Pumpkin Carving Tutorial

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INTRODUCTION: This is an advanced carving tutorial. It should be useful to both beginners and experienced carvers who are looking to fine-tune their techniques. If you're a beginner, I recommend starting with a simpler pattern. Once you have some practice, you can move on to more difficult designs.

DO I HAVE TO BE AN ARTIST?: Transferring and carving the pattern does not require any drawing ability. If you have a few hours and a lot of patience, you can carve an amazing jack-o'-lantern.

WHERE CAN I FIND A PATTERN?: There are many patterns on the web. Try searching for "pumpkin patterns" or "jack-o-lantern patterns." The Pumpkin Wizard and Stoneykins have shaded patterns ranging from easy to difficult. You can also try making your own patterns.

CHOOSING A PUMPKIN: Find a large, fresh pumpkin. Check the entire surface for blemishes and soft spots -- especially the underside. The stem should be 2-3 inches long. When stems are broken off or cut short, the pumpkin will begin to rot from the top. Generally, the drier the stem, the longer it has been since the pumpkin was harvested. (Look for green or dark brown stems.)

As for the shape, look for a flat carving surface. The best pumpkins have a flat side without deep ridges. (This makes it easier to transfer the pattern.) I bring my pattern with me and "try it on" the pumpkins when I am looking. The pumpkin needs to be large enough that the pattern is not wrapping around the sides or the top. (A curved surface distorts the image.)

PREPARING THE PUMPKIN: The pumpkin must be thoroughly gutted. Scrape the entire interior until all of the stringy guts are gone -- even on the sides you're not carving. If you leave guts, they will stink when they start to rot, and you could accelerate the decomposition of the entire pumpkin.

You need to do some additional scraping on the interior of the carving surface. It needs to be thin enough that your saws don't break, but thick enough that your light source does not shine through the uncarved parts. A thickness of about 0.5 inches works best. (The other advantage of scraping it thin is that there is less resistance when you are cutting with the saws.) To measure the thickness, I use a large home-made caliper. You can also poke the pumpkin with a needle, but I would only do this in areas that are going to be cut out.

The thickness should be relatively uniform across the carving area. It can be difficult to measure the thickness without the right tools. Once you have determined that a particular spot has the right thickness, look into the pumpkin while the sun (or bright flashlight) is shining onto the carving surface. If the light is relatively even, then so is the thickness. The pumpkin is normally thicker at the top, so you will have to do extra scraping there. I rinse and dry the pumpkin (with a towel) before I begin carving.

TRANSFERRING THE PATTERN: This is by far the most tedious part. Drawing complex patterns by hand is difficult. Most people cut lines into the edges of the pattern so that the paper will fit better across the surface. Then they tape it on the pumpkin, and trace the lines by pricking tiny holes along the lines. The problem with this method is that it hurts your hand after a while, it takes a long time, and it can be hard to make sense of the dotted lines when you're done.

A better way is to use transfer paper. (You will need something that works on a non-porous surface, like glass.) I use Saral Wax Free Transfer Paper, which is designed to trace onto any surface. You simply put the transfer paper under the pattern and trace over the pattern with a ballpoint pen. I recommend taping the pattern and transfer paper together, then taping them onto the pumpkin. If the pattern moves while you're still working, it's nearly impossible to realign it.

Some people begin carving at this point, but I don't. Once you start cutting into the pumpkin, the moisture will cause your lines to smear. That's why I use the RotoZip (with the smallest engraving cutter) to go over the lines. Then I use cool water and gentle soap to remove the smudges from the pumpkin before I begin carving. Now, no matter how much of a mess you make, the lines are still clear.

CARVING THE PUMPKIN: Carving the pumpkin is messy. If you're using a power tool to score the pumpkin, pumpkin pulp will fly several feet. Wear old clothes; you'll need a shower afterwards. If you have a good outdoor location, take it outside. If you have to carve indoors, lay sheets of plastic around the area and over any nearby objects.

Power tool users should wear safety glasses. Otherwise, the pumpkin pulp will get into your eyes. The safety glasses will also protect your eyes if the engraving bit detaches while you are working.

