Extreme NW carver creates spooky, spectacular pumpkins

SEATTLE - Jack-o'-lanterns have been a Halloween staple for centuries, but it wasn't until recently that extreme pumpkin carving exploded across the country.

Northwest native Russ Leno has been carving pumpkins professionally for over 20 years. In that time, he's carved the "World's Largest Pumpkin" twice, made guest appearances with Martha Stewart and the Food Network, and even carved pumpkins for presidential candidates.

"It was just a matter of time," he says, for people to recognize the skill and artistry in carving. Twenty years ago, "there were like five of us in the business," Leno says. Now there are dozens, if not hundreds.

The perfect carve starts with picking the best pumpkin. Leno says it doesn't hurt to have a design in mind before heading to the patch or store.

Pick your pumpkin as close to harvest time as possible. Like any other fresh produce, pumpkins will continue to bruise the more they're handled, and will soften to the point of rotting.

"Go to the store when they first come in," Leno says, "Or go out into the farms."

Grocery store pumpkins are always a safe bet, and are good for the easier templates printed in carving kit books. The white pumpkins, or "ghost pumpkins," have become popular in recent years and are also good for templates. Prizewinners are the larger variety of pumpkins - often 100 pounds - and are softer. They can be bought at most pumpkin patches.

"I like the ones that stand tall, and are the shape of the seed," Leno says of his perfect pumpkin.

For carving tools, Leno uses inexpensive kitchen items that can be found at any big-box store. Fillet knives, small clay tools, a handsaw, and whisk broom, are all in Leno's toolbox. Carving kits are great for intricate designs, but may need to be supplemented with larger, sturdier blades as well.

Leno has carved pumpkins as big as 1,300 pounds, and says his most difficult carve was at the Puyallup Fair.

"Knowing it wasn't the strongest pumpkin," Leno recalls, "I did a dragon with a plane flying out of its mouth. It busted at the end of the day."

While carving two triangles and a semi-circle in a pumpkin is a far cry from Leno's most recent feat - a steampunk-style fish sitting on a tank, or a "fish tank" - he says the most important part is to have fun and get creative.

"Don't be discouraged by what you carve," Leno says. If you're not happy with that you have, put a damp towel over the pumpkin and come back to it later.

And remember, some pumpkins look better lit with candles, while others sit nicely during the day.

"Never be discouraged on your carve," Leno says again. "There's always more pumpkins."