Introduction: How to Carve Backlit Pumpkins.

About: I have a strong mechanical background having grown up in my father's automotive repair garage, combined with an education in electronics, and computer programming. I LOVE to build things, whether it be a compu…

Good day everyone,

Halloween is usually the one time of the year I dig out my carving tools and put them to work. I've started carving pumpkins about 14 years ago. Each year since then I normally decide on a theme for my pumpkins and carve at least two pumpkins, sometimes three. Over the years, I've learned some tips & tricks to both speed up the carvings and to get a better finished product. I also try to come up with ways to think outside the pumpkin to add a more 3D aspect to the carving, or to add embellishments such as jewelled eyes or even electronic innards based on Arduino or Raspberry Pi projects to give the finished display more of a wow factor.

I just wanted to pass along some of my tips and techniques developed over the years to others that may be wondering how to create these types of pumpkin carvings. With video instructions and tips, I'll even take you through a beginner level project, based on the lovable Instructable character, showing techniques I use in all my carvings. This video instructed project will take between 1 to 2 hours to complete.

I specifically used the term "backlit" pumpkin carvings, because there is a big and fundamental difference between traditional relief carvings and carving for a backlit medium such as a pumpkin.

The first non lit pumpkin picture above is one of the first pumpkins I carved (a project from the book Extreme Pumpkin Carving) as an example of a traditional relief carving done on a pumpkin. You can add a more 3D look to any carving by creating darker looking regions which appear to be set back and lighter regions coming forward. In the first example above you can see that I carved the inside of the mouth deeper to give it depth with the dark shadowed area. This pumpkin looks better when not lit from behind. Now lets switch to a backlit carving like the dead pirate carving next to it.

In this carving I still use the same light and dark shading in the mouth for depth, but it is done in reverse. The dark area is not carved at all while the teeth are carved all the way through to make them as bright as possible. In this instructable I'll be concentrating on the backlit style of carving, as personally I feel it gives some of the best effects and is displayed in the traditional method of a lit pumpkin on a dark Halloween night.

I hope you enjoy this instructable and that it either inspires you to step up your pumpkin carving or even to start carving your first pumpkin.

Step 1: Selecting a Pumpkin

For the pumpkin selection process, I normally try to decide what design I wish to carve first, and then look for pumpkins to fit the bill. For example the angry birds above needed short and wide pumpkins, where as the minions needed both short and tall pumpkins. This year I even carved a baseball sized pumpkin since I needed to carve... well a baseball.

Also if you decide you want something other than a standard orange pumpkin, I suggest trying a white pumpkin. While the flesh is yellow and not white like the skin, it still works better when lit with a coloured light bulb such as with my green alien zombie pumpkin above. Other than that they are very similar to carve.

TIP: I recommend buying locally grown pumpkins if you can. I live in a big city, and find that the pumpkins which get delivered to the big name stores more than a month before Halloween have a much thinner body. This makes them harder to carve, and they are often getting very soft by the time Halloween rolls around. Plus if you have kids you can make a day of visiting a farm and get them involved in the selection process, not to mention you are supporting your local farmer.

Step 2: Tool Selection

The tools you use will be a personal preference, whether you rather use just knifes, small saws or chisels, you will need to be able to carve off layers of pumpkin flesh to create varying shades of light and dark. My preference is to use chisels.

Below is the list of tools I use during my carvings:

  • Kitchen knife and spoons.

Used for cutting a section of pumpkin off so that the pumpkin guts can be scrapped out with a spoon.

  • Push pin.

This can be used for transferring a pattern onto the pumpkin by poking holes through the paper pattern at close intervals to outline the areas you need to carve.

  • Nails and / or drill bits.

Useful for poking holes through the pumpkin where you need to let light shine through pin holes, or larger holes such as for eye pupils.

  • Set of carving chisels.

I am a bit of a traditionalist and a fan of wood carving, so I do the majority of my carving with a set of wood carving chisels. When they are nice and sharp, they make quick work of removing large amounts of pumpkin flesh. Primarily I use the flat chisel followed by the round gouge and V shaped parting chisels.

Useful for cutting a fine line along the edge of the area you are chiseling out. You can then use the chisel to cut up to the point of the incision you made with the knife. Also useful for cutting the outline of letters if adding text. With the sharpness of an x-acto blade you require very little pressure to cut through the pumpkin. This can be important in regions which have become flimsy due to the thinness of the area being carved.

Two of my most used tools, these small chisels are very useful for cutting/sketching the outline of the pattern, or for adding fine detail lines into the pumpkin skin.The small round gouge is also useful for poking small holes through the pumpkin.