For the cut-out parts, I recommend using tiny saws. You can find these in any run-of-the-mill pumpkin carving kit. For the scoring, I use a RotoZip tool with engraving cutters of varying sizes. (The small ones are better for detail work.) Dremel is also a good brand. If you don't have something like this, use hand tools for carving wood. Some artists actually prefer hand tools, but I find that they are more difficult to control and require more pressure to use, which makes it more likely that parts of the pumpkin will collapse while you are scoring.

If you're new to carving intricate pumpkins, you probably haven't had to cope with the problem of parts breaking or caving in. Stability while carving is a major concern. Often, parts are attached by thin pieces of flesh, and they're easy to break. One way to improve the stability is to leave in the cut-out parts until the very end. There is a temptation to let your arm rest on the pumpkin while you are working. If you carve this way, you won't be putting extra weight on things you've already cut.

I start by scoring (using the RotoZip). There are two reasons I do this. The first has to do with stability. If you cut first, the pumpkin is less stable by the time you're ready to score. This is especially true if you're using hand tools to score, because this requires a fair amount of pressure. The other advantage is that scoring first makes it easier for the saw to penetrate the flesh. If you have to punch through skin, it takes more pressure than if you can start at a soft spot that has already been scored. After scoring, you may want to rinse the pumpkin with cool water before cutting, because there is pulp everywhere. (If you're carving a more intricate pattern, you may need to rinse periodically to see what you are doing.)

When you're cutting with saws, the most important thing is to make sure your cuts are always perpendicular to the surface. If you're not paying attention, it's easy to angle your cuts. Angled cuts make the pieces hard to remove and distort the design. Start with the more difficult or intricate cuts first. If your pattern has large areas need to be cut out, do those parts last. (Once you start removing large pieces, the area becomes fragile, making it more difficult to continue carving in the area without breaking things.)

When it's time to remove the cut-out parts, do not push on them from the outside. If the design is delicate, you will break pieces that are supposed to remain in place. Instead, use one hand to gently push the piece out from the inside, and use the other hand to stabilize the area. If you find that you have to use a lot of pressure, you either didn't cut all the way through, or your cuts are angled. (Use the saws to fix this problem.) When you're done, rinse the pumpkin with cool water.

LIGHTING: Candles are sometimes inadequate to illuminate the parts that have been merely scored. Ideally, you should have a bright, steady light. If possible, you should place your light source so that you can't see it through the holes when standing in front of the pumpkin. I light my pumpkins by mounting small flashlights on the sides of the interior (using wire to hold them in place), so that you can't see the flashlights when standing in front of the pumpkin. Flashlights also have the advantage of being safer and cooler. (Heat tends to damage the pumpkin.)

The bright light of the flashlight looks better in photographs. (To see the difference, compare my Tutankhamun pumpkin with my zombie pumpkin; Tutankhamun was lit with candles.)

PRESERVING THE PUMPKIN: After doing so much work, you'll want to get as much use out of your pumpkin as possible. Unfortunately, pumpkins don't last long, especially when you've scored flesh. The pumpkin's enemies are heat and insects. If you can set up the pumpkin inside, it will be safe from insects. (It will also keep hoodlums from smashing your work of art.) When you are not displaying your pumpkin, it should be kept cold to slow the rate of decomposition. Don't leave the pumpkin outside during the day or in a sunny windowsill.

Some people treat their pumpkins with commercial preservatives. I've tried it both ways, and I'm not sure if it makes a difference. If you're not keeping your pumpkin cool and away from bugs, no preservative will help.

PHOTOGRAPHING THE PUMPKIN: It can be a bit tricky to get a clear picture of a lit pumpkin in total darkness. The error caused by an unsteady hand seems to be magnified under these conditions. If you have a tripod, use that. Otherwise, you should create a makeshift tripod. (Obviously, the flash must be turned off.) If your pictures are still blurry, try placing the camera farther from the pumpkin. (You can always crop the picture.)
This is the process I use to create jack-o-lanterns with intricate, shaded designs.

