The answer is: consistency, superior workmanship, flawless polish, appropriate length and shape, and a high finish.
Whether you’re a nail competitor or just want to improve your salon sculpting technique, understanding what impresses competition judges in a set of sculptured nails can only help you create nails that will impress your most discriminating salon client. The main difference between salon nails and competition nails is that competition nails need to last only through the awards ceremony.
Judges look for nails that are consistent from nail to nail and hand to hand, and that have a shape and length that complement the model’s hands. No matter how well-sculpted, a set will lose points for being too long if it doesn’t suit the model’s hands.
Competitors must show judges they can perform all aspects of a sculptured nail service equally well. Most competition rules require the nail technician to sculpt a full set of nails using white and pink powders, then to polish one hand and finish the other to a high shine.
Judges evaluate the overall nail structure, the finish on the unpolished hand, and the polish application on the polished hand when awarding points.
“Each competition has a different score sheet, but the majority are similar in that the judges are going to look at many of the same things,” says Victoria Sozio, owner of the Upper Cut in Washington Township, N.J., and a frequent judge and competitor. “Usually the nails are prejudged for difficulty – an easy hand will be scored zero or one point, and a difficult hand, such as a nail biter’s, will be scored a 10.”
At some competitions, the cleanliness of competitors’ work areas is judged, says Sozio. “The judges are looking to see overall neatness, how organized you are, and whether you’ve left all your containers open on your table and are filing over them.”
MASTER YOUR TECHNIQUE
Winning nails must score high in three basic categories: structure, finish, and polish.
A well-structured nail shows the judge that the competitor has mastered her product and technique. “Normally judges look at the concave and convex curves, product control, the cuticle area, workmanship, and consistency,” says Jewell Cunningham, a nail technician at Iris Color Collections in Downey, Calif., who serves as a competition director and judge. “Product control is how well the competitor was able to use the product.”
Looking at the top of the nail, judges check to be sure there are no air bubbles and that the white area is opaque, not marbled. A clean, natural-looking line between the white and pink will score high. The concave curve (underneath the nail) should have no pits or bubbles, and no extra product should be slipped over the edges. The convex curve, viewed from the side, should have a thinner cuticle area, a thicker stress area, and a thinner free edge.
In addition to the convex and concave curves, the groove walls (where the product leaves the finger on either side), stress point, and free edge are judged.
“The nails need to come straight out of the finger without dropping or going up,” says Debi Burger, owner of Not Just Nails in Mission Hills, Calif., and a four-year judge. “The stress point has to be in the right place, not too close to the cuticle or the free edge. The free edge needs to be extremely thin and even. If it’s on the polished hand, the edge needs to be polished.”
MAKE A COLOR DIFFERENCE
A color-consistent set of nails demonstrates that the competitor has mastered her product. Burger says, “I’m not picky about having a white white or pink pink, but there has to be a difference in color. The nails need to have a definition, but they don’t need to be as defined as some are.”
Madelyn McNeil, a nail technician at Nail Pazazz and one of the founders of Nails Information Network in Houston, Texas, adds, “I saw something once that was not my personal preference – a nail constructed of clear powder only. I took points off automatically because you could not tell where the free edge began.” She couldn’t judge the smoothness of the smile line either.
Like nail technicians, judges have varying opinions about nail shape, length, and degree of C-curve, but regardless of the nails’ style, it is consistency and how well the nail shape and length suits the hand that are more important than a judge’s personal preference.
“I feel the shape of the nail should be conducive to the hand,” says Sozio. “If the model has a nice slender hand, a square nail looks better; if it’s a short heavy hand, an oval nail would thin the hand out a little more. It’s up to the technician. There’s no absolute shape or length.”
Burger adds, “I like a nail with a 40% C-curve, but if it isn’t consistent on all hands, the competitor won’t win.”
Cunningham points out that because it’s difficult for judges to see a C-curve or convex curve on an oval nail, many competitors choose a square shape.
When competitors’ sculpting skills are fairly equal, it’s the nails’ finish that makes one nail technician place above another. While it takes only a few minutes to apply polish, a flawless polish application has a big impact on judges. Polish has to be perfect: There should be an even coat over the entire nail, a good cuticle flow line, and no polish underneath the nail, on the cuticle, or on skin.
Cunningham adds, “A lot of competitors don’t know how to polish. That one little category of polish can change their placement. They may flood the cuticle or make an uneven line around the cuticle. The polish should look like it’s airbrushed – no streaks. The entire nail needs to be covered from groove to groove and hairline tip to cuticle.”
The unpolished hand must look perfectly clean and natural. “The number one thing is neatness,” says Liz Fojon, owner of Phenomanails in Fair Lawn, N.J., and a three-year judge. “I hate sloppiness. The work has to be precise a far as the shape of the nail and the smoothness of the acrylic. The cuticles should be clean, with no acrylic on the cuticle or underneath the nail. I want a very finished look.”
Burger says, “I personally like the nails buffed to a high shine. The competitor should have buffed any scratches out.”
McNeil adds that she checks to be sure the product is applied about 1/8-inch from the cuticle, which she feels is the best placement.
“The acrylic should be thin near the cuticle,” says Cunningham. “The cuticle should be nice and clean, not cut or damaged in any way.”
TAKE A JUDGE’S ADVICE
Even if you’ve spent years perfecting your technique, competition can be keen. The nail technicians who move up in the world of competition have done so because they ask for a detailed critique from each judge. “It’s important to get critiqued,” says Burger. “Many competitors ask, ‘What did I do wrong?’ It’s not that they did anything wrong, it’s just that someone did a little better. It’s important to talk to all the judges because each has a different opinion and don’t all judge the same way.”
Adds Fojon, “People are taking competition more seriously and working harder at it. I don’t see any mistakes, but I see that there are people who don’t learn from competitions. You should learn by competing to do things better.”
Whatever it takes to win a competition – practice, criticism, and dedication to improving your technique – judges say don’t give up and don’t get discouraged. The persistent effort you put into improving competition nails will make you a winner in the salon as well.