How to Carve a Pumpkin

Tips for Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

October 12, 2020
Eagle Pumpkin
Susan Valladao; Carved by Mike Valladao

How do you carve a pumpkin? Whether you are a beginner or an expert, “Farmer Mike” Valladao has some pumpkin-carving tips, tricks, and techniques for carving a Halloween pumpkin this year! 

Beginner Pumpkin Carving

Let’s start with five beginner tips. Anyone can carve a pumpkin.

  1. When choosing a pumpkin, ensure it’s as fresh as possible and there is no damage or mold present. 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.
  2. Also, bigger is not always better. Bigger often means more carving so keep this in mind in terms of difficulty. 
  3. Remember, your pumpkin doesn’t have to sit on its base; in fact, that’s often its weakest spot.
  4. A perfect pumpkin doesn’t have to be round. Look for some character! Next time, perhaps look for one that is a little misshapen. See a sunken eye? That could determine your face.
  5. 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.

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.

Tips to Keep Pumpkin From Rotting

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.

Here are five tips to help your pumpkin last longer:

  1. A jack-o’-lantern with a surface carving will last longer than one that is cut all the way through.
  2. Don’t use real candles. 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. Try flameless LED candles. 
  3. After carving, submerge pumpkin in a bleach soution (a bucket with water and ⅔ bleach) and soak for 15 minutes. Just keep in mind: If you use bleach, you can’t eat the pumpkin nor its seeds later.  Also, if your pumpkins get eaten by wildlife, we wouldn’t advice using this method.
  4. Spray the pumpkin outside with a bleach solution (one teaspoon of bleach per one quart of water) and spray daily. Again, avoid this method if your pumpkins will be eaten by wildlife.
  5. After you carve and wash, put Vaseline or vegetable oil on the carved edges. (Note: You can’t use real candles with Vaseline which is flammable.) Another option is to use a store-bought pumpkin preservative spray like Pumpkin Fresh, which contains fungicide (to kill the mold) and lubricants (to keep the pumpkin from drying out).
  6. Pay attention to the temperature. In freezing weather, the pumpkin need to be brought inside or it will disintegrate. 

Of course, you can simply paint your pumpkin instead of carving, especially if you want to decorate the home or office earlier in the month, but this article is all about carving the classic Jack-O’-Lantern! 

We’d simply suggest you wait to carve your pumpkin so it’s nearer to Halloween (up to a week prior).

Beginner Video: How to Carve a Pumpkin

More Advanced Carving Tips

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! Here are some of his tips and tricks:

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.

Farmer Mike often uses a buck knife on the thick rind of giant pumpkins to provide a three-dimensional sculpted effect.  


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.

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

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.

How to Finish the Pumpkin

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 this video and tips from an expert on how to carve a pumpkin. Please share any of your own tips, thoughts, or experiences below! 

Find more seasonal ideas on our Halloween page.


The Old Farmer's Almanac


Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

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!