This set of miniature chisels are great for poking narrowly carved areas deep into the pumpkin flesh. You can also use them to scrape flesh away in hard to reach areas such as small recesses where the larger tools will not fit.

The Dremel is great for carving small detail into the pumpkin skin, or for lightly removing a thin layer when you just want to slightly lighten a non-carved area. Again it also allows you to carve without applying too much pressure which could damage the area you are carving.

Step 3: Gutting the Pumpkin

The grossest part of the job is always getting all the slimy innards out of the pumpkin. I use a combination of a spoon and a soup ladle to get the inside as clean as possible. You will want to get all the hanging bits out so that they are not lying directly on whatever lighting you install in your pumpkin.

Where I cut the opening in the pumpkin depends on the design I am carving. Normally though for most designs I will cut the top off to get rid of the stem (unless there is use for it as part of the design), and I turn the pumpkin up side down so that the hole is facing down. I can then sit that hole over the light bulb I am using to light the pumpkin.

In some cases such as with the carving of Smaug the dragon above, I sliced one whole side off so that the pumpkin would sit flat on it's long side. This gave me the surface I needed to carve the long head of a dragon.

Also note that this step can be performed at various stages in the pumpkin carving, usually before the bulk of the carving is done. You will want to light the pumpkin before you finish to see what it looks like when back lit.

NOTE: This step is covered by the Instructional Video 3 - Carving the details.

TIP: If the pumpkin will not be displayed at head level, you can slice the section of pumpkin off at an angle. Doing this will tilt the carved surface up towards the person looking at it. An example is given in the video.

Step 4: Getting Your Design Transferred to the Pumpkin

Once you have decided on the design you wish to transfer onto your pumpkin, you can follow the steps below to make the design easier to carve.

1. Adjusting the image: You can use a photo editor on a computer to remove all colour from the design and to adjust the contrast to make the varying shades of lights and darks stand out better. This will allow you to outline the areas that will need to be carved, and the areas to leave the skin on.

2. Printing the pattern: Measure your pumpkin and resize the image so that it covers the side of your pumpkin and then print it out on a printer. You can trim the excess paper off from the pattern to make it easier to attach to the pumpkin.

3. Positioning the pattern: Find a position on the pumpkin where the design best fits. Remember, if you are going to cut the stem off and flip the pumpkin over, you need to place the pattern so that it will be right side up when flipped. Look for the least curved side of the pumpkin, being careful blemishes on the skin don't interfere with your finished carving. Though sometimes a blemish may even enhance the finished carving.

4. Attaching the pattern: For the last 14 years I have always taped on the design and then used a pushpin to transfer the outline of the design onto the pumpkin. This year I tried gluing the design on with diluted white glue which worked easier, and I will likely stick with that. To do this just dilute some white craft glue with water in a glass cup or jar. Mix same amount of water and glue and brush it onto the back of your printed pattern. You can place it on the pumpkin and brush it on while pushing it down into all the creases in the skin. Don't worry if you end up with wrinkles in your pattern. This is normal when trying to lay a flat piece of paper onto a round surface.

NOTE: Steps 3 & 4 are covered by the Instructional Video 1 - How to attach a pattern with glue.

Step 5: Initial Carving and Outlining

NOTE: This section is covered by theInstructional Video 2 - Initial carving and outlining.

Once you have the pattern attached to the pumpkin, it's time to transfer the outline. You have a couple of options, you can either use a pushpin to poke holes through the pattern at small intervals, or you can use a sharp knife such as an x-acto knife to trace around the pattern. You will want to trace out all the lines where there is a distinct difference between the light/dark shading. Don't worry too much about areas of fine detail within those areas.

Once the design is transferred, you will want to start by carving out the lightest sections first. In many cases this will be a matter of cutting those sections completely through to the inside and removing that section of pumpkin. That said you need to be careful that you do not cut a complete circle around an area leaving it unsupported. My rule of thumb is to always carve in order from lightest to darkest, and then add the final details.

The first photo above shows the initial carving stage with all the lightest areas cut out, and the second photo moving on to the less deeply carved areas.

TIP: Try not too carve too much away as it can leave you with a flimsy pumpkin making it harder to carve the rest of the pattern. In some cases you may need to improvise on your pattern to leave bits of flesh in place to give an area more support. The third photo shows one of my first pumpkins I ever made, where I carved too much of the pumpkin away, leaving the design to be very flimsy almost to the point of collapse. As you can see it still looked OK when lit, however, if done again I would not carve nearly as much pumpkin away, and instead leave a thin layer of flesh in most of the bright areas.

