Thirty More Seconds in Delaware: An interview with pumpkin carver Ken Dill of Wilmington

Ken Dill, 50, of Wilmington, is an accomplished pumpkin carver who has won a number of titles at the annual Chadds Ford Great Pumpkin Carve. Dill plans to unveil a new design at this year’s carve (Oct. 27-29): a special tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.

DT: How long have you been a serious carver?
KD: Since about 1994, when my daughter was 8. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. I ran across some tools in the back of a magazine and my wife got them for me for Christmas. The kit had small saws. I used the pattern and we thought it was pretty cool. I can draw, so I started making my own patterns. The rest is history.

DT: You make your own patterns?
KD: For a short time, I put together how-to books with my designs and patterns, had them self-printed and sold them at Happy Harry’s, A.C. Moore and local hobby shops. I have over 100 designs. I made enough money to keep me in pumpkins.

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DT: So it sounds like your daughter is your inspiration?
KD: She was my chief inspector and appraiser of new designs. I would say, “Alex, does this look like a dragon?” And she would say, “No, the horns need to be longer.” She also named them all.

DT: How many pumpkins do you carve each season?
KD: At the height I was doing 100-120 a season. At my house, I had 20 to 25 of them for a Halloween display. People come to see the pumpkins rather than get candy on Halloween.

DT: What’s your favorite part of carving?
KD: The best part is doing a new design. You never know what it’s going to look like until you light it up and the little shadows appear. When I’m drawing a design, it’s more of an X-ray than a painting, in my mind. I have to see things in reverse—where the light’s going to be and where the dark’s going to be.

DT: My kids can’t stand the odor when we cut the pumpkin open. Is that a problem for you?
KD: No. If it’s old, like other fruit, it can have more of a smell. Maybe I’m immune to it after all these years.

DT: Tell me about the Great Pumpkin Carve.
KD: I’ve done Chadds Ford for 11 or 12 years. I’ve won three different times. One Best Overall, one for Most Halloween and one for Most Original. It was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It was a silhouette of Quasimodo in the bell tower with bats flying around and two gargoyles sitting on either side of the window.

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DT: Got any good tips?
KD: The saw is the key. If you use something sharp, the pumpkin will split. I have a 1/16th –inch saw that makes really small cuts and creates a 3D look by just letting a little light through. You shouldn’t feel like you’re cheating to use a pattern and kit. When you’re doing the actual carving, don’t punch them out until they are all carved out. It’s kind of an unveiling. I call all of mine a world premiere.

DT: How fast are you?
KD: A good scooper makes it easier to get the stuff out. I can start with the complete pumpkin, cut it and hollow it out in five minutes. I’m also pretty clean. My wife demands that I not mess up the kitchen. That’s the only way I could continue my hobby. (laughs)

DT: What makes you a good carver?
KD: I’m a physical therapist and I have a steady hand. Also, I’ve underestimated the strength in my hands. It’s a huge asset. I’ve met people who have had problems carving because they weren’t strong enough. For people who don’t have that, it’s hard to push and pull the little saw.

DT: Do you grow your own pumpkins?
KD: No. I go to garden shops that have them. They all know me. I basically inspect every pumpkin they have. I need the skin to be smooth and for the pumpkin to be able to stand up straight. There are different varieties. One has a translucent skin that light shows through a little bit. I’ll pull off 10 or 12 pumpkins and get a wagon, then pick the best five or six.

DT: What’s your favorite type of pie?
KD: To be honest, a really, really good apple pie. Pumpkin is probably No. 2.

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DT: Is World Championship Punkin Chunkin a good use of pumpkins?
KD: If they end up composting the field and animals eat them, sure. I’ve been known to toss some of my pumpkins into Brandywine Woods so the squirrels will eat them.

DT: Do you believe in the Great Pumpkin?
KD: Yes. Charlie Brown…and Santa Claus and all that other stuff. You’ve gotta be a kid at heart to do this. People who find it boring or beneath them, I feel sorry for them. If you can’t have fun, lighten up. There’s too many bad things in this world.

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