How to Carve a Jack-o’-Lantern Masterpiece, According to a Professional

How to Carve a Jack-o’-Lantern Masterpiece, According to a Professional
Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos courtesy of Jon Neill)

You’ve no doubt been carving pumpkins since you were a kid, but there is a level of jack-o’-lantern art far beyond the triangles that plebes slash out of gourds. If you want to enter the rarified air of fine-art pumpkin-carving (or even just get better at picking the right pumpkin), we have some tips from one of the best in the field.

Jon Neill was the season four champion of Food Network’s Halloween Wars, and his creations have been seen on shows like Access Hollywood, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Home & Family. That probably all sounds pretty intimidating, but with Neill’s advice you, too, can drastically improve your pumpkin-carving game.

Start with the best gourd for the job

The first step to creating a breathtaking pumpkin masterpiece happens long before you break out the carving tools. You have to choose the right vegetable for your idea.

“When it comes time to design a pumpkin, I go one of two ways,” Neill said. “Either I’ll be loose about the idea, and go looking for pumpkins that are screaming ‘carve me to look like this!!’ But if I’ve already done a sketch, then I’m trying to find pumpkins that fit whatever I’m going to make.”

When choosing a pumpkin, make sure it isn’t moldy or soft, and look for a thick green stem — it will stay fresh longer, and, according to Neill, the stem thickness will roughly equal to the carve-able “meat” of the pumpkin.

Unless you’re going for a huge piece that requires a Big Mac or Atlantic Giant pumpkin, Neill recommends the classic Howden variety of pumpkin — but find one with some some heft. “You want it heavy,” Neill explained. “If you pick up a bunch of pumpkins, and one is very light, that means the walls are very thin. If you’re going for 1-to-1 scale to carve a face into, you want a pumpkin that’s around 14 inches tall, with a really nice thick wall.”

Know your destination before you begin your carving journey

Success in pumpkin carving, like success in most artistic endeavours, requires a plan. Great pumpkin sculptures don’t come from beginners winging it.

“There’s definitely a learning curve, so perhaps start by getting some clay and sculpting something that you want to make,” Neill said. “You make what’s called a maquette — a small sculpture before you make the big sculpture — that way you work out all the problems first, and learn something before it’s show time.”

If you’re going for a face, you can use your own as model. “When I have an idea for a face, I’ll set up a mirror and do that expression, so I can capture as much from life as I can to incorporate into the pumpkin,” Neill said. “You use your face as kind of a loose reference to bring it to life.”

Choose the right pumpkin carving gear

Once you’ve haunted the local pumpkin patch for the perfect specimen and created a model of your sculpture (look, no one said this was going to be easy), it’s time to gather your tools. A serrated kitchen knife or those plastic dealies might work fine for an everyday porch-o-lantern, but that won’t cut it in the world of elevated pumpkin sculpting.

“To be able to do what I do, I need a set of tools similar to tools used in pottery carving, basically flat ribbon loop tools,” Neill said.

According to Neil, you can get by with a small set of loop tools and a flexible knife, (you can buy a basic set on his website for $US20 ($27), or hit up your local art supply store) but if you’re new at this, be prepared for the smaller tools to break; it’s part of the process.

You’ll also need a water-mister, damp towels, and a ton of patience. (More on all that below.)

Don’t take your top off!

The classic Halloween jack-o’-lantern may feature a carved off top, but it’s long past time to put this hoary cliche out of its misery. “When you cut the top off the pumpkin, it pretty much kills it. There’s no healing power left,” Neil said. “It’s like cutting the head off of something.”

There’s no need to hollow out your pumpkin at all, but if you want to, it’s a much better idea to cut a hole in the back of it instead of the top. It will last longer that way, and they just look cooler without the skull surgery thing.

What about the candle?

Lighting a jack-o’-lantern from the inside with a candle is Halloween-standard, but don’t let tradition get in the way of your masterpiece. Neill usually eschews internal lighting all together, employing it only for specific effect.

“I’m more focused on the form of the pumpkin from the outside, so I’ll use directional light, and then maybe a shadow light or a coloured light aiming at it from another direction. Unless there’s an objective, like the eyes are going to light up,” he said.

Even if you like internal light, do not use a candle, ever. It’s a fire-hazard, and will dry out your pumpkin fast. Instead, Neill suggests going with cool, safe, battery-powered LEDs. Then you can choose whatever colour light you like, and even make them change or flicker.

Hydrate your pumpkin

It’s as important to hydrate your gourd as it is to keep yourself hydrated while you’re working on it. Dried-out pumpkin flesh is going to be unpredictable to work with, so a hand water-mister is an irreplaceable tool in your arsenal, Neil said.

Tip: If you slip up and let it dry for a bit, you can re-hydrate your pumpkin — as long as it isn’t too far gone — by dunking it in a tank of cool water for an hour.

Does it even have to be a pumpkin?

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure there are no laws that say pumpkins are the only vegetables or fruits you can carve into scary faces and leave on your porch in October, and it might be a good idea for beginners to practice on lesser produce before cutting a pumpkin apart.

“You could carve butternut squash, radishes, apples, potatoes, even avocados,” Neill said.

The ultimate futility of pumpkin preservation

Whether it’s a lopsided face you hacked out in five minutes with a butcher knife or an elaborate art-piece that took 15 hours of painstaking work, you must accept that your pumpkin will not be around forever. This is a pumpkin’s nature, and part of what makes them an interesting artistic medium.

“If you keep it in a cool dark place covered in a wet towel, and treat it like it needs to be treated, you can probably get it to last up to a month,” Neill said of finished works. “But it’s slowly going to be going downhill that whole time.”

“When you carve and the pumpkin is fully hydrated, you’re trying to finesse and perfect these forms, so it feels like the sculpture is very organic. But as it starts to dry and the cellar structure starts to collapse, it changes those shapes, and it begins to look like a very old carving. You never can be certain how it’s going to change.”