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How to carve a halloween pumpkin

Max Warren
31 October 2013

Inspired by the pumpkin carving masterclasses currently on at Kew Gardens, Max Warren demonstrates how to make your own Halloween pumpkin lantern at home.

It's that time of year and pumpkin lanterns have appeared in windows across the country. These “jack-o’-lanterns” (the name derives from the flickering light sometimes seen over peat bogs, also known as called will-o'-the-wisps) originated in Ireland and it was Irish immigrants who brought the tradition to America where it became an integral part of Halloween festivities. Along with so many American traditions, it has become popular on our shores.

Inspired by watching master pumpkin carver Tony Finch at Kew - and by the impressive Pumpkin Pyramid currently in the Waterlily House - I had a go myself. And, I thought, why restrict yourself to just pumpkins? Why not try other gourd-like fruits: here I try my hand at carving a watermelon!

Photo of carvable fruits

Some of the fruits you can use (Photo: Max Warren)

Before we start: Be very careful with the implements you’re using, and please supervise any children.

Starting out

The first thing I'd recommend is cutting an opening in the top of your lantern, and hollowing it out. Rather than turning your lantern onto its side and cutting the top clean off, try cutting into the top at an angle. Doing this will mean that the lid of your lantern will fit, rather than just sit on the top.

Photo of a watermelon lid

Cutting into the lid of a watermelon at an angle (Photo: Max Warren)

Once you've cut out the "lid", you can start hollowing. The traditional pumpkin lantern is relatively easy to hollow out. Normally there'll be about an inch of flesh under the skin, then it's mostly fiber and seeds. Get a large bowl, and use a table spoon to dig out the insides. A watermelon on the other hand is filled with juice. While it's a lot softer, it will take a while to dig it all out, and you'll need a much bigger bowl to put the innards in.

Photo of a watermelon bowl

A bowl full of watermelon pieces cut out of the lantern (Photo: Max Warren)

Carving your design

I’d personally recommend using something very sharp, and very small to carve the actual design onto your lantern. It allows for precision when carving the finer details. I use a scalpel blade, but you can use a bigger knife if you have a steady hand. Before you start carving the design, draw it on. Maybe even using a dry-wipe pen, or white-board pen. If you don't like your design, it can always be wiped off before you start to carve it in.

Photo of pumpkin marking

A marked-up pumpkin being carved (Photo: Kathryn Webster)

Once you have your design, you can start to carve it. Make sure you push your knife all the way through the flesh into the hollowed out area inside. You can start to cut the pieces out, and your lantern will start to take shape (and personality).

Intermediate Techniques

A slightly trickier effect to get a handle on is "layering". By this I mean cutting off the outer skin of your lantern, while leaving the flesh underneath intact. You can use this technique to give the teeth of your lantern a different texture to the rest of its face. The thinner you leave the flesh, the more transparent it will be, so when you put a candle in your finished lantern, the light could shine through the exposed flesh. *Note: this is harder to achieve with a watermelon. The flesh isn't as rigid as that of a gourd, so it's very easy to damage.*

Before you put a candle into your lantern, I'd suggest cutting a small hole into the top of your lantern. This will allow the heat from a flame out of the lantern and prevent the lid from getting scorched.

Photo of a jack-o-lantern family

A small family of Jack-O-Lanterns (Photo: Max Warren)

Once you've completed your lantern(s), add a candle, stand back, and admire. Happy Halloween!

- Max - 


Come to Kew to see a master pumpkin carver in action as part of Kew's IncrEdibles festival

Through half term Tony Finch, master vegetable grower, is showing off his traditional pumpkin carving skills for visitors to Kew Gardens. Watch Tony at work and pick up top carving tips.

  • Dates - Until 3 November
  • When - 11am to 3.30pm
  • Where - Outside the Waterlily House. The Waterlily House is north of the Palm House. Download the IncrEdibles Festival map (pdf)
  • Price - FREE with admission to the Gardens

priority booking for Kew the Music


Pumpkin recipes

If this has inspired you to get creative with pumpkins, why not download our delicious pumpkin recipes


Read more about pumpkins on Kew's species page 

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