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Ray Villafane, Pumpkin Carving Artist--quite possibly the best pumpkin carver in the world. Villafane hails from New York, born in 1969, currently living in Michigan but traveling worldwide.
Villafane has worked for DC Comics from 2006, sculpting countless action figures and collectible statues over the years--and works around the world, with Villafane additionally creating masterpiece sand sculptures in addition to his famed Halloween pumpkin carvings. Since 2007, Villafane has won the Food Network Pumpkin Carving Challenge contest and remains defender of the food channel's top title.
Ray Villafane was contacted by a professional sand sculpting company--never having been involved in sand sculpture previously--invited to to participate in the Jesolo, Italy, annual sand sculpting competition project for the holidays in late 2008. The artist had never sculpted in sand, but in November 2008, traveled to Italy and created his first sand sculptures.
Ray Villafane's sand sculptures--like his Halloween pumpkin carving techniques and artistry--are exceptional, unequaled.
Villafane will again be competing for the Food Network's pumpkin carving challenge this October 30 to defend his title. The artist's spent every October of the past 15 years in his basement studio—and his sculpting talent is reinventing the art of pumpkin carving. Expert carvers know that the professionals use sculpting tools to carve those gourds—not knives. Villafane can transform a pumpkin, any pumpkin, into a work of art in just hours. Maybe 8 hours to be a bit more exact. A work of art takes time, but the master carver's actually quite fast: Villafane can "block out" the initial design for his pumpkin in literally minutes. Video of Ray Villafane's blocking out process entitled "Pumpkin Carving" and the pumpkin master's newest creations--added almost daily before Halloween--are viewable at "Pumpkin Carving" from Ray Villafane's Facebook page.
Ray Villafane is also giving back to the world, in more ways than one: the Halloween pumpkin artist teaches kids how to carve--one pumpkin at a time--routinely visiting schools in order to teach young children his master carving techniques.
It’s no accident that schools—and teaching children to carve—is a high priority to the pumpkin carving master. A former grade school teacher, Villafane has quit his “day job”, to sculpt pumpkins, sand sculptures and toys on a full-time basis. Villafane also currently creates models for toy companies.
"If you want to make [carve] a good pumpkin you have to push the limits," Villafane says.
A true Halloween pumpkin carving genius, Ray Villafane’s the best in his field. Villafane's sculpting abilities, and pumpkin creations, are reminiscent of Disneyland's best—in fact, the faces his carvings are on par with the beloved Disney "Haunted House" singing faces.
Yes, RayVillafane's the "best" but he keeps it humble. Like most artists—armed with a tendency toward “perfection”—the pumpkin carver says he’s rarely satisfied with anything he does, despite the fact that those lucky enough to view his work are in awe. While the perfectionism may drive his wife crazy at time, Villafane claims the perfectionism to be a healthy neurosis. That message, in fact, is what the carver conveys to kids he instructs:the idea that, no matter what you do, to be great you can't ever think you are.
A few tips for Halloween pumpkin carvers armed with any level of expertise:
A squeaky clean pumpkin means all that carving work will actually last--for up to two weeks or longer, depending on how well you choose to preserve that masterpiece. The first step, to a pumpkin carving that actually lasts, is a clean pumpkin--but throwing that pumpkin under a running tap isn’t the best way to clean your gourd, and can actually lead to mold growth before the carve even begins.
So how exactly do you clean your Halloween pumpkin--without making it mold? Removing dirt from the exterior means avoiding bacteria transfer to the pumpkin's inside. The best and most effective method for cleaning pumpkins includes a damp paper towel, a little (gentle) elbow grease, and some patience. Wipe down the entire exterior surface of your future jack-o'-lantern carefully, making sure to include some elbow grease in thoroughly cleaning all grooves and removing as much dirt and grime as possible from the pumpkin's surface. Make sure not to undermine your own efforts—ideally, clean that pumpkin a day or two in advance, not right before you carve, to ensure ample dry time. If you haven't got an extra couple of days, give the pumpkin at least a couple of hours to thoroughly dry. If the pumpkin's flesh is still moist from cleaning its exterior, that moisture will be transferred to the inside--through knives and cutting tools--and can inadvertently cause mold growth to begin immediately.
Pumpkin carving utensils themselves should be clean, sharp and dry. The least dirt, on the exterior of the pumpkin, avoids transfer of bacteria to the inside while carving. Just as important, those carving tools need to be sharp. Duller knives or tools cause the pumpkin to “weep” where it’s been cut or carved, leading to shriveled edges on the carve, and starting the mold process.
