My friend Steve from across the pond put together this excellent instructional video:
(Continue reading below for my own Tips & Tricks)
Here are some things I’ve learned over a couple decades of carving:
You don’t need to buy fancy tools to carve a pumpkin. If you have access to workshop/crafting supplies in your home, then you should have something useful like a coping saw blade or a hobby tool lying around. If not, then you’ll be able to find a serviceable pumpkin carving kit at a shop nearby. Keep in mind that if you intend to carve a pattern with fine detail, then you’ll need some kind of saw blade smaller than a kitchen knife.
If all you have is a kitchen knife and a pumpkin and you still want to get your carve on, then I recommend sticking to something simple like these face designs to save yourself a headache. I try to keep some simple patterns available for casual and beginner carvers.
If you’re looking to carve a round pattern, find a nice round pumpkin to match in shape. If your pumpkin is too big or too small for your pattern, then scale your pattern accordingly. If you’re scaling a pattern up, then you’ll need to tape the sheets of paper together into a big super pattern before transferring.
If your pumpkin is extra thick, use the inside of a mason jar lid to scrape the walls down to around 1 to 1.5 inches. Be careful not to thin them too much, as you will weaken the structure and cause it to shrivel away faster.
When using the poke method, rub the surface of your pumpkin with some flour or talcum powder to make the holes more visible. If you want to save time (and save your hand from all the poking), try using Saral transfer paper or Sulky’s Stick ‘n Carve sheets. Consider printing a second copy of the pattern or pull up the PDF on a smartphone/tablet to use as a visual reference when you’re unsure of the shape of a line while carving.
I used to always cut at an angle towards the inside of the pumpkin (it leaves less rind showing and allows more light out). Then I realized that cutting away more pumpkin means less structural integrity for your carved design. When using stencils, stay towards the outside of the lines, as you can always take away more later. I encourage cleaning up the edges a little, but leaving some rind showing will give the design nice depth when lit. Keeping the blade perpendicular to the pumpkin’s surface is usually ideal.
Starting with very small detail sections first is usually a good idea. By working in one general direction (e.g. left to right), you’ve always got more stability on one side. Try leaving your cut out sections in their slots until you’ve finished carving for extra strength.
Cut away from your body with small controlled strokes. Be extra careful with any open flames (especially indoors). Small cuts and burns can happen, so be prepared with a first-aid kit on standby. Always have an adult around to help just in case.
There are methods you can use to preserve your masterpiece for a little longer, but don’t stress too much over it. Enjoy the temporary nature of the tradition. Dehydration is the main enemy you want to protect your pumpkin against; it’s what causes your design to shrivel up and lose its shape. Rubbing the carved edges with vaseline and keeping your pumpkin in a cool place will help to keep it hydrated. If your pumpkin does start to dry out, then submerging it in water for around an hour will help bring it back to life like magic. When lighting your pumpkin, always make a chimney where the roof gets black to allow the heat to escape. Otherwise, you’ll end up cooking your pumpkin, which dries it out fast.
Paint your pumpkins or use specialty lights to add flare.
Don’t be afraid to jump in, get your hands messy, and do it your way. Modify patterns, stencil other objects, or try your own unique idea!
There are lots of other wonderful carving tutorials out there. A little research goes a long way.
Take your time and enjoy the process. Some of the more detailed patterns can easily take hours to get right. Trying to rush through it can compromise the final result. It truly is a labour of love; making a day out of it can be very relaxing and therapeutic.