend its life.
  • If a cut section of your design doesn't remove easily the first time, run the blade around it again and then push on that section from the inside. You may also find that a toothpick stabbed into the section will help you to pull it out.
  • Don't limit yourself to simply carving one side of the pumpkin. Wrap around designs, such as cat's footprints or flying bats, as they make great additions. Also, carving a small design on the back of your pumpkin can add to the effect of the face or scene. For example, if you have the design of a frightened pumpkin looking over his shoulder, design a small ghost on the back of the pumpkin. When lit and placed before a wall, the candlelight will shine through the back and cast a ghost on the wall behind your "frightened" gourd!
  • If you slip or mess up, you can easily reattach parts using toothpicks. Push a toothpick halfway into the mistakenly cut area, then slide the missing piece on and secure with additional toothpicks from the inside. Unfortunately, this missing piece will shrivel much faster than the rest of your gourd, so be prepared to replace it if needed.
  • A neat thing to do with your rind scraps is to carve eyebrows, ears, tongues, etc from the bits. Then, pin them in appropriate places on your pumpkin using toothpicks (cocktail sticks). You can also add "Mr. Potato Head" parts. Other 3D options include Spanish moss, yarn or corn silk "hair", feathers, artificial flower stems, etc.
  • Try to prevent shriveling by rubbing some petroleum jelly on the exposed parts right after you cut the pumpkin, but not on the inside, as it could be a fire hazard if you use a flame.
  • Many jack-o'-lantern designs are available online; try searching for more ideas. Alternatively, drop into your local library and borrow a book of carving ideas––a variety of images can be very inspirational for developing your own.
  • If you are using a candle to light your gourd, it's fun to lightly sprinkle the lid or inner top of your pumpkin with pumpkin spices. When the candle warms the pulp, a wonderful pumpkin pie scent will fill the air and house.
  • Use craft glue (the type that doesn't dry clear) and smooth it around the mouth in a bubbly effect. This will make it look like the pumpkin has rabies!
  • Cut a notch in the lid of the pumpkin so you know where to replace it when you're finished.
  • There are many kits that are available and have adhesive designs to stick to the intact of a pumpkin.


  • Keep small children away from candles and knives. If children have picked out a special pumpkin and want to carve it themselves, invest in a "kiddie cutter" so they don't get hurt. An easier alternative for small children would be markers to draw a face, or Mr. Potato Head accessories to dress up their pumpkin. Kids can also help pull out the seeds from inside the pumpkin.
  • Watch out for squirrels and deer––they see an easy meal being placed in the garden!
  • Be careful with candles. LED lights or flashlights are safer in the pumpkin.

Things You'll Need

  • A pumpkin
  • A serrated knife
  • A permanent or dry-erase marker
  • Newspaper or brown bags
  • Candles or LED lights
  • An x-acto knife for pulp carving or small details (optional)
  • A spoon or scoop (optional)
  • A lighter or matches

Sources and Citations

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