A sharp blade and carving tools result in a better, more professional end result, but also “traumatizes” the surrounding area less. Too much pressure, from a dull blade, can force fluids to the surface and aid in quicker decomposition of your art piece. The fewer the major cuts required for larger areas, and the cleaner and sharper the cuts, the longer your jack-o'-lantern will naturally last after being carved.
While professional pumpkin carvers use sharp blades and even kitchen utensils to maintain sharp carvings for less wilt of the gourd, manufacturers of woodworking kits do sell pumpkin carving kits that use similar blades or virtually identical blades to those required for using with wood. One of the most well-known pumpkin carving kits that offers professional blades is made by a manufacturer of carving sets and blades for wood carvers: The Warren Professional Pumpking Carving Set can be purchased at online retailers like Distinctive Edge Cutlery or the Warren Cutlery Pumpkin Carving Set that comes with 6 blades is available at Knife Center. Though these sets can be hard to find, the listed retailers do not include an exhaustive list and hold no affiliation. Several retailers normally carry the carver's set near Halloween. Shipping costs also very per online. Please remain aware that carving sets like those from Warren Cutlery are intended for adults only (adept ones) and (unless you've got a true prodigy on your hands who you feel comfortable in personally supervising at your own risk), the kits or blades should never be given to or accessed by children for use in any manner.
Wondering what difference a pumpkin gutting can make to preserve the life of your 'jack'? That difference is life and “death”—properly gutting your pumpkin will provide it with many extra days. Simply removing the interior, gooey parts of the pumpkin won’t cut it. Make your jack-o'-lanterns last days longer and preserve it naturally, simply by ensuring that the interior of that gourd is scooped down to a clean and “dry” looking state. It’s vital to be thorough in gently scraping the walls of any excess goo and moisture. The goal is to make the interior pumpkin walls as smooth as possible. Pumpkin scraping tools are commonly found at drug stores, or contained in kits, however large metal spoons—with shorter handles—easily do the trick. Remove all scrapings and pieces thoroughly. The inside of your pumpkin should have no "hanging" parts or pieces and should feel smooth to the touch.
Some expert pumpkin carvers scrape down the interior wall further than a simple "clean" state, to deliberately “thin” the wall that’s going to be carved. Thinning down the interior pumpkin wall can make the carve itself easier, allowing a less deep carving needed when creating the design. While they may be harder to physically break through, thicker walls for your gourd can actually add superior dimension and depth when you finally light up your masterpiece. Thinner walls can also lead to a quicker decomposition and withering of your carving, thicker walls maintaining more moisture to naturally preserve your jack-o'-lantern's integrity.
Whether freehand or using a template, there’s easier ways than those pushpins when it comes to creating those designs. For the best expert carve, use a non-permanent marker in either the brown or red color range, to sketch out your design on the pumpkin. Most of that marker will naturally be carved off during the process, and that's the goal--but any excess of a non-permanent or dry-erase type of marker is easy to remove. Any leftover marks can easily be removed in simples swipes, with a lightly damp paper towel, after you've finished carving. Reds and brown colors blend with natural coloring of the pumpkin, easier to remove than darker or less blending colors like green or blue.
Expert pumpkin carvers most frequently use tools including power electric Dremel kits and woodworking or linoleum tools for carving. For sharp detail in a pumpkin carving, X-Acto sells kits and individual, separate handles, linoleum and woodworking blades. Sharp and specific blades work "magic" on the softer pumpkin flesh and create detail that can't be achieved through using standard knives alone. Good quality, sharp, paring knives can be used in place of specialty woodworking or linoleum blades--the smaller knives excellent for touching up detail and creating depth along major cuts, to create dimension.
The longstanding question for pumpkin carvers is exactly how to make that pumpkin last after it's been carved.
Pumpkin carving masters argue over the best tips and "tricks" to preserve pumpkins, including preservation methods involving bath dips and cooler or refrigerator storage for jack-o'-lanterns. The more cuts involved with a jack-o'-lantern carving, the more susceptible the pumpkin becomes to the natural decomposition process of sagging, shriveling and mold. If your carving is intricate, it's especially vital to choose a method to preserve your carved gourd for as long as possible. Preserving any carved pumpkin is a good idea, particularly to enjoy your creation for as long as possible--for intricate designs, pumpkin preservation is vital.
