Behind the Scenes: Pumpkin Carving Techniques
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
I never realized it until I started doing live carving events, but pumpkin carving is a very polarizing and touchy subject.
Some people absolutely love doing it and get really obsessed with making at least one crazy pumpkin each year.
But many people absolutely loathe it, and quickly snap back at their kids, “No!” when they ask to carve one at home. If you’re one of them…Settle. Down.
There are a good number of people who take the middle route too, but it seems to skew to one end or the other.
As you can guess, I’m an extreme example of the first group. I love carving pumpkins with a thriller or horror movie on or listening to Halloween music in the background. I have spent years learning new pumpkin carving methods and have carved hundreds of poor hapless gourds into crazy pumpkin creations.
In this post, I’m going to share a few of my pumpkin carving techniques with you. Pumpkin sculpting techniques will be covered in another post. I hope it will inspire you to sit down and try one, even if you’re from the group of strange naysayers.
Pumpkin Preparation and Design
I’m assuming at this point that you’ve read how to pick a pumpkin and have the pumpkin tools ready to go, but there are a few other steps before you dive in.
Make sure the outside rind of your pumpkin is still firm, and wipe it down with a soft cloth once more to make sure it’s clean. Lay the pumpkin down on a few sheets of newspaper to make clean-up a breeze. If you’re going to hollow out a pumpkin to do a Jack o’ lantern or light it, this is the time. Look for another post about how to hollow out a pumpkin soon.
Next, pull out the pumpkin stencils you’re going to carve. You can either tape it to the rind or use a brown dry erase marker to sketch it onto the pumpkin. Pumpkin rind acts very much the same like a dry erase board, and it’s easy to erase with just a wet paper towel if you don’t like the look of it.
If you’re going with the marker approach, you do need to watch where you lay your hands while carving, as you may accidentally smudge or erase your design without even knowing it. It took me several failures before I really took my own advice on that…
Pumpkin Carving Time
Once you’ve gone through the steps above, it’s time to get busy with those pumpkin carving tools! There are two basic styles of pumpkin carving: surface carving and traditional carving.
Surface carvings are exactly as they sound. You only scrape the rind away from the pumpkin, but don’t cut through the flesh to the inside. You can either leave them whole or hollow it out to light it from the inside. These pumpkins are attractive to many people because they generally last a long time – I’ve had some intact surface carvings look great for over a month!
To do simple surface carvings, you can buy pumpkin carving kits that resemble a shaving razor. They come with different style carving tips that you can insert into the head of the “razor” – usually in circular, V-groove, and square-groove tips. Then you simply have to shave the pumpkin rind away. Use the sharp tip for fine lines and the flat or circular tips for removing more rind. These are great options for kids, as they are very difficult to hurt yourself with.
Another application with surface carvings is to sketch a design in the pumpkin rind using small clay loop tools. Don’t dig too deeply; just until you break through the rind and see the pumpkin flesh. You can carve just about any pattern you find in the books that come with the kits, find free online pumpkin stencils to carve, or just draw something of your own design!
Start by tracing out the main lines with a sharp-pointed loop or tool. This will help define what you want to carve. I typically use my marker to indicate which areas I will scrape away with an "X" - sometimes you'll get confused about all the lines, so it helps to know what needs to stay and what should go. Then it's just a matter of scraping the remaining areas off and making any final touches.
Traditional carvings would include Jack o’ lanterns, where you cut right through the rind and flesh to expose the inside. If you’re using the marker method to sketch your design, try to work from the bottom to the top. Why? As you carve, the pumpkin flesh will leak juices that will run down the pumpkin rind and wash away the design below. By starting at the bottom, you eliminate that from happening.
Most people dive right in and start removing the biggest pieces first. This is a problem later when you’re trying to saw a small, delicate piece out and don’t have the pumpkin wall structure to hold it steady. Instead, start with the small detailed pieces and work your way up to the biggest chunks.
Use larger and sturdier pumpkin saws to carve the large shapes out or when the pumpkin wall is still really thick. Switch to smaller saws when you need fine details or want to work a little slower (since they have smaller teeth).
If your saws are bending as you carve, you’re either sawing too fast, not holding the saw directly perpendicular to the pumpkin, or the pumpkin wall may be too thick. Go back in and scrape the inside walls with a large clay loop to remove more material until you reach the thickness you want.
After you’re done pumpkin carving, keep your creation cool and a little moist. The cut surfaces will dehydrate the pumpkin quickly, which makes it collapse and look terrible. Spray it occasionally with water and lemon juice to re-hydrate it. Cover it with a garbage bag when it’s not on display and keep it somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. If you do a really shallow surface cut, the pumpkin juices will naturally heal back over the wound, sealing it nicely and eliminating the need to spray it.
That being said, it’s pointless to carve a pumpkin just to keep it covered in the garage. Proudly display your pumpkin as much as you’d like, because they won’t last forever. And you can always carve another one.