How to Carve a Pumpkin—From a Pro Sculptor

By Adrienne So

If anyone knows how to design and execute a jaw-dropping attraction, it’s Terri Hardin. Hardin is a puppeteer, a Muppeteer, and a Disney imagineer who has worked as an actor and artist on many iconic movies. For 30 years, she worked as a sculptor and performer for the Jim Henson company, appearing in movies like The Flintstones and Dinosaurs.

Her career highlights include building the iconic stillsuits from the original Dune movie, and working as the puppeteer for the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (and temple dog!) in the original Ghostbusters. She also designed and sculpted attractions for Disneyland Paris and created collectables for Disney, Mattel, and Nickelodeon.

Now, Hardin is one of the judges on The Food Network’s Outrageous Pumpkins. We asked the master pumpkin carver for some of her best tips on how to jazz up your jack-o-lantern. Don’t forget to pick up one of our recommended carving tools kits on the way.

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How to Find the Perfect Pumpkin

Courtesy of Terri Hardin

Every pumpkin patch hides misshapen, discolored pumpkins, but those are the pumpkins you want for an interesting creation. “The first thing I’m going to do is walk up to the [pumpkin farm] counter and say, ‘Let me see your gnarlies,’” Hardin said.

“The gnarlies sometimes tell you what you want to sculpt by their shape, and half the work is done,” Hardin said. Find a few that appeal to you and see what their shapes suggest. Is one a skull? Or a demon?

Of course, to put Hardin’s first tip into practice, you need to actually find a farm—a real pumpkin patch, with pumpkins growing on the vine and not a yard filled with perfectly round, pre-picked pumpkins arranged on hay bales.

Master pumpkin carvers try to find pumpkin varieties like Big Macs, which are hybrid varieties that can grow to up to 200 pounds and have walls that are around 3-6 inches thick. Thick walls give sculptors plenty of leeway to carve 3D shapes, but these pumpkins can be expensive. If you’re able to search by variety, Hardin suggests looking for Wolf pumpkins, which have walls of around 1.5-2 inches and thick, distinctive handles. A Wolf pumpkin might cost around $30, which is much more reasonable.

You can’t make a thin wall thicker, but you can thin a thick wall by scraping the inside with a loop tool. Hardin has a quick trick for finding out how thick the pumpkin’s wall is—cut a hole in the bottom. You can also use that hole to empty out the pumpkin.

“People always ask, ‘How did you carve it without cutting a hole in it?’” Hardin laughed. “I always say, ‘Are you sure I didn’t cut a hole in it?’”

Carving Fundamentals and Placement

Courtesy of Terri Hardin
Courtesy of Terri Hardin

It's important to remember: carving is the best part about a jack-o-lantern. Carving is fun, creative play—or can be if you let it. Take the pressure off yourself, and just have fun. “The kids are not a problem … I have adult students that will sit and stare at a pumpkin, and burst into tears,” Hardin said. “I say, ‘You know this thing isn’t going to be around for very long, right? Let’s calm down, breathe, and get started.”