Pumpkin carving 101

Oct 22, 2009 at 9:29 p.m. ET

It's that spooky time of year... so get out your carving tools and pumpkins and let the artistic energy flow! Here are some tips for making your jack-o'-lanterns the best on the block this Halloween.

Mom and kids carving pumpking

Depending on the complexity of your design, allow an hour or more to make your jack-o'-lantern. By the way, the techniques outlined below also work for carving turnips, some squash or even watermelons.

Girl removing pumpkin gutsStep 1: prepare 

Cut a small hole in the bottom for a candle or light (This also will help your pumpkin stand up straight). Discard the cut portion.

When cutting a lid, angle the blade of your knife or saw inward to create a small lip for the lid to rest upon.

Step 2: Remove seeds, strings and excess fruit

Once you've gained access to the inside, use a large scoop to remove the seeds and strings, then continue to scrape away on the inside of the pumpkin until the walls are no more than 1 inch thick. You can make more elaborate designs by scraping some areas thinner than others, or even scraping away designs so that the light shines through strategic areas of the pumpkin wall. But for overall carving, scrape the walls to about a 1-inch thickness. If you need to, check the thickness with a pushpin or poker.

Girl carving pumpkinStep 3: Outline your design

Trim away the excess paper from your pattern with scissors (click here for some free patterns). Attach the pattern to the pumpkin with tape or straight pins.

If you have time, an easier way to prepare for transferring the design is to soak the paper pattern in water to help it stick to the pumpkin. Once you have the pattern in place, use tacks to hold it there and allow it to dry completely -- several hours -- before poking to transfer the design.

Use a poker tool to poke holes around the design lines. Do not push the poker all the way into the pumpkin. Use just the tip to poke through the paper and outer pumpkin skin. Check to see that all the lines have been transferred before removing the pattern. For large designs, use a larger poker and place the dots farther apart; likewise, for detailed designs, use the small poker and place the dots close together.

Variety of pumpkinsStep 4: Carve your design

Use a drill tool to make small round holes in the pumpkin before carving the larger parts of your design. (Always cut out smaller parts first, larger parts last.) To use the drill tool, push the very tip through the pumpkin skin, then hold the drill near the end and with gentle pressure, begin twisting the tool into the pumpkin. Keeping the drill at a 90-degree angle, grasp the handle and continue turning until the hole is complete. You also can poker tool can also be used as a drill by pushing it all the way into the pumpkin.

Remove the pattern and rub some ordinary flour over the design to make the dots easier to see. Carve your design by connecting the dots. Use the larger saw for the big areas and the tiny detail saw for the smaller, more intricate areas. It's usually easiest to hold the pumpkin in your lap, and hold the saw as you would a pencil. Push the blade into pumpkin or, if necessary, rock it gently forward and back to insert it. The saws are somewhat fragile, especially the finer ones. Don't put too much pressure on them, or they will break.

Saw with a continuous up-and-down motion, with gentle forward pressure. To avoid putting pressure on carved (and therefore weakened) areas, carve your design from the center outward, beginning with the smaller details.

Step 5: Make a chimney

The last step is to anchor a candle inside (tinfoil makes a good candleholder) and light it. See where the smoke blackens a spot on the lid, then cut a small chimney hole there to allow heat and smoke to escape.

More Halloween tips

Free Halloween pumpkin carving design templates
With the right tools, pumpkin carving can be kid-friendly
Throw an old fashioned Halloween party