Meet the professional pumpkin carvers who get paid to transform gourds into works of art during the spooky season.
Carved pumpkins by Ryan Wickstrand with a skeleton and monster design with a skeleton in between.
Nothing represents Halloween better than a pumpkin. Nowadays, having a jack-o’-lantern is as intrinsic to Halloween as having a tree on Christmas. From international competitions and festivals to TV shows highlighting the work of brilliant artists, the pumpkin carving craze is something everyone can get behind.
For some, pumpkin carving is a way of life. A professional pumpkin carver (yes, those exist) in America makes around $30,000 a year on average. During the month of October, however, their business explodes as nearly 147,000 Americans plan on carving their own, turning to the experts for help.
As a result, social media has become a hotspot for pros posting their impressive designs in order to monetize their talents and grow their brand. By sharing tips and tutorials with an engaged audience, and even offering their services IRL, they’ve made a name for themselves in a very niche industry.
We spoke to five professional pumpkin carvers to find out how they’ve built a business off their unique talent, plus got their top tips for carving a killer jack-o’-lantern this year.
Carvers & Creators
During lockdown in 2020, Paul Dever, Matt Harper and Michael Mondragon, connected virtually from around the U.S. to set up an online platform to connect with other artists and host live-streamed carving events over YouTube. Thus, Carvers & Creators was born.
Dever is the reigning champion of Food Network’s 2019 season of “Outrageous Pumpkins,” a show in which seven pumpkin carving experts compete for a prize of $25,000. He’s also appeared on “Halloween Wars,” where five teams of cake decorators, pumpkin carvers, and candy makers compete to make the spookiest Halloween-themed display, also for a cash prize of $25,000.
Meanwhile, Mondragon is an established art director with an impressive portfolio of typography, branding, and graphic design. Combined, their Instagram is full of incredibly detailed carved pumpkins, often hollowed out into faces and creatures with funny and unusual expressions.
Carvers & Creators credits Linktree with helping them manage their clients during the pandemic and now, during a somewhat more normal Halloween. “The convenience of having our website and social media outlets in one place gives fans and clients a variety of ways to connect with us,” Dever says.
Carvers & Creators’ top pumpkin carving tip: Get the proper tools for the job. We use sculpting tools called ribbon loops. We cut teeth into one side to make a rake for added control. We also use knives for detailing.
Growing up in Central California, Brandy Davis has an extensive history when it comes to carving pumpkins. In 2012, Davis (also known as The Pumpkin Artist on Instagram) participated in an Instagram worldwide pumpkin carving competition, for which she submitted three different creations. It was through the process of experimentation for the competition that she discovered her interest and talent for 3D carving, which involves creating physical faces and creations that appear to emerge from the pumpkins.
“It [3D pumpkin carving] was a style that I wasn’t quite familiar with, but as an artist, I’m all about challenging myself and stepping outside of my comfort zone,” she says over email. She spent hours working on different creations, and ended up winning first place for her realistic, three-dimensional carving of The Grinch.
In 2018, Davis became part of the Guinness World Record-holding team that carved the heaviest jack-o’-lantern in the world—a whopping 2,077 pounds.
Davis credits much of her success to Instagram because the platform’s photo-based focus helps show off her incredible carvings. “If it weren’t for social media, I’d definitely have a tougher time getting my name out there,” she says. “Plus, that’s where my pumpkin family lives…[without] fans and friends and family who have believed in me and supported my work throughout the years, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am.”
Davis’s top pumpkin carving tip: Be patient with yourself, and have fun! At the end of the day, you can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re carving a face on a piece of produce! Put on some music, grab some food, and enjoy the creative process.
A full-time graphic designer with a side hustle carving pumpkins, Elizabeth McClain of Hudson Valley, New York discovered carving in college. Her art professor had the class do artisanal carving as an assignment and soon McClain was making jack-o’-lanterns for family and friends.
The 30-year-old decided to turn this hobby into a professional endeavor, carving and decorating pumpkins for fall festivals, local events and private parties. “I love seeing people’s faces light up when they see me at work or see a finished carving,” she tells us over email.
McClain enjoys the artist community she has found carving pumpkins. Instagram helps McClain discover other artists, studios, and events happening all over the world. “It’s always great to stay on the pulse of the season and see what everyone else is making,” she says.
McClain’s top pumpkin carving tip: Store your carved pumpkin indoors in a cool, dry area at night. Kept in the right conditions, carvings can naturally last up to 3-4 weeks.
Jamie Jones is a media sales consultant from Chester, U.K. who moonlights as a pumpkin carver. In his spare time, he carves intricate and beautiful drawings onto real pumpkins, spending up to 27 hours on each work of jack-o’-lantern he crafts.
The 39-year-old says he started carving back in 2010 when he took part in a light-hearted Halloween party competition, but found himself carefully etching long after everyone else had finished.
A few years ago, Jones decided to take carving more seriously and built his own website, which he shares on all his social media profiles. That’s when he really noticed the orders coming in. “I was truly shocked at the level of interest. I had large U.K. brands getting in touch and my price started to increase,” Jones tells us over email. “Fast forward to today and I’m working with film studios, international brands, appearing on U.K. national TV, and have a waiting list of customers, which include musicians, footballers and celebrities.”
Jones’ pumpkin carving tip: Learn how to make a good stencil, even if you’re drawing the image yourself. Sketch on paper first then turn it into a stencil, but if you haven’t got the artistic flair for that you can turn any image into a stencil.
Ryan Wickstrand (Zombie Pumpkins)
Hailing from New Haven, Connecticut, Ryan Wickstrand is the man behind Zombie Pumpkins, an online store that offers carving stencils, and sells carving transfer sheets (to easily transfer a stencil to a pumpkin), carving tools, and pumpkin-themed merchandise. For Wickstrand, carving is more than just a business.“It’s a big part of my identity,” he says over email. Wickstrand turned his passion into a career by “carving out a niche” (he apologizes for the pun) and creating user-friendly stencils to help people create their own jack-o’-lanterns.
Zombie Pumpkins started almost twenty years ago, before the social media era. Today, Wickstrand believes social media is very crucial to his business. He uses Linktree to make his latest carving patterns, carving contests, tutorials, and shop easily accessible. “Every social platform seems to have its own method for allowing links, which can be confusing and limiting. Linktree is nice because my followers can see a compact list of my key links, all as easy-to-tap buttons,” he says.
Wickstrand’s top pumpkin carving tip: If your pumpkin has a thick shell, you’ll want to thin the wall from the inside—just behind where your design will be cut out. This will ensure that your carving saw will cut all the way through.
Placing a pumpkin in your window or front porch used to be a way to ward off evil spirits, but as the tradition has evolved, it’s become synonymous with Halloween celebrations and family gatherings. Although the meaning has changed, the trend has lasted thousands of years.
Almost half of the US population plans to buy a pumpkin this year, with a predicted spend of over $10.14 billion. That’s a lot of pumpkins! If you decide to carve just one this season, draw inspiration from these brilliant pumpkin artists who have channeled their artist passions into a niche, opportunistic industry. Whether it’s monetary support, sharing their work, or using their advice to create your own masterpiece, support creators is vital to keeping the spirit of pumpkin carving on Halloween alive.
This story was written by Molly Lipson