How to Carve a Pumpkin
You've seen their creations in our Inspirational Pro Pumpkin Carving gallery. Now, here are pro tips and secrets for every step of the pumpkin-carving process. And when you create your masterpiece, make sure you enter this year's annual Pumpkin Carving Contest
1. Select It
Whether you're opting for a gourd straight from the patch, or choosing to carve a synthetic pumpkin, make sure you consider your design or pattern when making a selection. Pick one that's large enough and shaped to accommodate the length and width of whatever design you're going to carve. And before you leave the pumpkin patch, Ryan Wickstrand of Zombie Pumpkins recommends the following: "Make sure it can stand well on its own, and never carry a pumpkin by its stem."
If you dread seeing your hard work turn to mush—even with good care, a carved pumpkin will last about a couple of weeks—consider an artificial pumpkin, a la Funkins. They have precut holes in the bottom to accommodate a flameless light source and its walls have already been "shaved" down to a thickness of ½-inch, the ideal width for carving and shading.
2. Carve It
The key to safe carving? Sharp tools. Sharpened saws and knives mean you won't have to use as much force while carving, which reduces the chances of accidental slips. When carving artificial pumpkins, don a mask and goggles to protect yourself from carving dust.
"Nothing slurps out messy pumpkin guts like a good, strong wet/dry Shop-Vac," says Scott Cummins of Pumpkin Gutter. He also recommends scraping out pumpkin guts with a margarine container lid or an empty tuna can. Ryan Wickstrand of Zombie Pumpkins is a fan of the Pumpkin Gutter drill bit (no affiliation with Cummins' site), a special tool that grips pumpkin gunk and quickly shaves down the inner pumpkin wall.
For stability, carve out the small pieces first, then work your way up to larger cutouts. "In fact, it's wise to leave the cut shapes wedged in place until you are finished cutting all the lines. This will provide added support until you're done carving," says Wickstrand. Once all the cuts have been made, pop out the sections with your finger.
Some pros carve freehand, but using a template to lay out your design prior to carving can help. Simply print the pattern you want to use (available at any of our pro carver's websites) and secure it to your pumpkin with tape. Use a toothpick or sharpened pencil to poke guidelines into the surface of your gourd.
3. Light It
You can create an opening at the bottom of the pumpkin to accommodate a light source. But if you opt for a lid, make sure you cut out a notch for hassle-free replacement. Angle your cuts inward to prevent the lid from falling in.
The light source you choose can affect the life span of your pumpkin. "Using a low-watt electric light instead of candles will reduce shriveling," says Gene Granata of Masterpiece Pumpkins. Try the Pumpkin Powered Light or Ultimate Strobe Light from Pumpkin Masters.
4. Preserve It
Thoroughly gutting and cleaning the pumpkin before you start will make for a longer-lasting carving. But after you carve, Ryan Wickstrand of Zombie Pumpkins suggests sealing in moisture on cut edges by applying a coat of white glue. JP of Jammin' Pumpkins recommends applying petroleum jelly to carved edges to prevent moisture loss. "I like to spray Lysol on the whole carving and inside the whole pumpkin to keep the pumpkin-killing bacteria away," says Stoney of Stoneykins.
Masterpiece Pumpkins' Gene Granata recommends Pumpkin Dunk'n (about $5), a preservative soak that promises to add as much as two weeks to the life of your carving. Meanwhile, 3D carver Scott Cummins of Pumpkin Gutter recommends bagging and cooling your work. "After your pumpkin has been displayed for a few hours and you notice some drying, you can temporarily revive it by completely submerging it in chilled water for a couple of hours. I put a tiny bit of bleach in the water," he says.
Shown: One of Cummins' creations spends the day bagged and iced, and comes back out again for nighttime display.
5. Photograph It
The best way to preserve your pumpkin is to take a good picture of it. But photographing lighted objects can be tricky. Eric Wilhelm, CEO of Instructables.com, who photographs his own jack-o'-lanterns every year, says there are three keys to the perfect capture:
A steady camera
Longer than usual exposure times (he photographs his carvings using 0.8 to 2.5 seconds of exposure time)
A tripod is best for keeping the camera steady, because even slight movement can blur your image. If you're just going to rest the camera on a table or other surface, Wilhelm advises using the delayed shutter function (or timer) to give the camera a chance to stop shaking after you hit the button.
Wilhelm also recommends eliminating any background light and placing minimal light sources in front of the pumpkin. "I photograph in a dark room with two side-mounted, low-wattage flood lights pointing toward reflective surfaces," Gene Granata of Masterpiece Pumpkins adds. This gives the pumpkin a presence in the photo.
Shown: A perfect pumpkin picture by JP of Jammin' Pumpkins that shows a blur-free, lighted carving.