How To Carve Jack-o’-Lanterns Like A Pro (Yes, A Professional Pumpkin Carver)

Two pumpkin experts provide a (brief) glimpse into the world of elaborate pumpkin carving and tips for a real Halloween showpiece (hint: It helps to be an actual artist).

Every artist needs to find his or her medium. Some take up a chisel, chipping away stone to reveal iconic forms. Others pick up a pen and write sonnets that survive for centuries. And then there are others still who can carve a pumpkin so that it looks like the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit

Almost every suburban street corner has a house that makes a serious effort at carving a more sophisticated pumpkin, but if you want to see some true innovation, you have to check in with the pros. Around this time every year, the knife-wielding artisans of fittingly titled Passion for Pumpkins Inc. assemble the Jack-o’-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, RI. It is perhaps the foremost pumpkin-carving event in the world.

This year’s theme is “All the World’s A Stage,” and as such, the event features over 5,000 pumpkins sporting meticulous etchings of characters and memorable moments from movies, TV shows, video games, and comics. Everything from the alien star of Ridley Scott’s Alien to the alien-detectives of The X-Files is represented in stunning detail.

Paul Cadieux, the owner of Passion for Pumpkins, offered us a peek at the work that goes into making these intricate creations, which some of his employees have been practicing for over 20 years. “We start planning about a year in advance,” he says. “The key to a successful pumpkin is knowing your ability so that you don’t get frustrated. If you have an art background then you should be able to choose a more elaborate image. If you’re new to intricate carving then simplicity is what you should be looking for. First we start with an image and a black sharpie marker. The image is drawn on and then the highlights are etched out with our custom carving tools.” Easier said than done, to be sure.

To gain a little more insight, we went to another specialist who knows her way around a pumpkin–Pam Leno, founder of her very own carving system, Pumpkin Xtraordinaire (which comes with a whole set of tools). She uses stainless steel loop tools and knives to carve pumpkins in three dimensions so that they look like wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s, and she’s done so in front of a national audience on Food Network’s Outrageous Pumpkin Challenge.

“It’s important to pick out a pumpkin that will fit your design, fresh and heavy for its size,” Leno says. “The first step for carving, say, a basic face in my style is to scrape the skin off the pumpkin. Set the eye and nose lines. Get eye shape in, then nose, then mouth. I don’t cut through, in most cases. Then you scrape the inside of the pumpkin to create the lighting.”

While, clearly, these professionals can’t spill all the secrets to making jack o’ lanterns worthy of the Headless Horseman, you can at least get inspired by studying their handiwork. Have a look at some of the 5,000 jack-o’-lanterns from Cadieux’s spectacular, as well as some of Leno’s best, in the slide show above.