Step 6: Carving the Details, and Shading

NOTE: This section is covered by Instructional Video 3 - Carving the details.

As I've stated before it is best to work from the lightest areas to the darkest, thus you should first start by removing a layer of skin from the second lightest area of the pattern. Once you have the skin removed it is much easier to carve that section to a depth to give the appropriate lightness. If the area requires a gradient shading going from dark to light, you will need to carve the lighter side of the gradient to a deeper level, tapering up to the shallow darker side of the area. Mastering these gradients of light to dark will result in more realistic 3D effects in the finished carving.

Once all of the areas of the same lightness level are completed, repeat the process for the progressively darker regions.

As you start this stage of carving, it is good to be able to occasionally view your pumpkin lit from the inside to judge how it is going. Remember that your end goal is to have a pumpkin that looks great when back lit. Often with this type of carving, the pumpkin may not look very pretty when not lit, as you can not see the various light levels that make the final back lit carving look so three dimensional. Occasionally I will even do the carving with the room lights turned down and use the lit pumpkin to better judge where or how I need to carve.

TIP: If you need to lighten an area, quite often it is easier to scrape away the flesh from the inside of the pumpkin behind your carving. This is a great time saver especially if the area contains some detailed carving you would other wise need to carve around.

Step 7: Think Outside the Pumpkin

To give the carving a more three dimensional look, I'll sometimes add a secondary pumpkin carving to the display as in these two examples.

  1. For Gollum, I took the section of pumpkin that I cut off to gut it, laid my hand on it and traced the outline of my fingers. I carved the hand out and attached it to the base of the pumpkin as though Gollum was holding his hand out in front of him. Of course in his hand I set a golden ring.
  2. For Halloween 2016, I went with a baseball theme. In carving the ball and glove above, I bought a mini baseball sized pumpkin and had my daughter draw a seam on it using a real baseball as a guide. I then used my Dremel rotary tool to carve a pattern of chevron symbols (>>>>) along the seam outline. Using the rotary tool for this made really quick work of it. I made an incision along both sides of the chevron pattern with an X-ACTO knife , and then used a flat chisel to remove a layer of skin in between the seams. I cut a hole on one side through which I removed the seeds and placed it over the top of a Christmas light bulb which I had sticking out through the front of the glove. This gave the appearance that the ball was floating in front of the glove.

Step 8: Accessorising

To give your pumpkin that extra wow factor you may wish to embellish it, either with some static objects, or for the tech minded people with electronic innards as shown in a couple of these examples.

  1. For Gollum above, I added a little bit of hair to his head. This I stole from a kid's play wig. Then I placed a golden coloured plastic ring in the palm of his hand. When you see the ring, it makes you immediately hear the words "My Precious" in your head.
  2. For the dead pirate, I added a couple of plastic jewels for the eyes which I individually back lit with LED lights. I also added plastic jewels in some of the teeth.
  3. For Smaug the dragon I used a couple of LED lights, a CPU fan salvaged from a dead laptop, an ultrasonic mist maker and an Arduino microcontroller to control the LEDs and fan. This was all housed inside the pumpkin. As seen in the video above, the Arduino would turn on the first LED to make the nostril glow red, and then activate the fan to blow the steam, AKA mist, out the dragon's nostril. Turning on the eye LED gave him the appearance of waking up. Smaug looked even better when I spread a bunch of chocolate coins in gold foil and other candy jewels around his head, as though he was laying on his mountain of treasure.
  4. For the green alien zombie pumpkin I again used an Arduino to pulsate the LED lights in the eyes and flicker the red brain matter in the upper right.

TIP: If you wish to add some freaky plastic eyes lit by LED's you can find a great assortment of coloured plastic light casings in Lego kits, if you happen to have any lying around. You can then use a battery powered mini LED light and insert it into the plastic case, which you set into the pumpkin's eyes. Using a flickering LED from a dollar store LED tea light will make them more noticeable.

Step 9: Have Fun

Well, I thank you for your time. I hope you enjoyed this instructable and gained some amount of info from it. It's an activity that I really enjoy every year together with the smiles it brings to the faces of the trick or treaters. Also remember each farm raised pumpkin you carve is being saved from a fate far worse, that of being shot out of a pumpkin cannon and being smashed to smithereens. :)

One final TIP:

That piece of pumpkin that you sliced off at the beginning in order to gut it, can be turned into delicious pies. Pumpkin pie recipe


Pumpkin Carving Contest 2016

Runner Up in the
Pumpkin Carving Contest 2016