It’s that time of the year again: The weather gets colder, people throw on hoodies and sweaters, horror movies are always on TV, and apple picking is finally back in season. Halloween is almost here, with the promise of loads of candy just around the corner.
Halloween also means Jack-o’-Lanterns and pumpkin carvings. To help you get the most out of the season, we spoke to carving expert Marc Evan, co-founder of Maniac Pumpkin Carvers in Yonkers, New York, about the best ways to pick a pumpkin and safely carve it up before the holiday arrives. We also got his recommendations for the best pumpkin-carving tools—from precision knives to linoleum cutters to LED lights—to make the activity fun and easy for the whole family.
How To Pick the Best Pumpkin
When it comes to choosing the best pumpkin for carving, look to the stem. “The stem is a sign of [the] health of the pumpkin—the greener the stem, the fresher the pumpkin,” Evan says. “And if the stem is all dried out and brittle, the pumpkin is older, and it’s not going to be as healthy or as long lasting of a pumpkin.” (Pro tip: You should never use the stem as a handle to pick up the pumpkin, because as Evan notes, “It’s not meant to hold the weight of the pumpkin. They grow laying on the ground.”)
Aside from the stem, pumpkins should be firm all around. “Find [one] that doesn’t have any visible signs of insect damage, like something was boring into it and kneading its way through,” Evan says. “You want to make sure that there [don’t] seem to be any signs of bruising on the pumpkin surface. Definitely no soft spots ... you don’t want to see any mildew-y looking areas.”
According to Evan, if you’re planning on carving a traditional Jack-o’-Lantern, then you should consider getting a lightweight pumpkin—but if you want to carve something more advanced, go for gourds that are bigger and heavier. “A pumpkin that’s heavy, that feels heavy for its size, is very desirable,” Evan adds. “For sculpted and detailed etchings, you want thickness.”
Making the First Cut
When it comes to making your first cut into a pumpkin, you don’t actually want to start at the top to cut a hole. Evan recommends that you start at the bottom or behind the pumpkin itself to get the best results.
“We actually very rarely open the pumpkin from the top,” Evan says. “With our more artistic creations, we always like to do the whole [thing] from behind, [on] the backside of the pumpkin. And that way, there’s kind of an unbroken, very aesthetically pleasing image [on the front side].”
According to Evan, this method not only makes a difference when hollowing it out and carving a design, but it also extends the life of the carving itself. “It avoids that problem, after a day or two, when the pumpkin starts to lose a little bit of its water. You know, the lid always falls into the pumpkin when you do classic Jack-o’-Lanterns. And so you can avoid that by cutting a hole in the back or even in the bottom … you just have to be careful of what surfaces you're putting your pumpkin on, because juices might leak out,” he says.
After you decide where to cut into your pumpkin, you then have to measure out the size of the hole. Evan recommends cutting a hole that’s about 5 to 6 inches around. “You want to be able to get your whole wrist in to scoop [the guts] out,” he explains. “We normally put our fist against the pumpkin, measure, and make sure that it’s slightly larger than that ... [because] you want to be able to get in there comfortably.”
It’s also crucial to get the size correct on the first try: “If you make it bigger after you already cut a shape, then the pieces aren’t going to fit back in right,” Evan says.
How To Extend the Life of Your Pumpkin Carvings
Pumpkins are highly perishable fruits. As already mentioned, once you cut into one, it will be prone to mold, mildew, and decay. However, there are some ways to extend the life of a pumpkin carving that don’t involve using harsh chemicals.
“So the thing that reliably extends the life of the pumpkin … is keeping it cold,” Evan says. “If you are able to refrigerate your pumpkin when it’s not being displayed, it will extend the life of the pumpkin.”
An ice bath can prolong a pumpkin carving’s life, too: “Sometimes, people will give a Jack-o’-Lantern an ice bath, every other day or so with a cap full of bleach in the water, [and] it can help rejuvenate and keep some of the mold from growing.”
But the best rule of thumb for keeping a classic Jack-o’-Lantern on display for a longer period of time is to carve the pumpkin closer to Halloween. “We always tell people to carve their pumpkins as close to [that] date that they really want to have them if they’re doing them for a special event,” Evan says. “It’s such a fun thing that we’re always encouraging people, when it starts to rot, [to] carve some more. You know, that’s really the best situation [to] keep carving pumpkins throughout the season.”
