Get your tools out, it's pumpkin-carving time!

I've got to be honest. Carving a pumpkin can be a pretty messy endeavor! But the pay-off is oh-so-worth-it! We've collected some of the best pumpkin-carving techniques and compiled them into this handy pumpkin-carving guide! (You're welcome.)

1. Choose a winner.

pumpkin in the patch

When you're perusing the selection at the pumpkin patch or grocery store, make sure you settle on a pumpkin with a flat bottom (so it doesn't roll) and a nice sturdy stem. Don't underestimate the importance of getting this right. Picking the wrong pumpkin will absolutely make or break your carving experience (no pressure or anything!). You can buy it whenever you want, though—even several weeks before Halloween. The "rotting time clock" shouldn't really start until you carve into it. (Just kidding about picking the wrong pumpkin. It's just a pumpkin.)

2. Carve closer to Halloween.

Plan to carve the pumpkin within two or three days of when you want to display it. So if you want your jack-o'-lantern to grace your porch to greet trick-or-treaters on October 31, maybe wait until October 28 or 29 to dig into it. Otherwise, it might rot.

3. Gather your materials.

You'll need:

  • a spray bottle of water
  • a boning knife or kitchen knife
  • additional cutting tools (a pumpkin carving kit, a drill, a miniature saw, a nail)
  • a wide spoon or ice cream scoop
  • a pencil or marker
  • your stencil or printed template
  • petroleum jelly
  • a nail file
  • a bowl
  • a candle or some other kind of light
  • trash bags

4. Choose and cut your lid/opening.

pumpkin lid

While, traditionally, pumpkin carvers have always cut the lid around the stem, experts now recommend cutting a hole in the back of the pumpkin instead. The stem is still supplying the pumpkin with nutrients and moisture, so leaving it intact will keep the pumpkin fresher for longer. Wherever you cut into it, keep your knife blade at an angle to the pumpkin instead of straight up and down. That way the lid will have a nice ledge to sit on and won't fall right through into the pumpkin's interior.

5. Scoop all the guts out of the pumpkin.

pumpkin scooping

All of them. Leaving any gooey strings of pulp and innards inside the pumpkin will just cause mold to grow. Scrape the insides with a spoon or ice cream scoop until the area (or face) where you plan to carve is about an inch and a quarter thick. This is going to take some elbow grease, so be prepared! Scoop all the guts into the bowl; later you can separate the slimy seeds from the stringy pulp (painstaking work!) and bake them. Yum!

6. Carve your design.

pumpkin carving

If you have a template, attach it to the face of the pumpkin with painters' tape. If not, you can simply draw the design directly onto the pumpkin's face. To make carving easier, poke or drill holes along the outline with a nail, drill, or another small tool. Then, hold the pumpkin in your lap while you carve so that you have a better angle on it. This is where your water bottle comes in; spraying the pumpkin to keep it moisturized as you carve will help keep the pumpkin more receptive to your "manipulations." 

7. Add finishing touches.

Use leftover pumpkin scraps in creative ways to improve your design. Use a nail file to file off any rough edges. Slather petroleum jelly on the raw edges to seal in moisture and keep your jack-o'-lantern from shriveling. Sprinkle a dash of cinnamon inside so that when you light the candle, it will smell even more divine (than warmed pumpkin already does!)! 

8. Create a chimney hole.

Place your candle inside and light it, then put the lid back on. After a few minutes, remove the lid and carve a small hole where the smoke from the candle has blackened the pumpkin interior while trying to escape. This is your "chimney."

9. Clean up your mess.

Hence, the trash bags!

10. Light your jack-o'-lantern.

lit jack-o'-lantern

If you prefer, forego the lit candle and use a battery-operated votive or LED or CFL light instead. If you followed earlier advice and cut the opening in the back of the pumpkin, electrical lighting is made even easier.

And, voila! Those are the steps to a successful pumpkin-carving experience! Do you have any more techniques for pumpkin-carving success? Maybe a favorite template? Please share in the comments below! Also, we'd love to see photos of your jack-o'-lantern creations! Please share them with us. Maybe we'll even compile them into a fun post of favorite pumpkin masterpieces!