Custom Pumpkin Faces




My neighborhood gets hordes of trick-or-treaters every Halloween. One of the prime reasons is the "pumpkin house" a few doors down. Every year these folks carve scores of amazing pumpkins. So to maintain respectability in the neighborhood, I have devised a carving method over the past few years to rival their artistic skill. Hope you enjoy!

Time: A detailed carving takes about 4 hours

You will need:

  • Photo
  • Photo Editing software
  • Duct tape
  • Crafters knife with assorted tips
  • Utility knife
  • Dremel with assorted heads
  • Wood carving tools - assorted gouges, skews, spoonbills.
  • Clay carving tools
  • Bamboo skewers Ice cream scoop

Step 1: Choose the Right Photo

Sports heroes. Political figures. Cartoon characters. Take your pick. I always choose my kids. High contrast photos tend to work the best. Full on frontal photos take the most work, because you're carving more detail (two eyes, subtleties around the mouth). Photos where the subject is looking to the side are surprisingly easier.

Step 2: Convert Photo Into a Usable Form

Open the photo in your favorite photo processing program (I use Adobe Photoshop). Convert to grayscale. Adjust contrast and brightness to the point where skin tones disappear and shadows become more pronounced. Typically this means high contrast and mid to high brightness.

Use one of the filter options to simplify the detail in the photo. The Adobe filter Cutout and Posterize work best, although I have used the Sketch function successfully. For this example, I'm using Cutout. Adjusting the number of levels (essentially amount of detail) will give you more options for the look of the end product. On this photo, I like the left eye at one level, right eye at another, and mouth at a third. By isolating each section individually and apply the filter separately to each section I'm able to create a composite that achieves the desired look.

Print two copies of the photo to fit your pumpkin. Usually 8.5x11 works just fine.

Step 3: Prepare the Pumpkin

Position the paper on the pumpkin and tape vertical edges tight on pumpkin. Gently smooth paper around edges and gather excess into small folds. You're essentially folding the paper to the shape of the pumpkin. The goal is that the entire paper fits the surface of the pumpkin tightly.

Step 4: Identify Major Shadow Regions.

Use a sharpie to outline the major shadow and highlight regions of your pumpkin. For your first pumpkin, I suggest you do this on both photos that you printed. Think of a color by number portrait. This will be useful as you begin to think about depth. The lighter the region the deeper the cut should be. The sides of the pumpkin with become more translucent the deeper you go. The darkest regions ( eyes, mouth, shadows) will have pumpkin skin left on them for the darkest effect.

Step 5: Assemble Your Carving Tools

Step 6: Transfer Image to Pumpkin

Using a cutting device, trace the outline of each of the shadow regions onto the pumpkin. I have used lots of tools for this: and ice pick, a stylus, a ball point pen. The easiest for me is a sharp craft knife with a pointed end. If you use pen or stylus, you have to press down really hard when you trace - hard enough to bruise the pumpkin skin in order to see the line. The craft knife is easier, if you are tracing long smooth lines you can cut though the paper into the pumpkin. If you are doing detail work you can make small 'chip' cuts into the skin. Or you can pretend you are a sewing machine and match tiny little pokes as you move along the line.

Regardless, make sure you are making enough of an impression on the pumpkin skin behind the paper. As you can see with this pumpkin, I'm cutting into the skin. This produces pumpkin juice "bleeding" from the cuts. This helps glue the paper to the pumpkin. Some times it cause the paper to rip and fall away, so you have to be careful.

When you have transferred all of the lines, wipe away the paper. You should be left with an outline of the photo on your pumpkin.

Step 7: Carve the Levels.

Ok - keep in mind the point of the exercise: lighter areas have deeper cuts, darker areas are shallower. It helps to refer back to the second photo you printed. I typically color in the darkest areas of the face first with a sharpie. Then I would recommend identifying the numbered areas on your pumpkin, because it will start to get confusing soon.

Start with the deepest (lightest) areas first. I use a Dremel with burr attachment to carve along the inside of the area first, then continue into the middle. I also have this neat spoon bill carving tool that works well too. Then use a larger burr attachment or a carving gouge to remove material.. After you are finished with the deepest areas, proceed to the next deepest, then so on.

This is the point where I start to zone out. Since I'm carving my kids likenesses and I love my kids, it's a nice chance to really get to know the character of the faces. If I were carving something else, say... political candidates, I would not have such a tender attitude about it. There a some things you don't want to get that close to.

Step 8: Gut the Pumpkin

Cut open top and remove seeds and squishy stuff. I use an ice cream scoop to scrape down the pumpkin interior walls. BE VERY CAREFUL NOT TO SCRAPE TOO FAR. If you do, you may scrape through and ruin your carving. Once you have removed a significant amount of material from inside the pumpkin, add your light source. I get high-powered LED lights with a matrix of 24 bulbs from Harbor Freight. Arrange them so that they hit different sections of the face.

Step 9: Squit and Refine

Turn down the lights. For some pumpkins, you may be done. Most some refining.The levels are plainly visible, but they are not very subtle. Using a dremel, knife or clay carving tool, smooth out the edges and cut marks by scraping away at the pumpkin flesh. This is surprisingly easy! Just squint as you're doing and try to look at the whole face every once in a while. Doing this in a dark room with the flashlights on inside the pumpkin helps.

Save the pumpkin goo that you create as you scrape. If you cut too deep, you can always take some of the pumpkin goo and add material back on top.

Use a bamboo skewer or ice pick to poke all the way through the pumpkin wall to add the whites of the eyes. Go a little easy on the teeth, otherwise they get too white.

Step 10: Share and Enjoy...

When you are satisfied enough, display for all to enjoy. Usually I spend about 4 hours on each pumpkin. Most pumpkins carved this way will last several days before they start to go moldy. October is cool and wet in my region so I just leave them outside. If you are in a drier climate, I suggest you wrap them in cling wrap or put them in the fridge. If they get too dry, the flesh will not be as translucent. That is easily remedied by a quick spritz from a water bottle or lightly scraping away the top layer of pumpkin flesh.

Congrats! I hope you enjoy and would love to see some of your finished products.



    • Beauty Tips Contest

      Beauty Tips Contest
    • Pets Challenge

      Pets Challenge
    • Backyard Contest

      Backyard Contest

    8 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Awesome pumpkins - this doesn't seem too hard so I'm saving it for next year! What kind of pumpkins do you use?

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    No particular variety, just anything that had tall sides to maximize photo area. You can even use ones with warts or scar (as long as they don't go too deep) because you are removing surface material.


    Interesting. I never thought about making a jack o lantern of me. I might have to try that next year.

    1 reply