Competition Corner: For The Win

Champions and judges share their hard-won wisdom for taking top honors in Sculptured Nails. See what they have to say and what to work towards now.

By Alexa Joy Sherman

It may feel like nail competitions have been around forever, but they might not be what they are today if not for the Sculptured NailS     category. “This is the one that started it all—the granddaddy of competitions!” says NAILPRO Competitions global director Jewell Cunningham. It’s also one of the best events for techs who want to take their careers to the next level. “If you can sculpt well with acrylic or gel, you can figure out how to do every other type of nail,” notes Cunningham.

Two-time NAILPRO Cup champion Amy Becker agrees, adding, “This competition helps you elevate the quality of your sculptured nails in the salon, which can allow you to raise your prices—and it’s a great way to sharpen your skills if you’re interested in doing magazine covers or becoming an educator.” What does it take to ace the competition itself? There are a lot of requirements, but insiders offer the following insights.

Competition Corner

Prep Pointers

As with any other category, practice is imperative—and since you’ll have two and a half hours during the competition, you should make at least a few practice sessions that exact duration. “Don’t let anyone talk to you while you’re practicing,” says Cunningham. “You need total concentration.” Try to do three or four full sets during the two-week period right before the competition, suggests NAILPRO Competitions judge Carla Collier. While practicing, determine how much time you’ll need for each step. “The more you practice, the  better you’ll get a feel for how long you’ll need for application, filing, polish and shining,” says 2015 NAILPRO Cup champion Allie Baker. “Keep an eye on the clock and try to stay within your timeline.”

One crucial skill to master, says Collier, is achieving the right liquid-to-powder ratio with your acrylic. “It’s  important to have good product control, and this means no air bubbles,” she says. She also recommends working on applying the entire white tip for the unpolished hand in one bead, and getting the same thickness from one nail to the next. “It’s really important to apply the same pressure and to have the same consistency of the product,” says Collier. “When I didn’t have anyone to practice on, I would take a form and bend it around a C-curve stick and then I would practice my pressure with the brush, as well as getting the consistency of the white product.”

Collier also says it’s a good idea to look at photos online and see how the moons on competition and natural nails look compared to the tip. “A lot of times competitors make the moons too white or too big,” Collier notes. “I suggest following along with your model’s moons if she has them. If she doesn’t, try mixing natural and white powder, and then probably the tiniest amount of pink possible to give it a softer, more natural tone.” At the end of each practice session, compare your nails to photos of winning sets, paying attention to areas where you could improve. “If you can find [an   image of] a set of sculptured nails by Tom Holcomb, that will show you everything,” says Cunningham.

Timing Tips

Two and a half hours may sound like a lot of time, but you’ll still want to be efficient wherever possible—and that starts with your setup in the arena. “Make sure you have everything laid out and within reach,” Cunningham says. “Taking 30 seconds to grab one thing out of your case can throw your time off.”

Collier suggests beginning with the nails on the polished hand. “This allows you to get warmed up for the more precise smile lines you’ll need on the pink-and-whites hand,” she explains. Becker also emphasizes the importance of sticking to the time for each step that you predetermined while practicing. “You will be tempted to go over a practiced time to try and perfect a certain step, but if you go over your practice times, you either won’t finish or you won’t finish well,” she says. “Your scores will always be higher if you finish, even if that means finishing with imperfections.”

Gear Guidance

When selecting your products and tools, first be aware of what you’re not permitted to use. For NAILPRO Competitions Sculptured Nails events, you may only use liquid-and-powder acrylic or light-cured products in sheer pink, clear and white—cover pinks are not allowed, nor are embellishments of any kind. No plastic-type molds may be used to form the sculptured nail. Further, you cannot use inverted tips or any “cookie cutter” products to form or assist in making smile lines—they must be done with a brush by hand, and paint-on white is not allowed. Base coat, ridge filler, and top coat are not permitted, either. For the finishing touches, you cannot use electric files or buffers. Also, cleansing products (i.e., soaps), moisturizing products, (i.e., oils, creams, lotions) and bowls with anything in them (i.e., marbles or rocks) are not allowed.

So what can you use? Start with great forms; Baker likes wide paper ones with a great C-curve and sidewalls. “Wider forms help to get a nice, straight extension,” she explains. She also loves C-curve sticks: “They allow me to mold the acrylic around them, making sure the curves are even.” Although some competitors like pinching tools, such as tweezers, to press the C-curves, both Baker and Collier prefer to use their thumbs. “I can mold the whole nail instead of ‘pinching’ the sides in,” Baker explains.

For the polished nails, Collier suggests white acrylic mixed with a natural shade so that it still appears white, but the line of demarcation from the smile line doesn’t show through the lacquer. When working on the pink-and-whites, Collier suggests having two dappen dishes—one for the white powder and one for the pink. “This keeps the pink from becoming cloudy,” she explains. “Pour only enough liquid in the dish to do one or two nails at a time.” Be sure to have at least two brushes for product application, too.

You’ll also want a lot of files and buffers. “Using new files and buffers on each nail is important for consistency, because the grit of the file changes every time you use it,” says Collier, who suggests a 100-grit file to shape the sidewalls and tips, then a 150- to 180-grit file for the surfaces. Collier also likes a finishing stick buffer with a thick foam center for all surfaces, and recommends laying buffers, highest-grit side down, on a heating pad. “The warmth will save you time and energy so you can create a marvelous shine,” she says. “Start with the 240-grit side, then flip it over and cover all surfaces using the 280-grit side.”

Arena Advice

When the big day arrives, Cunningham suggests getting to the competition early so you can stake out a good spot and set up. Bring a checklist that includes all your supplies, as well as rules to remember and mark everything off as you go.

When applying color to the polished hand, use long strokes and brush over the free edge for complete coverage, says Collier. “Use the same stroke on every single nail, and use your acrylic brush to clean up around the cuticle with acetone—this makes a perfect margin and removes any polish that may have splashed underneath the nail,” she notes. For perfect pink-and-whites, focus on creating sharp and complete smile lines. “Be sure the curvature is the same on all five fingers,” says Collier. “Be aware of the pressure that you apply with your brush—many times I’ve seen smile lines that were consistent, but leaned to one side.”

Keep those nails clean, too, spraying away all traces of dust after the acrylic is applied and you’ve filed all nails. “You’ve got to clean the nails really well before you apply polish to the polished hand, and then again after you buff on the high-shine hand,” says Collier. “If you have time at the end—although most people don’t—you can also take a pointed Q-tip and put some acetone or water and clean underneath the nails. But you have to be careful touching the skin with acetone or it could look too dry.”

Winning Wisdom

There’s an extensive list of skills that Sculptured Nails will be judged on, from smile lines and C-curves to product control and polish application. “Of all the criteria, what will blow the judges away is consistency in each category,” says Becker. “For example, it’s not the set with the deepest smile lines that wins—it’s the set with the identical smile lines.” Cunningham agrees that it’s about balance and continuity. “The nails that are the thinnest, with the pink the clearest, the white the whitest, and the pink and white ratios equal—that’s the ultimate,” Cunningham says. “When you’re judging this category and you get to that set, your stomach does a little turn over in excitement. There is nothing as beautiful as a perfectly sculpted nail!”


Alexa Joy Sherman is a freelance writer and editor in Los Angeles.

What do you think of these competition tips for nailing your next round? Let us know in the comments below!

[Images: Courtesy of Allie Baker]

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