How to Carve a Pumpkin
"Ok Jack, time for your lobotomy!" Such a classic Calvin and Hobbes quote that comes to mind each year. But before we perform any pumpkin lobotomy, let's go over some important carving pro-tips.
Pumpkin Shopping Tips
When shopping for a pumpkin, look for the following:
- Firm, smooth skin
- At least one even face to make carving easier
- A green stem, not a brown or rotting one (and never lift it by the stem)
- Like a good melon, it should feel heavy for its size
- No bruises, soft spots, or lacerations on the skin; it will rot from those spots
- Never lift a pumpkin by its stem. Don't do it! It can snap off easily, and two things will happen: the pumpkin will hit your feet like a bowling ball, and it'll rot much faster.
- Newspaper to protect your surface from getting pumpkin-gunky
- Large metal spoon
- Dry erase marker or Sharpie
- Vaseline and plastic wrap
- A few different knives: a small chef's knife for cutting out the top, and a couple of sturdy, sharp-tipped paring knives are good, or the special carving saws you can find at stores around Halloween.
Watch this Video First
Before you start jabbing that poor guy with a knife, watch the above video.
Setting Up Your Station
Things will get messy. To avoid getting pumpkin-gunk (gunkin?) all over the place, line your table with plenty of newspaper. Also, grab a few bowls of various sizes for storing things like guts, seeds, and cut-outs.
Cut off the top of the pumpkin: Make sure to cut it wide enough to give you room to scrape out the inside easily later. To make it easy to figure out how to orient the lid later on, cut out a triangular notch along one side. If you plan on using a candle instead of an electric light, you might consider cutting out a chimney hole to allow oxygen in and smoke to escape.
Remove seeds: Make a preliminary scrape with your bare hands, removing as much of the orange gloopy flesh and seeds as possible. For full instructions on how to clean and toast the pumpkin seeds, read our guide here »
Scrape out the pumpkin guts: Use a large stiff spoon and scrape away the remaining stringy flesh working from the top of the pumpkin in concentric circles all the way down. Continue scraping until you've got about an inch or two of flesh remaining (the more complex your design, the thinner you'll want the flesh to be).
Design: Use a dry-erase marker or Sharpie to draw your design. A dry-erase marker is probably better in case you make mistakes. Straight lines are much easier to carve than curves, so be aware of that as you plan your carving. See here: the classic triangle-eyed, snaggle-toothed look.
Lobotomize! Carve by plunging the knife tip into the lines. If you have a complex design, it's best to work from the center outward, so that you don't put extra pressure on sections you've already cut.
Vaseline and Plastic Wrap: Pumpkins start losing moisture as soon as you cut them open. As the pumpkin loses water, its structure collapses, causing droops and wrinkles in your design. Coating your cut surfaces with a thin layer of Vaseline and covering the pattern front and back with plastic wrap will keep the forces of nature at bay until you're ready to display.
For a More Advanced-O'-Lantern
Ain't no shame in tracing the classic triangle eyes and snaggly-tooth mouth. But if you're looking for a more knock-your-neighbors'-socks-off-o'-lantern, here is a step-by-step guide to advanced carving from Maniac Carvers, with detailed designs and examples.
What About Turnips?
Fear not, if your carved pumpkin starts to shrivel, you can revive it by giving it a bath in ice water for an hour or so (a cooler or bathtub both work fine for this). Lightly spray the cut surface of your pumpkin with vegetable oil to prevent moisture loss.