How to Win Pumpkin Carving Contests for Halloween

Bring the Wow Factor to Your Jack-o-Lantern Carving

Illuminated Jack O Lantern At Night
Tanja Streuber / EyeEm / Getty Images

Pumpkin carving contests are a fun way to win money and prizes every time fall rolls around. Not only do many local communities hold these contests, but you can often find online pumpkin giveaways as well. If you'd like to sharpen your pumpkin carving skills and get the winning edge this Halloween, here are nine steps to help.

Read the Rules Thoroughly

The first step in winning pumpkin carving contests — or, really, any contests — is to read the rules thoroughly. Before you start planning your entry, check the rules to find out whether there are any restrictions on the size of your pumpkin, the theme of your carving, or other factors.

It's also a good idea to find out what the judges are looking for when they review the entries. Most contests will list their judging criteria so you know what you need to do to catch their attention. For example, they might be putting special emphasis on uniqueness, fit to a specific theme, or other criteria. Tailoring your entry to fit these criteria can give you a big boost over the competition.

Come Up with a Concept for Your Pumpkin Carving

The key to winning a pumpkin carving contest is coming up with a creative idea. You need your pumpkin to stand out from the pack, so try to think beyond the typical eyes, nose, and grimace that the judges will see over and over again.

Here are some ways to get inspiration for your pumpkin carving contest entry:

Pick the Right Pumpkin for Your Design

Now that you've come up with a design, it's time to find the perfect pumpkin. Why is it important to take those steps in that order? So you can be sure to pick out the pumpkin that best suits your design. Some carving ideas look best with a tall, narrow pumpkin, others cry out for a fat, round one or one with a nearly flat face. By looking carefully, you can pick the pumpkin to make your carving shine.

It's also important to make sure that your pumpkin will survive until you've entered the contest. You should look for a pumpkin without any soft spots or cuts. Another trick is to pull the stem firmly to make sure it's not loose, indicating a pumpkin that's closer to falling into decay. Here are some tips for ​making your pumpkin last longer.​​​

Don't forget to consider an unusual pumpkin, like a white pumpkin, if the contest rules allow for it. Color is something that could make your entry stand out from a sea of orange gourds.

Prepare Your Pumpkin for Carving

Now that you have your pumpkin, it's time to get ready to carve it. There are a few steps that you should take before you reach for your carving knife:

  • Wash and dry your pumpkin to remove dirt and debris.
  • Then, look for the perfect side of the pumpkin to carve. Avoid blemishes or strange shapes, unless they fit into your pattern.
  • Finally, trace your pattern onto the pumpkin using a marker or a pencil. The advantage of a marker is that you can see your tracing better. On the other hand, the pencil is less likely to distract from your image, if any of it is left on the pumpkin after you're done.

Get the Right Carving Tools

You don't need to buy anything special to carve a great pumpkin, but ensuring that you have good tools on hand will save you time and frustration. Some useful carving implements include:

  • An ice cream scoop or a large, sturdy spoon for removing the seeds.
  • A large, sharp knife for the rough carving work, like cutting the lid off the pumpkin.
  • Smaller, sharp knives for carving details. A boning knife, a paring knife, or a keyhole saw are good choices.
  • A linoleum cutter will help you make precision cuts and beautiful patterns.

If you want to take your pumpkin carving to the next level, check out this list of professional pumpkin-carving tools from SheSaid.

Remove the Seeds and Pulp from the Pumpkin

First, cut a large hole in the pumpkin; for most designs, this should be at the top. Remember, however, you have other options than simply cutting around the stem. Your design might be better served by a hole in the bottom or the back of the pumpkin.

Wherever you make your opening, be sure to angle your knife slightly inwards toward the stem so that the lid won't fall through when you replace it. It's also a good idea to cut a notch into the opening to make it easier to tell which way you should replace the lid.

After you've cut the hole, scoop out the pulp and seeds with your ice cream scoop or spoon. Remember that the more pulp you remove, the more light will shine through the jack-o-lantern's shell, making your pumpkin more luminescent. This is especially important when your contest entry requires a photograph of the pumpkin.

Carve Your Pattern

Once your pumpkin has been cleaned, you can use your smaller knives or keyhole saw to cut out the pattern you traced onto your pumpkin. Remember to cut outside, not inside your lines to avoid leaving traces of your drawing behind. Also, be very careful with small pieces so that they don't break off.

Preserve Your Jack-o-Lantern

If you want to take an additional step to ensure your pumpkin doesn't start to rot before judging begins, submerge your pumpkin in a mixture of three gallons of water to a teaspoon of bleach after carving it

This will help kill any bacteria on the gourd's surface, slowing decay down. Let the pumpkin air-dry thoroughly. When you're done, rub cooking oil on all exposed edges to prevent browning.

Take Great Pictures of Your Carved Pumpkins

So now you've carved a perfect pumpkin, but you're not quite done yet. Many pumpkin carving contests will ask you to enter by sending in a picture of your carving, and it's important to get just the right picture to wow the judges.

Here are some tips to capture ​your jack-o-lantern on film:

  • Try to shoot your photo on the same level as your pumpkin. Taking a picture while you're standing above it will skew how your carving looks.
  • Pay close attention to the background of your carving. Use a solid backdrop or pick an appropriate background like an old door, a hay bale, or a fence post.
  • Make your pumpkin look as large as possible. Let your pumpkin fill the frame so the judges can enjoy your details.
  • Get the lighting right. Some jack-o-lanterns look best lit up at night. Others call for a dramatically cloudy daytime sky or even full sunshine. Experiment to see what looks best for you. MacWorld has some good tips on how to photograph your carved pumpkin.

Before you jump right into planning your pumpkin contest entry, here are a couple more important things to think about:

Tip: Don't Throw Away the Pumpkin Seeds!

Pumpkin seeds are delicious ​when they are toasted, and good for you as well, so don't throw them away after you've finished carving. If you're not sure what to do with them, here are 12 things to do with pumpkin seeds from TheKichn.

Pumpkin Carving with Kids

Kids love carving pumpkins, but you need to be careful to be age-appropriate with the sharp implements. Younger children can have fun scooping out seeds and tracing stencils while you do the actual cutting. If the contest's rules allow, you can also choose a no-carve entry to work on together with your children.