An Expert’s Guide to Carving a Pumpkin

Is it as easy as it looks? A famous pumpkin artist gives pointers on how to make the Halloween icon look even better. 

He’s been called the “Picasso of pumpkins.” Not only has Mike Valladao grown pumpkins that weigh 500 pounds, the master pumpkin carver has turned them into works of art with only a buck knife and a chisel. On his pumpkins are faces, movie characters, and intricate scenes.

Valladao—known less formally as Farmer Mike and less famously as a software engineer—can be found carving pumpkins in his free time. It started as an accident: In 1985, he grew a couple giant pumpkins on his uncle’s land in Half Moon Bay, which is 27 miles from Palo Alto. He didn’t know what to do with them once grown, so he picked up a chisel and found he had talent. Or at least The Tonight Show thought so—he’s been on it.


At Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival (October 17-18), he’ll carve in real-time for spectators. In case you can’t make the show (or want to practice the art), Valladao shares some tips.

1. Let the pumpkin guide you. “You should always get a unique pumpkin to begin with,” he says. “Don’t get something that’s completely round. Get something with character. You’ll see a face in it before you even start drawing.”

2. Use two markers. “I always have a washable and a permanent on hand. I start with the washable marker and make a general pattern. The overall placement of the eyes and nose, the basic face shape. Then, I go back over it more intricately with a permanent marker before I start carving.”

3. Carve in the rind. “I have a special method that I developed for the larger, thicker pumpkins I carve, but it works for smaller pumpkins too. I call it, ‘carving in the rind.’ What that means is not being limited by the idea that you have to carve through the pumpkin. It creates more depth. Maybe only the eyes are cut all the way through to the center of the gutted pumpkin, and the rest of the face is ‘carved in the rind.’”

4. Give yourself time. “No matter what the size of the pumpkin, it takes me around three to five hours to do a carving. Carved pumpkins only keep for three to seven days, so don’t start too early if you want it out for Halloween. If you’re planning on adding a light source, then the pumpkin will probably only last the night.”

FarmerMike4-300dpiPhotos courtesy of Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival

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