How to Carve a Pumpkin

October 28, 2019
Eagle Pumpkin
Susan Valladao; Carved by Mike Valladao

When it comes to pumpkin carving, “Farmer Mike” Valladao is an expert. He shares his tips, tricks, and techniques—plus his talent with our Almanac readers! Take a look …

Ever since Farmer Mike saw a 612-pumpkin at a festival, he wanted to grow giant pumpkins. After that challenge, the idea of pumpkin carving came naturally!

With his Buck knife, he often uses the thick rind of giant pumpkins to provide a three-dimensional sculpted effect.  

A perfect pumpkin doesn’t have to be round.

Everyone looks for that “perfect” pumpkin. You don’t need a pretty one!

Next time, perhaps look for one that is a little misshapen. It may have character!  See what you see in the shape of the pumpkins. See a sunken eye? That could determine your face.

Remember, your pumpkin doesn’t have to sit on its base; in fact, that’s often its weakest spot.

Let the pumpkin guide the shape of the face: An elongated pumpkin should have an elongated face. A fat and happy pumpkin should have a fat and happy face.

Also: Inspect pumpkins for soft spots (especially the end opposite the stem). Reject a pumpkin that has soft spots; they will cause it to deteriorate quickly.

Carved by “Farmer Mike” Valladao; Photo by Susan Valladao.

Hollow or Whole?

There are two reasons for hollowing: 

  1. If the inside is going to be exposed (through the mouth, etc.), it looks better if it is hollowed neatly. 
  2. If you plan to light the pumpkin from the inside, it must be hollow.

Carving the Hole

You don’t have to carve out the top. 

You can hollow it out from a hole in the back instead of the top, so that the look of the face isn’t affected.

If you’re illuminating with a candle, however, you do need to hollow from the top to allow the heat and smoke to escape.

When carving the top, be sure to tip your knife towards the center to create a shelf; otherwise, your top will fall into the pumpkin.

Outline the Face First

Use a water-based marker to outline the face that you want to carve.

  1. First, draw a line down the center to establish symmetry.
  2. Then sketch the nose, the approximate center of the face.
  3. Once you’re satisfied with the details, trace over the lines using a permanent marker.

What to Use to Carve 

For carving at home, basic kitchen implements, such as a paring knife or a steak knife with a standard—not serrated—blade that’s not going to bend, work well. 

You can also use a standard jigsaw blade. Otherwise, improvise: Use a melon-ball cutter to make circles, for example.

Carved by “Farmer Mike” Valladao; Photo by Susan Valladao.

Three-Dimensional Appearance

It’s fun to try a three-dimensional appearance! For your first 3D pumpkin, find a big, heavy pumpkin. You need thick walls to carve. 

For 3D, you will need more than a knife. It helps to have a clay loop tool which you can buy at a crafts store.

  • You use the knife to create the hole; gut the pumpkin and take the lid off.
  • Clean out the inside of the pumpkin. 
  • Peel the pumpkin’s skin off where you want to carve a face. Peel off that surface just as you would peel a carrot.
  • Start drawing out your design with simple lines. Sketch it with a tool. For example, cut a line for a mouth.
  • Follow the lines, carving beneath the line, digging out the feature.
  • Exaggerate the features. (If you aren’t sure what teeth really look like or how the gum line works, smile and look in the mirror.)
  • Add details. If the pumpkin is frowning, carve wrinkles under the mouth. To add character, carve a lot of “crow’s feet” lines around the eyes.

Consider using the stem as the nose and inserts such as radishes for the eyes, or cut eyeballs from the back of the pumpkin and hold them in place with toothpicks.

Carve with Care

Use two hands at all times: one to control the blade and the other to control the pressure with which you cut (and thus the depth).

Take care not to jab the blade into the pumpkin; you don’t want to cut all the way through the rind—except to determine its depth.

The thickness of the rind will vary, not only from pumpkin to pumpkin, but also within one pumpkin. To determine your pumpkin’s average depth, cut a core sample where you want an eye or a nostril to be. Keep that piece nearby as a reminder of how deep you can safely cut.

Carved by “Farmer Mike” Valladao; Photo by Susan Valladao.

Enjoy it While it Lasts

Pumpkins, which are actually a fruit, not a vegetable, are 90 percent water, so after carving they usually last only three days to a week. A jack-o’-lantern with a surface carving will last longer than one that is cut all the way through. Putting a candle or other light inside will shorten its life span, as the heat that results can “cook” the pumpkin and reduce its longevity to a matter of hours.

For a bright, shiny finish, spray Armor All on the pumpkin and rub it in. Paint will not preserve a pumpkin. However, if you decide to paint your pumpkin for decoration, use a water-based latex paint and wait at least an hour after carving so that the cuts you have made in the pumpkin have a chance to dry.

Carved by “Farmer Mike” Valladao; Photo by Susan Valladao.

Hope you enjoyed carving a pumpkin. How did it go? Please share below.

Find more seasonal ideas on our Halloween page!


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Important pumpkin tip!

WASH YOUR HANDS! And arms too, if you're reaching inside. The salt and bacteria on little (and big) fingers can destroy a pumpkin quicker than warm weather. Low temperature roasting of seeds may not kill all bacteria present so start with a clean workspace, clean utensils, and very clean hands!