Try searching for “pumpkin carvings” on sites like Pinterest or Instagram and you’ll find countless carvings that will completely amaze you. But the best pumpkin carvings you’ve seen online were all probably carved by one person, Noel Dickover. Noel has been practicing the art of extreme pumpkin carving since the early 2000s, but he gained international notoriety after his pumpkin carving of the Star Wars Death Star was voted by WIRED‘s readers as the geekiest Jack-o’-Lantern in 2007.
Countless news organizations have featured Noel’s Halloween pumpkin carvings through the years. But we wanted to know more about the man behind the curtain. Here’s our interview with the wizard of pumpkin carving, Noel Dickover.
Your Halloween pumpkin carvings are legendary online. They’ve been featured everywhere from WIRED to Business Insider. Where did your passion for carving pumpkins come from? Were you previously a decorative woodworker or something?
Nope, nothing like that. I have always been artistic in nature. I play several musical instruments. I’ve also gotten interested in interior decorating and room design (including fantasy rooms of course!).
Do you remember your very first elaborate Halloween pumpkin carving? Do you still have a picture of it?
My first truly difficult carve, early in my pumpkin carving journey was Uncle Sam in 2001. At the time, it felt like brain surgery. I was sure the face was going to fall off.
But what was really interesting about this, two months after 9/11, nobody commented on Uncle Sam. Nobody looked at it, at all. People coming to our house wanted to talk about Scooby-Doo and Power Rangers. They didn’t want reality. For that reason, I’ve rarely ever done non-fantasy pumpkin carvings since. My website FantasyPumpkins.com definitely fits for me. My carvings call to what trick or treaters, including older sci-fi buffs would care about.
My first actual elaborate pumpkin carving was the Mickey Mouse vs. Chernabog scene from the 1940 movie Fantasia that I carved in 2008.
Earlier that year I found a Disney coffee mug and decided I absolutely needed to carve it. I bought an expensive hand scanner, spent like 12 hours on a pattern, and then went to work on the carving.
Where do you find inspiration before carving pumpkins?
Its a combination of what I’m interested in and what I think people coming to my door on Halloween night might be interested in. So, the Baby Shark carves my wife did, in that case, will most likely be hit with the kids.
But I’m playing Borderlands 3 at the moment, so that will certainly inspire a few Borderlands carves.
What pumpkin carving tools do you typically use? Do you ever use templates or stencils?
I use V wedge and U wedge cutting tools. In terms of handles, and Exacto knife type blades, I mostly use Warren Cutlery.
In terms of templates, I stopped using them like 7-8 years ago. I do use pictures and picture elements. Or will add to existing things. My Metropolis pumpkin carving this year is a good example, where I augmented the iconic movie poster. Notice the additional buildings to the right.
How long does it usually take for you to carve one of your famous pumpkins? And what’s the most amount of time that you’ve ever spent carving a single pumpkin?
The most time I ever spent, was 30+ hours for my Where the Wild Things Are pumpkin carving in 2009. That pumpkin was completely carved 360º all around. It was really difficult in that you couldn’t rest the back of the pumpkin on anything because there was a carve you could ruin. Really no fun carving but came out wonderfully. It’s definitely one of my best pumpkin carvings.
What does your family think about your obsession with carving pumpkins? Do they like to help?
My family will tell you their best memories of our family time was sitting around the kitchen table every year for close to a month. Both of my kids and wife are excellent carvers. My daughter is now in art college. My son carved this Mario Party carve earlier this year.
How many pumpkins do you and your family normally carve each year?
Lots more before the kids moved off to college! We were up to like 50 a year with family and friends. We’ll be lucky to hit 30 this year. Most likely will be in the 20s.
I’m assuming not all of your pumpkin carvings are perfect. How many pumpkins do you mess up and set aside each year?
I think I’ve only ever messed up and set aside one pumpkin. It was a 3D sculpture of a hand holding an eye – that was about 7 years ago. I just didn’t have time to do it. Super glue is your friend, btw. I still make minor mess-ups, but can usually just change what I was planning to do from an artistic sense to accommodate the mess up. But I generally don’t make mistakes on basic detailing and lining things. Most have a lot of stress over cutting too far on detailing – I generally have enough confidence in the basics that I can go pretty quickly without too many errors there.
Case in point for an error last night, my very first cut on this pumpkin (inside the bottom left claw instead of outside the line) led me to decide to do an upper light source on the underwater dragon carve. Hopefully, it worked out as a decision.
What happens to all of the pumpkin guts? Does your family make a ton of pumpkin pies every year and roast the seeds or something?
Usually, we just save the seeds and sautee them in maple syrup and fresh, ground cinnamon. We did make pumpkin soup the other day. But for the most part its a production operation.
Is carving pumpkins just a hobby or have you found ways to monetize it? For example, have you ever been hired to carve custom pumpkins for brands, events or other organizations?
Carving pumpkins is a major money-losing operation for me. I have turned down tons of paid pumpkin carving jobs over the years. I carve specifically to get rid of stress from the real world. Adding the stress of pricing, selling and everything else that would be involved, sort of defeats that.
Out of the thousands of carvings that you’ve done over the years, what are some of your best pumpkin carvings?
There are a few pumpkins which I really liked immediately after carving them. There’s usually less than one a year. Sometimes it will take me a few years to get over whatever minor mistakes (that only I will notice) that I made.
Mickey Mouse Sorcerer going down the whirlpool from last year sort of fits that criteria. I really like that pumpkin carving even after the minor mistakes that I made.
And I really love the iron pot texture in this Sleeping Beauty witch carving. A lot of people ask me how I did this pumpkin carving specifically. It came out amazing in person.
So it’s usually a texture or effect that just works out that really excites me. In other cases, it’s the circumstances. Sometimes my best carves are done under time pressure. This Frozen pumpkin carving s a good example. I only had 6 hours to do it.
And this Zombie Awakening pumpkin carving from 2012 is still one of my favs. It’s another example of a pumpkin carving that was done on Halloween Day.
Which pumpkin is your most famous, the Death Star?
In total media attention? Definitely the Death Star. My tutorial for the Star Wars Death Star pumpkin still sends tons of traffic to my website. But for a one week splash, probably my R2-D2 pumpkin. It had around 10,000 links on the internet just a few days after carving.
When pumpkins are out of season, do you carve other fruits and vegetables?
I have carved a few Death Star watermelons at late-night campfires in the past. They still have three colors.
Will, there ever be a day when you hang up your pumpkin carving tools and move on, or do you see yourself carving forever?
Well, my eyes are going and I get lots more wrist pain, so I can definitely see slowing down. Or using larger magnifying glasses!
Finish This Sentence: I want everyone reading this right now to…
Stop relying on all the lines in a carving template, and instead start playing with textures. Each pumpkin allows different textures. Experiment on the back of your pumpkin, but take some risks!
Carving Pumpkins With Noel Dickover
Thanks for reading our interview with legendary pumpkin carver Noel Dickover. You can see photos of all of Noel’s pumpkins online at FantasyPumpkins.com and connect with him on social media.