A handful of people become professional pumpkin carvers each fall, specializing in fantastical designs. Among them are Alex Wer, self-styled "Pumpkin Geek," who lives near Sacramento, Calif.; Scott Cummins, a Perryton, Texas, middle-school art teacher; and Marc Evan and Chris Soria, the Maniac Pumpkin Carvers of New York City.
Wer does his carving between insurance sales and an evening package-delivery route. He works with the fake, foam pumpkins sold at craft stores, so his intricate work has longevity. Evan and Soria drop their jobs as illustrators for a few months to carve pumpkins for festivals, parties and individual clients. The long hours leave the two childhood friends battling sore wrists and aching backs by late November.
"It's a labour of love," says Evan, who also carves pumpkins on the Food Network's "Halloween Wars" this season. "Pumpkin carving is definitely not the easiest way to make money. It's not a 'get rich quick' scheme."
For inspiration, scroll through these carvers' websites — The Pumpkin Geek, Pumpkin Gutter, Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. Or check out the creepy, three-dimensional portraits at Villafane Studios.
Here are some of their tips of the trade:
1. Choose Your Pumpkin Wisely
"You want to have a stem, and you want it to be a healthy stem because that stem is still providing nutrients for the pumpkin," says Soria.
Don't cut into your pumpkin around that perfect stem. Instead, access the pumpkin from its backside to help preserve freshness. Cutting out a stem cap weakens the Jack-o'-lantern, says Evan. And hiding the opening in the back gives the pumpkin more visual punch.
"It's esthetically more pleasing seeing the glow from (only) the design, not creeping out from where we might have cut the hole at the top," says Evan.
1. Preparing Your Pumpkin
Before carving a face, scrape and clean the inside of the pumpkin. The cleaner you get it, the longer it will last.
"I always tell people, 'Gut it out twice as much as you think you need to,'" says Wer. "It should be very dry inside."
1. The Carve
Folks, there are two kinds of pumpkin carve: the lighted Jack-o'-lantern face and the three-dimensional sculpture, in which a pumpkin is treated like a block of wood - only stinky and less permanent. The Maniac team carves both styles. Cummins carves in creepy 3-D. The tools are the same, but they're used in different ways.
Take either carve up a notch by adding depth and texture. Wer carves up to five layers in his faux pumpkins to get a mix of light and shadow for a photorealistic quality.
Learn this skill, called shading, by scraping part of your design into the gourd.
"It just creates this new layer and this multi-level depth," says Wer.
Need more help? Visit pumpkin-carving tutorials, such as those posted by The Pumpkin Lady, on YouTube.
1. More About Tools
The Maniac team favours tools from the kitchen or garage, primarily paring knives, graters and saws. They tout linoleum cutters and sculpting tools.
Linoleum cutters have several gouge tips. Evan likes the V-gouge for making precise cuts, whether shallow or deep. Ceramists' sculpting tools are metal loops on a stick - in various shapes and sizes - that can be purchased at art supply and craft stores. They slice smoothly through pumpkin rind.
Those cheap pumpkin-carving kits? All four of our expert carvers love them.
The Maniac team uses the orange plastic scoop to clean out hundreds of pumpkins — fast. Cummins uses the scoop too, and praises the kit's flimsy, serrated blade.
"Don't underestimate that little saw," Cummins says. "Sometimes there is a need to cut slowly and deliberately, and that is when the little saw is indispensable."
Once a pumpkin is carved, it begins to deteriorate.
"You will certainly notice a difference in 24 hours," says Cummins in his online tutorial.
Says Evan: "You can't preserve a pumpkin. We recommend 'delay' tactics."
—When a Jack-o'-lantern is not on display, Wer says, give it a bath. He has had as many as eight pumpkins bobbing overnight in his bathtub.
—Preserve cut edges with a lemon juice-water mixture, says the Maniac team, then seal them with vegetable oil or petroleum jelly. Store your carving in the refrigerator or wrap it in plastic wrap and store in a cool place.
—And quick, take a photo. It's the "best and most essential way to preserve your creation," says Cummins.