After Reading This, You'll Never Carve a Pumpkin the Same Way Again
Experts share step-by-step instructions for creating and preserving your Halloween pumpkin masterpiece
Pumpkin carving is not only a fun fall activity to do with family and friends but also an opportunity to create a work of ephemeral art. According to the National Retail Federation, 44 percent of Americans plan to carve a pumpkin this year. (See CR’s review of pumpkin carving kits.) And while there’s no wrong way to carve a pumpkin, there are steps even the experts follow that can help make your pumpkin carving experience more successful.
We spoke with Marc Evans of Maniac Pumpkins, a Brooklyn-based professional artistic pumpkin carving company, and fellow expert pumpkin carver Gene Granata of Masterpiece Pumpkins, a custom carving company based in California, to get pointers on making a great jack-o’-lantern.
"There are a few simple things that turn pumpkin carving from a task into something enjoyable," says Granata. "But ultimately, there are no rules. It’s about getting together and having fun."
1. Don’t Buy Your Pumpkins First. Get a Carving Kit, Choose Your Design, and Then Pick Your Pumpkin
"Most people think picking a pumpkin is where it all begins," Granata says. "But it’s better to get your carving kit and choose your design before you head to the pumpkin patch."
That’s because the stencil you choose, or the design you have in mind, will determine the size and type of pumpkin you buy.
2. Cut the Base Instead of Cutting the Stem From the Top
"I keep the stems on my pumpkins," Granata says. "Instead, I carve out the plug at the base of the pumpkin."
This works better for two reasons, he says. First, when you pull out the plug, a lot of the seeds and pumpkin innards come out with it, which cuts down on the time you have to spend removing the pumpkin guts. Then, when you’re done and go to put your candle in, you can just set the candle on a surface and set the pumpkin over it, rather than reaching into the pumpkin to place your candle.
3. Clean Out the Pumpkin and Thin the Rind Where You Plan to Carve
Cleaning out the pumpkin is always my least favorite part of carving. I don’t like the pumpkin goop getting all over my hands (if you have so much as a paper cut it stings!), my arm gets tired, and it seems to take forever.
Granata offers me a solution: A tool called a pumpkin gutter that can be attached to a power drill to clean out your pumpkin in "about 40 seconds."
"There are videos you can watch on YouTube to see how to use it," Granata suggests.
Tip: Once you have got the gunk out, Granata recommends thinning the rind of the pumpkin where you plan to carve it.
Granata suggests that carvers tape their stencils securely to the face of the pumpkin so that they can see just how large an area of the rind they need to thin.
"This makes carving the pieces out a cinch," he says. "The rind should be about three-fourths of an inch."
How to Measure the Rind
Three-fourths of an inch can be difficult to eyeball, so one way to test whether you’ve thinned down your rind enough is to stick one of your carving saws through the rind in a space you intend to cut out until you see the saw poking out on the inside of the pumpkin. Then mark the saw where it goes into the pumpkin and pull it out; you should be able to assess how much rind you have left to thin by measuring how much of the saw had to go into the pumpkin.
4. Use Sewing Paper to Transfer the Stencil to the Pumpkin
Whether you create your own design, or use a pre-designed stencil, there are a few different ways to transfer your design to your pumpkin’s face.
First, you can tape the stencil to the face of the pumpkin, securing all four corners so that the stencil lies flat against the rind, and then carve right through the paper. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, many kits come with a poking roller that will cut through the paper to cut little dotted lines on your pumpkin that you can then follow with your saw after removing the stencil. Some stencils allow you to dampen them, which then transfers the design onto the pumpkin.
"My trick is to use sewing transfer paper," says Granata. "You put the bright side of the transfer paper against the face of the pumpkin, and then tape your stencil over it. After that, you can take a pen or marker and trace around the pattern. Remove the stencil and the transfer paper, and you should have your pattern on the pumpkin face."
Sewing transfer paper is available at most craft stores as well as major retailers like Amazon.
5. Set the Pumpkin in a Large Bowl While Carving
Now that you have your design blueprinted on the pumpkin, you can start to carve. To make the process easier, Granata recommends putting your pumpkin in a large bowl—that way it won’t roll around as you carve.
Then, to retain the structural integrity of the pumpkin, Granata recommends starting from the center of the design and moving outward.
"And, once you cut a section out, don’t remove it right away," he says. "Keep that piece in so that the pumpkin stays whole while you’re still handling it. That way you’re less likely to break any connecting pieces as you continue to carve. Once you finish, you can pop them all out."
You can also break larger windows or shapes into smaller ones, says Evans.
"Pumpkins are heavy for their size and loaded with water," he says. "If you remove too much, they can collapse, so make sure the connecting sections are solid."
Granata also suggests tackling the most difficult parts of your design first, rather than saving them for the end, when you might be less focused.
6. Use an LED Candle
"Personally, I like LED candles," says Granata.
Jack-o’-lantern purists may prefer a real votive over an electric one, but Granata points out that an LED candle has certain advantages. First, it’s safer than a real flame. Second, your pumpkin will last longer if you’re not heating it up with fire. And finally, LED lights come in a variety of colors, so you can choose something unique and fitting for your design.
7. Preserve Your Pumpkin
If you don’t do anything to preserve your pumpkin, you can count on it lasting about 3 to 5 days. It depends on whether you keep it outside, the weather in your area, and the type of pumpkin you carved—big pumpkins with thick rinds will generally last longer. Design also counts too. The more intricate your design, the shorter your pumpkin’s life span. That’s because the connecting pieces of the design will start to shrivel and eventually your pumpkin’s face will sink in.
But, there are a few things you can do to make your pumpkin last a little bit longer. First, if you don’t have it out all the time and you have the space, Granata recommends putting the pumpkin in a large sealable plastic bag and sticking it in the fridge. That can help stave off mold growth or prevent your pumpkin from drying out.
"But don’t put it in the freezer," Granata cautions. "That won’t work. When your pumpkin defrosts, all you’ll have is a pile of pulp."
If you see that parts of the rind are shriveling, you can also give your pumpkin a cold bath.
"What a lot of people don’t know is that the pumpkin will just soak that water right back up, and all those shriveled parts will re-inflate, "says Granata. "You can extend the life of your pumpkin for up to a week."
Pumpkins Aren't Just for Halloween!
"I’ve carved just about anything you can think of into a pumpkin—pets, family members, show cars, even body parts for a medical convention!" Granata says.
These gourds are good all season long, and they don’t have to be ghoulish. Pumpkins tend go on sale on November 1, so Granata encourages carvers to take advantage of the low prices and scoop up some pumpkins to carve for Thanksgiving.
Marc Evans agrees. "We’re big advocates of carving throughout the season. Pumpkins are a symbol of fall and really enhance the decor at any fall event. There’s something wonderful about the impermanence of a jack-o’-lantern, it parallels life itself."