Below are the most popular, tried-and-tested methods to preserve cut pumpkins:
The simplest method of pumpkin preservation involves common sense: any carved pumpkin must be kept out of the natural elements, particularly sun and increased moisture levels. Exposure to sun, during daylight hours, stimulates mold growth for any carving. Shift your pumpkins to a shady or covered spot, or better yet, indoors to the most moderate climate during those daytime hours. Similarly, overly moist climates, during nighttime hours, can also lead to a quick demise for carved pumpkins--creating mold growth quickly. For any locale which experiences nighttime fog or heavy moisture levels--including beach cities or areas nearby--move those jack-o'-lanterns indoors, to moderate temperatures, after they've been enjoyed each night.
Use Vaseline to preserve carved pumpkins: Pumpkin carvers across the globe claim that petroleum jelly works magic for carved creations, with just a single application. The Vaseline method for preservation can be a bit goopy if you plan to transport or move your pumpkin, in and out frequently. The upside of using Vaseline for preserving is that it's easily found in most households, or simple and inexpensive to purchase. Apply a generous scoop of Vaseline to the inside of your pumpkin, and on all of its cut parts and edges, to keep your gourd mold-free. Carvers claim that Vaseline does preserve carved pumpkins for many days longer than no treatment alone. Depending on weather conditions and humidity of climate, Vaseline treatment can preserve a carved jack-o'-lantern for up to weeks. If using Vaseline, it's vital to ensure that each part of the exposed pumpkin is treated, inside and out. For small, detailed parts of the carving, a trick is to use Q-Tips to apply the Vaseline into carved details. Vaseline preservation works more effectively when application occurs as closely as possible to the completed carving.
Refrigerate your carved pumpkin to make it last. Most pumpkin carvers won’t find this method of jack-o'-lantern preservation to be quite so simple—particularly with large gourds. Finding space in the frig can be tricky. Advocates of the refrigeration methods say to spray your entire pumpkin with water, and store it in the frig overnight, and each night after it's displayed. Making your pumpkin last, through refrigeration, works best with smaller-sized or medium-sized pumpkins, and in areas where cold temps hit particularly hard. Refrigeration helps maintain proper moisture levels of pumpkins, to help avoid problems like shriveling, wrinkling, and mold.
Cover your Halloween masterpiece in plastic, a trick that many carvers swear by to preserve carved jack-o'-lanterns and make the carvings last. Wrapping your jack-o'-lantern up tightly--nightly--in clear plastic like Saran Wrap, maintains moisture levels and freshness, helping preserve the pumpkin's integrity and battle mold growth.
The Pumpkin Dunk'N or "Pumpkin Embalmer" Kit is one of the more unusual products on the market--said to make a pumpkin carving last for up to 21 days. The kit is designed to extend a pumpkin’s life with a small packet of “pumpkin preserver”. The preserver is mixed with fresh water, soaking the pumpkin for a straight 24 hours following. Pumpkin Dunk'N now also goes by the trademarked name of Pumpkin Embalmer and the product may have more recently changed in format but the goal is the same: the kit essentially "embalms" a carved pumpkin--to seriously battle jack-o’-lantern fatigue and “killers” like sagging, wrinkling, and wilting which can normally occur with time and display. Pumpkin Embalmer is said to effectively combat mold and fungus growth that otherwise occurs, but use does change the look of your jack-o'-lantern a bit: after Pumpkin Embalmer treatment, your pumpkin will appear more like it’s made of plastic or acrylic and less "natural". The kit has received rave reviews from carvers and is now sold under the name of Dr. Frybrain's "Pumpkin Embalmer" (previously marketed under the Pumpkin Dunk'N name). Use claims a lifetime longer than pretty much any other pumpkin preservation product: up to a mind-blowing three weeks of preserved life for your carved jack-o'-lantern.
Products like “Pumpkin Fresh”--sold in spray bottles--are still available to treat carved pumpkins. The Pumpkin Fresh product is a spray designed to preserve carvings and can help make jack-o'-lanterns last. The trick with sprays, however, is to ensure that treatments remain relatively light. While carved pumpkins must maintain moisture in order to last, too much moisture equals mold—and mold growth with pumpkins can kill any great carving, in just a matter of hours. The premise behind Pumpkin Fresh is to maintain pumpkins' moisture levels--maintaining moisture does not mean making the carving overly wet, so keep any treatments frequent and light. In climates with high humidity levels, other pumpkin preservation methods are suggested.
