Pumpkin Carving Tips

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I decided I was finally going to get around to carving some pumpkins this year. After reading a couple of articles on pumpkin carving, I compiled a list of tips that came in handy.

The first thing is to have on hand your supplies:

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  • A pumpkin to carve up
  • Newspapers, brown paper bags, or plastic table cloths to cover your work surface
  • Soap, water, bathtub (to clean the pumpkin)
  • Large bowl, rubber gloves, and a large spoon or scraper to scrape out the insides of the pumpkin
  • Plastic or trash bags to dispose of the flesh and seeds
  • Dry-erase marker, pencil, or ballpoint pen to sketch out the design
  • Thumbtack, cotton ball, and dark food coloring to highlight key points in the design
  • Knives and carving tools
    • Commercial pumpkin carving kit (Pumpkin Masters worked fine for me)
    • Serrated knives, jab saw, or keyhole saw
    • X-acto knife, linoleum carving or wood carving tools
    • A drill with a spade bit or a woodworking gauge tool for holes
    • Toothpicks
  • Petroleum jelly, bleach (optional — to preserve the pumpkin)
  • Tea candles on a dinner plate or LED candles or string lights with a glass jar

If you’re going to roast pumpkin seeds:

  • Oven
  • Cookie sheet, aluminum foil
  • Olive oil, salt
  • Spice mix

Step 1: Prep the pumpkin

Pumpkins last about a week and a half to two weeks, so you want to carve them pretty close to Halloween.

Pick a pumpkin with a good green stem (they last longer). Most supermarkets around here sell large decorative pumpkins for around $5. Unusually shaped or colored pumpkins could inspire some unique designs.

Wash the dirt off the surface of the pumpkin with soap and water.

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Prepare a work surface with newspapers or a drop cloth.

Step 2: Sketch your design

Your design could be a traditional cut-out or a bas-relief (where you cut partially into the pulp of the pumpkin) or some combination.

Pumpkin Masters usually includes some templates with their carving kids, and there’s plenty of designs available on the Internet.

I think JB’s drawings are hilarious, so I had her sketch out one of her drawings of me on one of the pumpkins:

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And on another, I wanted to try to make a Luther rose, in honor of Reformation Day, which I based on an embossed design I saw on Google Images:

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Unless you’re using a template, sketch out your design on the pumpkin. Sharpies make nice clear lines, but using a dry-erase marker allows you to erase the lines afterward.

If you’re using a template, trim the pattern and cut slits in the paper so that it conforms evenly to the pumpkin. Tape carbon paper to the back of the drawing, then tape the pattern onto the pumpkin. Trace onto the pumpkin with a pen or pencil pressing into the carbon paper.

For a more complicated design, you need to think ahead about which shapes or negative shapes you intend to carve out.

With a non-permanent marker you always risk rubbing off your sketch, so you may want to take a thumbtack and demarcate several key points in the design. If you decide to do this, a cotton ball dabbed in dark food coloring could be used to go over these pinpricks, making them more visible.

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Step 3: Cut out a hole

Traditionally, the hole is cut out from the top of the pumpkin. Cut one large enough to comfortably fit your fist through, about 2 inches in radius from the stem. Cut your hole at an angle so that the lid doesn’t fall through.

Your hole doesn’t have to be circular. In fact, if it isn’t, it’ll be easier to determine how the lid fits back on. If you are going to cut out a fairly even circle, consider putting a notch in it to make it clear how the lid fits.

You also don’t have to cut the hole at the top. Cutting one on the bottom or the side can keep it hidden away from view. Having a hole in the top might be necessary, though, if you’re using candles — you want to have enough ventilation.

I decided to cut a hole on the bottom…

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… as well as a small one in the back. I was going to be using string lights for this pumpkin, and I needed a way to feed it out to a wall outlet.

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If your pumpkin wobbles, you might want to also level out the bottom.

Step 4: Remove the filling

Wear rubber gloves; pumpkin flesh can leave an annoying slick residue. Use a spoon, scraper, or fleshing tool to scrape out the guts.

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You want to leave a half inch to an inch of pulp, especially on the design side of the pumpkin — try to keep it fairly even.

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Have a large bowl handy nearby to receive the guts as you scrape them out.

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Optional: Toast the seeds

If you fill the bowl with water, it’s pretty easy to skim off the floating seeds.

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You can then toss out the flesh, now separated from most of the seeds.

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Lay the seeds out on aluminum foil on a cookie sheet and preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Leave it in the oven for about 20 minutes to dry out the seeds. Then drizzle them with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. If you have a spice mix handy, sprinkle some of that on there — I used chili powder.

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Raise the heat to 350 degrees and continue heating for 20 minutes more or so. Or do as I did, which is leave the temperature pretty low and forget about the pumpkin seeds until 45 minutes later.

Step 5: Carve!

If you’re carving into the pulp, start with those areas of your design. Use an X-acto knife to carve a quarter- to a half-inch deep at the edges of those shapes.

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Work first on the smallest, most detailed, areas of your design.

The little saws of a commercial pumpkin carving kit are pretty handy, but their blades bend and break pretty easily, so saw patiently and gently. Wood carving tools were also recommended.

{Tip: The pumpkin carving kits are deeply deeply discounted right after Halloween}

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I also read that you could use vegetable peelers or lino carving tools or a woodworker’s gouge tool to carve into the pulp, but I ended up just carving out small sections with an X-acto knife and popping them out. A little tedious, but it got the job done.

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Carve out large shapes in sections.

You can use ceramic hole punches, melon ballers, or drills with spade bits for holes.

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You can use reattach large bits with toothpicks. I used this technique to float the cross in the heart in the middle of my design.

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A little bit of alcohol cleared up all the stray marks from the dry-erase marker.

Optional step: Preserve/Revive your pumpkin

Dab petroleum jelly on exposed edges to prevent browning.

You can also dunk the pumpkin design face down in cold water with a capful of bleach to revive it.

Step 5: Light it up

If you’re using a tea candle, make sure there’s enough ventilation for the fire, and keep it on a dinner plate to catch wax spills and prevent accidents.

A popular alternative are LED candles.

I opted to wrap a string of lights (like Christmas lights) around a glass jar, and secure it with tape.

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Here you can see how the bottom closes up, and the cord comes out the back.

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Pumpkin in action:

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