How to Carve a Pumpkin Just Like Our Editors
A memorable jack-o'-lantern starts with a great pumpkin and the right carving tools. Learn our editors' best insider tips and tricks for choosing and using the tools that will make for a truly magical display.
Over the years, we have published hundreds of Halloween pumpkin ideas. We've also streamlined the process for at-home carving, offering templates and easy instructions that let you replicate each exact look. Learn how to carve a pumpkin using the technique seen here, created by our editors with professional carvers. It shows how the same things that attract you to textiles and prints—strong images and repeating graphics—make for a memorable pumpkin.
Start with your pick of the pumpkin patch: You can decorate using pumpkins in a wide range of hues—think bright and bold, dark and moody, or pale and monochromatic. A pumpkin's shades can also inspire how you choose to carve (or not carve) it, making fierce, friendly, or refined variations. Then, it's all about the tools. Look beyond the knife drawer to implements intended for other uses—say, a melon baller or a keyhole saw. These items make quick work of the task at hand.
The first step in carving a pumpkin is hollowing it out. (If you'll be using a candle for illumination, carve a hole in the pumpkin's top. For electric lights, make the hole in the bottom or side so you can hide the cord.) Scoop out the seeds, stringy pulp, and the inner wall. When you're ready to carve a design, draw your own template or use one of ours. It's up to you whether your jack-o'-lantern has looks that charm or looks that chill. In our experience, they're both delightful. And the results are so sophisticated and eye-catching, sometimes they don't even need the help of a candle to shine.
Pick Your Pumpkin
The best projects start in the patch. Search for pumpkins that are smooth, symmetrical, and firm. Design dictates shape: If you know what design you want to make, pick a pumpkin accordingly. Tall, oblong ones will work best for vertical designs, whereas short, squat ones are better for horizontals. Some pumpkins have a flatter side (where they rested against the ground as they grew). Work it to your advantage, since carving on a flat surface is easier than carving on a rounded one. If you plan to group pumpkins, rotate them to see how your design will continue from one to the next. Also try rotating if you're stacking pumpkins: Some nest better at certain angles. (Leave the bottom pumpkin's stem intact, or just trim it—cutting it off can invite premature rotting.)
Tools of the Trade
Nearly every pumpkin design can be created with the tools you see here—and by carvers of all skill levels. The basic tools will cover simple designs—a keyhole saw, sculpting tools, and T pins—but rounding out your collection with specialty tools will enable you to accomplish more detailed carvings as illustrated by our pumpkin projects. In every case, keep safety in mind: If kids are helping with the projects, make sure an adult handles all the cutting tasks.
Cut a Hole in the Pumpkin
Place your pumpkin on its side on a flat, stable work surface. Use a keyhole saw to cut a circle through the base or the top of the pumpkin. The sharp teeth on this tool can slice through a pumpkin's tough shell, and its flexible blade allows for curved cuts.
If using a candle for illumination, you can cut the hole in the pumpkin's top (always put the candle in a high-sided glass, and never leave it unattended). If using electric lights, cut the hole in the bottom or side so you can hide the cord. Reserve the cutout.
Hollow Out the Inside
Remove the inner flesh—scooping out the seeds, stringy pulp, and a thin layer of flesh from the inside of your pumpkin–with a fleshing tool. Thin the pumpkin's walls to a thickness of 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Sculpting tools, such as a large plaster scraper and smaller fleshing tool have a serrated loop that easily scrapes away the flesh, allowing light to shine through. A clean, smooth interior reflects light best. (Editor's tip: To prolong the pumpkin's life, don't gut it. The design is so strong, it may not need the added contrast of backlighting.) Reserve the seeds for toasting if desired.
Transfer Your Design
Plan the design: Consider how the pattern will fit on the pumpkin and how it will repeat. When you're ready to carve a design, photocopy or print out a template (enlarged as desired to fit your pumpkin), or draw your own. Tape the template to your pumpkin. (You may need to cut slits around the template and overlap so it conforms to the roundness.) Using an awl, T pin, or needle tool, prick every 1/8 to 1/4 inch along the outlines of the template. Remove the template, but keep it nearby for reference.
Carve the Features
Remove the template and carve along the pattern with a miniature saw or linoleum carving tool. If you want to make holes in the pumpkin for eyes, use a drill equipped with a 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch spade bit. Use a miniature saw to cut all the way through and linoleum cutters to scrape the pumpkin skin. Start with the outline of the design and work inward. For details, use a No. 1 or No. 2 blade. For larger areas, use a No. 3 or No. 5 blade. Scrape in the same direction in each section to keep the lines unified. Apply petroleum jelly to exposed areas of pumpkin's flesh to prevent them from turning brown.
How to Light a Pumpkin
To illuminate a carved pumpkin, string lights are preferable to candles for most designs: Wrap a strand of 20 lights around a glass jar, and secure wires with tape. Cut a hole in the hollowed-out pumpkin for the cord, and place the jar inside. (Make sure the lights don't touch the inside surface and remember to unplug lights before leaving the house; this can be a fire hazard.) Secure the base cutout with T pins. If using a candle, place it in a glass or votive holder, and cut a hole in the back of the pumpkin for ventilation (or leave the top off). Battery-operated candles are another good alternative.
Once lit, the designs appear intricately textured, shining bright yellow in cutout areas and merely glimmering in others. Whether you tackle an elaborate design or embellish a classic, you are sure to create pretty, playful, and eerily artistic scenes.