Choosing a Pumpkin:
Visit your local supermarket, farmers’ market or pumpkin patch.
When you’re choosing a pumpkin, try to pick one that’s free of nicks, bruises and cuts. Look for a sturdy stem and for mostly consistent color all the way around. Knock on the skin; if you hear a hollow sound, the pumpkin is ripe.
Most pumpkins will be rotten beyond recovery after a week and a half to two weeks. With this in mind, buy your pumpkin about a week or less before Halloween.
Developing a Design:
Choose a method for carving your pumpkin. Here are a few popular carving options:
Carve a traditional jack-o’-lantern: Plan on cutting out eyes, a mouth, and perhaps a nose. This design is easiest for beginners.
Carve a silhouette: Pick a shape – for instance, a ghost – and carve out the “negative space” around the ghost’s shape, then carve out features like eyes or a mouth. You’ll end up with a circle of light around the dark shape, with lighted details.
Carve down to the pith: For a daytime jack-o’-lantern that you don’t intend to light, use an x-acto knife to scratch away the pumpkin’s skin and reveal the pith. Don’t carve all the way into the gourd.
Carving Your Pumpkin:
Use a serrated knife or a purpose-made serrated knife taken from a pumpkin-carving set. When carving, draw the knife back and forth as if you’re sawing through a tree trunk.
Lay down newspaper or a brown sack from your grocery store on a flat surface for an easy clean-up when done. Lay out your tools, as well as a bowl for discarded pumpkin innards.
Cut a lid around the stem. Angle the point of the knife in towards the center of the circle so the lid will sit in a bowl-shaped indentation that prevents it from falling in. Additionally, carve a small notch somewhere in the circle; this will tell you exactly where the lid fits back in. After you’ve removed the lid from the pumpkin, cut a slice off the underside to remove excess filling and flatten the bottom.
Use a large spoon or your hands to pull all of the filling and seeds from the inside of your pumpkin. Scrape it as clean as you can, so that more light can shine though your jack-o’-lantern.
Start cutting your design using a gentle back and forth motion to cut into the pumpkin, and take your time. Discard cut-out pieces as you remove them. Keep following your pattern until you’ve carved out the entire design.
Drafting Your Design:
Use a dry-erase marker to outline your design on the pumpkin. If you’re decorating pumpkins with children, letting them draw the designs can be a fun way to include them and avoid handling sharp objects.
Lighting Your Pumpkin:
Choose a light source if you’ve carved an open pumpkin. Traditionally, jack-o’-lanterns were lit with candlesticks or tea lights, but flickering LEDs are popular modern options. Make your decision based on potential safety concerns.
If you do chose to use a real candle, make sure your carving will provide the flame with enough oxygen to keep burning. If you’ve cut several large holes in your pumpkin, you should be fine. If not, consider cutting a small vent in the lid – or remove the lid entirely.
Choose a safe display area if you’re using a candle in your pumpkin. Place it in an area away from flammable items such as hay bales or scarecrows. Additionally, take care that the candle’s flame won’t catch a trick-or-treaters’ dangling costume.
If you’re using a candle to light your pumpkin and are placing it on anything wooden, place a 8”-10” dinner plate down first, to catch wax and avoid setting wooden porches or stairs on fire.