How To Dispose of Your Pumpkin
When November 1 rolls around, it’s time to transition from Halloween to Thanksgiving; this also typically means throwing away your pumpkin.
If yours is chemical- and bleach-free, then you can simply let nature take its course. “[Our] favorite way [to get rid of a pumpkin] is to feed it to animals,” Evan says. “I, for a while, had a group of deer that would pass through my backyard, and we would leave all of the pumpkin remains out for the deer … There would be nights where we would put a slew of pumpkins out in the back and the deer would leave no trace. So, that was composting at its finest.”
But overall, composting a pumpkin is better than simply throwing it away in the trash because food waste in a landfill creates methane gas, which is not good for the environment.
The 6 Best Pumpkin Carving Tools and Accessories To Buy Now
Ready to start carving? It requires a big workstation that’s clean and clutter-free, because it’s a very messy task with a number of sharp tools laying around. And if you want to just get the job done, then you’re going to need the best tools, which can be found below:
1. Green Lifestyle All Purpose Canvas Drop Cloth; $18
“You want to make sure that you’re clearing off a table or a bench. Kitchen counters are fine to use [for carving pumpkins], you just want a large clean surface,” Evan says. “We recommend putting down something to protect your work surface—you don’t want to mess up your dining room table with pumpkin juice.”
This highly-rated, six-feet-by-nine-feet canvas drop cloth is large enough to cover up just about any kitchen or dining room table, and it’s also absorbent to soak up all the aforementioned pumpkin juice.
Buy it: Amazon
2. Pumpkin Masters Pumpkin Carving Kit; $9
Gone are the days of using kitchen knives and spoons to carve a pumpkin for Halloween (although for giant ones, a chainsaw might still be fun). According to Evan, using art tools is one of the best ways to create a design, especially if it’s advanced and highly intricate.
However, if you’re creating something simple like a traditional Jack-o'-Lantern, the pumpkin-carving expert said basic kits from Pumpkin Masters will definitely do the trick.
Buy it: Amazon
3. Pumpkin Masters Power Saw Pumpkin Carving Tool; $25
“[My] favorite tools for the classic Jack-o’-Lantern are still those great orange-handled Pumpkin Masters saws, [but] some of them are flimsier than others,” Evan says. “We like the more heavy-duty ones that they make. But they’re actually really versatile and those small saw blades, they do the job really well for classic Jack-o’-Lantern work.”
Buy it: Amazon
4. Pumpkin Masters Carving Kit All-In-One Kit with Premium Scoop; $7
When it comes to hollowing out pumpkin seed and innards, Evan also recommends the Pumpkin Masters scooper to get the job done. “We’ve tried everything for scooping the pumpkin,” he says. “Our favorite device for scooping the pumpkin is actually the old school, classic little orange handheld scoop. I don’t think they’ve ever come up with anything better.”
Buy it: Amazon
5. Zebra Pen Z-Grip Retractable Ballpoint Pens, Pack of 7; From $3
The best plan of attack in terms of pumpkin carving is to have a plan to begin with. Planning ahead will lower the risk of making mistakes, especially if you want to etch a more detailed design. Start with an idea for a pumpkin carving and then draw it out on paper first. Once you’re happy with your design, draw it on the pumpkin.
Evan recommends using a simple ballpoint pen for outlining. “With a typical ballpoint pen, [it] will leave a nice fine line of ink,” he explains. “It’s not as difficult to remove or as bold as a Sharpie, so it’s not as distracting. And you can remove the ink by just scrubbing it with a sponge.”
Buy it: Amazon
6. Home Most Halloween Pumpkin Lights with Remote, Pack of 2; $12
Want to make your pumpkin stand out even more? Evan recommends using LED lights to light them up because they’re safer to use instead of an open fire. “These days, LED lights have become so much cheaper and more convenient than they were in the past,” he says. “They’re just much better quality [and at] affordable prices now. So we prefer the safety of LED lights.”
However, if you’re planning to go the traditional route with a candle instead, Evan advises that you cut a hole at the top of the pumpkin for ventilation. “For some situations, you know, we still might use candles, and if you do use candles in a Jack-o’-Lantern, you do need to make sure that there’s some type of hole in the top for steam, or smoke to vent out of. But [in] general, we prefer the convenience and safety of LED lights.”
Buy it: Amazon
A version of this article originally ran in 2022 and has been updated for 2023.