I took additional photos for this tutorial, but for some reason, deviantART doesn't have an option for me to add them here. You can see additional photos here:

The preview image is the setup for my Grim Reaper Pumpkin. You can view that here:…
© 2008 - 2021 Kamose
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xdeathbybananax's avatar
This would be a lot easier to follow if it had step-by step/example pictures to see what you were doing.
Kamose's avatar
I actually did take some pictures to go with this tutorial, but I only see options for text and a preview when I post this in Artisan Crafts Tutorials.
xdeathbybananax's avatar
Hmm... I think most people put together the tutorials with pictures in a program on their computer like MSPaint or Photoshop and upload the saved file.
Kamose's avatar
Maybe it's something with this Deviation category, but they don't have an option to upload anything but a preview image.
Thank you!!! Awesome tutorial, really helpful.

I'm going to carve my first pumpkin, some advice beside all the great guidelines?

Kamose's avatar
Start with something that isn't too complex (unless you're willing to start over on another pumpkin). This will help you to get a feel for the tools and techniques.

A large pumpkin with a flat carving face works best. (If you can find one with shallow ridges, that's even better.) I choose pumpkins that will fit the entire pattern without having to wrap the pattern around the sides. With a flat surface, it's easier to transfer the pattern, and the final result won't be distorted by a curved surface. (This is a key to getting a good photograph.)

Also beware of the angle at which the pumpkin leans. Many pumpkins with the desired surface lean too far forward. Since pumpkins are often displayed lower than eye level, you won't have an optimal viewing level if it leans too far forward. It's OK if it leans back a little. (This year's pumpkin won't even stand on its own; I'll have to prop it up from behind.)

If you're still shopping for a pumpkin, the large pumpkin patches that are sometimes in rural areas are the best. If you don't have one in your area, try churches (they often sell pumpkins to raise money) and produce stands. For some reason, grocery stores rarely carry the extra large pumpkins that I need, and the pumpkins that they do have are often more expensive. This year, I got a 40-pound pumpkin for $15.

Good luck! If you post a picture on your deviantART gallery, send me a note!
o0Aria-chan0o's avatar
would it be bad to not do this all in one day? like would the pattern start getting messed up if i had to leave it alone for a day? :hmm:
Kamose's avatar
I think it would depend on when you took a break and for how long. (I would not leave the unfinished pumpkin for more than a day, and I would keep it in a cool, indoor location.) The best "natural stop" would be after you transferred the pattern, went over the lines with an engraver, and cleaned up the pumpkin but before you began carving.

If you need some guidance on the time, here is how much time each phase (as described in my tutorial) typically takes me to complete:

Phase 1 (preparing the pumpkin): 45-60 minutes

Phase 2 (transferring the pattern): 1-2 hours

Phase 3 (carving the pumpkin): 2-4 hours (depending on the complexity of the design)
starfirerobin7's avatar
cool!!!!thanks for the tutorial I got an A
Kamose's avatar
I'm glad it helped! What did you carve?
starfirerobin7's avatar
I carved a dinosaur it as really awesome but my teacher keep it T.T
but anyway thanks a lot
Golden-Flute's avatar
Thanks so much for this! I'm trying to figure out what the best way to score a pumpkin, do you have any further suggestions?
Kamose's avatar
If you've never done this before, you might try buying a "practice pumpkin." You don't even need to gut the practice pumpkin. Just use it to test different tools. The most common tools are Dremel-type power tools with engraving bits and hand tools for carving wood.

When you're testing the tools, pay special attention to how much force you have to exert to score the flesh and how much control you have. Try cutting different types of lines, such as straight lines, curvy lines, and corners. If you have to exert too much force, you might cause parts of the pumpkin to collapse, especially if you've already remove the cut-out parts. I prefer the power tool, because it gives me a lot of control and requires almost no force. The downside to the power tool is that at the end, I am covered in a fine film of pumpkin flesh.

While you're scoring the real pumpkin, test your light source to make sure it shines through. I recommend displaying the pumpkin in complete darkness, but if there is going to be some ambient light, make sure you test under those conditions. Nothing is more annoying than finishing the entire pumpkin only to realize that you did not score deep enough.
Susan-Stohelit's avatar
very detailed and helpful! thank you!
Kamose's avatar
You're welcome! I'm glad that it's helpful.
pandaririn's avatar
Very useful info! Thanks!
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