Maniac Pumpkin Carvers in New York has its own trick to preserve carved pumpkins, to give those jack-o'-lanterns an extended life. While the company did not create the preservation trick, it has proven effectiveness of lemon juice use. Carvings by Maniac Pumpkin Carvers run up to $200 a pop, and their carving creations are said to last two weeks. The company carves about 300 pumpkins each Halloween season for customers, including work for customers like Yankee Stadium. Other carving experts agree that lemon juice treatments best preserve a carved pumpkin: after that “carve” is complete, a quick, light spraydown of lemon juice cut with water will effectively preserve a carved pumpkin and provide it approximately two weeks of life.
To use the lemon juice preservation method for carved pumpkins, you need only a spray bottle and fresh lemon. Lemon juice and water should be mixed in about equal 50/50 percentages, the solution then sprayed on both the interior and exterior of your carved pumpkins--including all cut surfaces. Like any preservation method for jack-o'-lanterns, the key to preserving is to ensure proper and complete coverage of the entire pumpkin. Possible (and inevitable) mold growth tends to hit the most carved and exposed areas of the pumpkin first--typically targeting the most intricate areas of design in a carving. Like use of any spray, a pumpkin should never be made overly wet during the treatment process to preserve. Simultaneously, it is crucial to properly cover and treat every cut and exposed part of your pumpkin carving design. True for any method to preserve, pumpkins should be treated with the lemon juice and water spray as soon as the carving is complete.
The lemon juice pumpkin preservation method is said to extend the life of carved 'jacks' significantly--lemon ranks among the absolute most effective pumpkin preservation methods, most effective of all of the natural methods. The lemon spray treatment should preserve your carving for about 14 days minimum.
Illuminating your carved masterpiece with the best method will significantly extend the life of your pumpkin. Halloween pumpkin carvers who plan to light their pumpkins traditionally, by candle, must ensure that jack-o'-lanterns have a proper chimney. Carve or create a small hole on the pumpkin topside, to the back of the lid and opposite the carving, to allow heat and any smoke from lit candles to escape. Forgetting to include a chimney will literally bake your carving and cause a "meltdown".
Traditional white candles in glass light up your jack-o'-lantern like nothing else--using real candles is truly the best for creating the absolute brightest level of illumination for pumpkin designs. Carvers need to be wary of using small tealights. Tealight candles, and their metal containers, conduct heat through the metal--that metal sits directly on your gourd's base and will literally bake your pumpkin, causing your masterpiece an untimely death. One of the most cost-effective lighting methods is the use of a simple, white candle, encased in glass--like those used for Jewish holidays and found at most grocery stores for about a buck. Each candle lights for about three nights.
A candle alternative is the Pumpkin Lights brand of LED lighting, now found online or at most drugstores. Pumpkin Lights change illumination, in a rainbow alternation between seven colors, and beautifully illuminate most sized carvings. For large to extra-large pumpkins--or for two-sided carvings--two Pumpkin Lights can be used to make the carving even brighter. LED lighting is less bright than using traditional candles to light pumpkins, but many parents consider the LEDs best and safest for kids. If your jack-o'-lantern's a biggie, candles do physically light a larger space more effectively, making designs and carvings brighter. LEDs work best when used with smaller to medium-sized jack-o'-lanterns, or larger pumpkins with smaller carvings over the surface area. The more surface area that your carving spans, the brighter the lighting type required for jack-o'-lanterns.
The upside with LED Pumpkin Lights, now also available in pure white as well as the rainbow color-changing, is the safety factor--the downside with Pumpkin Lights, batteries. Plan on extra batteries in advance. Three AAA batteries are required per light unit, each battery set lasting for approximately two nights of extended lighting.
The newest method for lighting carved pumpkins is actually electrical: winding a white strand of traditional Christmas lights around an empty glass jar. Any jar can be used--among the easiest, an empty olive jar or jam jar. Carve a small hole in the pumpkin, for exit of the light strand, near the backside base of your pumpkin. If using a light strand, be sure to cut the exit hole out of line of vision--and plan a hole large enough for the actual plug to fit through that hole, not simply the cord. Done correctly, the pumpkin's exit hole for the electrical light strand should not interfere or be visible from the lit side of your carving. When your carving is complete, simply insert the jar wound lighting in the pumpkin, and plug in the wound strand. Wound, electrical Christmas lights work well--casting light 360 degrees to create even illumination, while not overly heating your carved pumpkin. Learn how to light a pumpkin with Martha Stewart, the electric way.
For the brave and mechanically--or electrically--inclined, Martha Stewart Socket Lighting for pumpkins is a bright way to make that pumpkin shine.