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Image: Pumpkin carving with zipper
Ray Villafane
Boo! It's hard to look away from any of Ray Villafane's pumpkin carvings.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 10/27/2011 9:33:06 PM ET 2011-10-28T01:33:06

Every October, people can’t resist the pull of the pumpkin. Carvers go to work on their hand-picked gourds, eager to transform them into something spectacularly scary, or just plain spectacular.

Of course, in this life, there are pumpkin carvers and there are pumpkin carvers. And if pumpkin-carving were to become an Olympic event, Ray Villafane would be a contender for a gold medal.

The sculptor’s Halloween pumpkins are so hauntingly lifelike that they often inspire stunned silence and awe. He’s trounced competing carvers on TV on “Food Network Challenge: Outrageous Pumpkins,” and he’s attained a healthy fan base online.

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Not bad for a guy who’s allergic to pumpkin. (His skin and eyes get really itchy after a couple of days of carving.) It’s also pretty impressive considering that Villafane’s first pumpkin-carving attempt in his 20s was a disaster.

“Yeah, it was horrible. It didn’t work out at all,” recalled Villafane, 42. “I didn’t have the right tools. I used a spoon or something, you know? Really, really bad.”

From schoolteacher to sculptor
But Villafane didn’t give up. An experienced art teacher, he figured there must be a way to approach a pumpkin like a block of clay.

One day a student in the small rural school district where Villafane taught brought a big, homegrown pumpkin to class. He asked Villafane to take a stab at carving it.

“I gave it another try and it came out all right,” Villafane said. “The kids in the classroom all loved it and they started bringing in pumpkins for me. It got to the point where I would come into the school to teach, and I would have pumpkins lined up in front of my door with kids asking me, ‘Can you carve this for me?’ ‘Can you do this?’ ”

Image: Illustration showing how to choose a pumpkin for carving
Courtesy of Ray Villafane
Ray Villafane created this illustration to help would-be carvers pick the perfect pumpkin.

This went on for several years, giving Villafane the chance to practice carving plenty of pumpkins without having to pay for any of them. And at a certain point in his pumpkin-fueled journey, Villafane had an epiphany: He loved sculpting.

“I got turned on to sculpting as a different career choice,” Villafane said. “And it was good timing, too. My wife and I had five kids, and teaching just wasn’t cutting it financially.”

Photos: Ghoulishly grand carved pumpkins (on this page)

He began dabbling in wax and he started sculpting a wax figure of Wolverine from the movie “X-Men.”

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“I posted my in-progress pictures online and I got an e-mail from Marvel Comics wanting me to do it,” Villafane said. “My first practice piece was my first job. I’ve never stopped since. I never even had to do a portfolio.”

Villafane stopped teaching about seven years ago, and he’s been working from home and sculpting for Marvel, DC Comics, Warner Bros. and other outlets ever since. He’s created all sorts of collectible figurines from “Batman,” “Superman” and other beloved comic-book series, as well as collectibles from movies such as “Terminator,” “Ghost Rider” and “X-Men” and from the role-playing game World of Warcraft.

Three years ago Villafane also entered the sand-sculpting scene, and he’s been making a name for himself there as well. He placed in a World Championship of Sand Sculpting competition in Federal Way, Wash., and he’s done big sand-sculpting jobs in Italy and Moscow.

“One of the things that impresses me most about Ray is his ability to transcend mediums,” said Villafane’s colleague Andy Bergholtz, chief sculptor for Sideshow Collectibles in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “He is not limited by any material. The man could sculpt the statue of David out of a stick of butter.”

Image: Pumpkin carving of a Native American
Ray Villafane
Ray Villafane uses just one solid pumpkin to create each of his signature carvings. Occasionally he’ll use separate pumpkin meat to make an extra touch, like the feather on this carving of a Native American.

So you want to be a pumpkin carver?
Through all the changes in his career, Villafane hasn’t forgotten his love of pumpkins. Even though he doesn’t have as much time these days to devote to pumpkin-carving, he enjoys helping other carvers perfect their craft. He posted a pumpkin-carving tutorial on his website, and in it he shares a couple of key ground rules:

—When strolling through a pumpkin patch, stay on high alert for thick pumpkins. Of course, you can’t actually tell how thick a pumpkin is until you cut into it, but as a general rule, thick pumpkins are heavy pumpkins. “Pick up three pumpkins of the same size,” Villafane advised. “If one feels much heavier than the others, it’s got a thick wall.”

—Go for an oblong shape rather than a perfectly round shape. Villafane finds that a taller, oblong shape is best for carving faces. “The best is oblong and, if you can imagine, compressed,” he said. “Find a pumpkin that’s been lying on its side so it looks compressed, and so it has a ridge running from top to bottom. You sculpt the face along the ridge.”

—Use the right tools. In his tutorial, Villafane recommends carving with: a large clay ribbon loop; a medium clay ribbon loop; a mini clay ribbon loop; an X-ACTO knife, and a paring knife. (No spoons!)

Images: Your creative pumpkin carvings (on this page)

A common question Villafane fields: Does he really make such intricate creations out of just one pumpkin? Surely he must be putting at least two different pumpkins together, right?

The answer: Nope. Villafane makes a point of carving just one solid pumpkin. Rarely he’ll use separate pumpkin meat to carve a few extra flourishes — say, the motorized snakes on Medusa’s head, or the tiny spikes on the Predator’s face, or the feather atop a Native American’s head — but other than that, you’re seeing just one pumpkin when you examine Villafane’s carvings.

“Ray is a terrific problem solver and I think it shows in his work,” Bergholtz said. “He has always been one of the rare few that continues to push his limits and raise the bar for all of us.”

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Ghoulishly grand carved pumpkins

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  1. Night of the living pumpkin

    Artist Ray Villafane began carving pumpkins on a lark for his art students in a small rural school district in Michigan. The hobby changed his life as he gained a viral following online and unlocked his genuine love of sculpting. Here are images of pumpkin carvings Villafane created over the past seven years. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Pumpkin of the apes

    That's one angry ape. Though Villafane now makes extremely intricate carvings, his first attempts didn't quite go as planned. "Yeah, it was horrible. It didn't work out at all," he recalled to TODAY.com in 2011. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Toothless terror

    Before his rise to pumpkin fame, Villafane was a high school art teacher ambitious to sculpt orange orbs like clay. Some pumpkins have added flourishes like tangled vines for arms and hair. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pumpkin reaper

    Villafane gave this pumpkin arms made out of vines — a terrifying detail. He occasionally auctions off a very limited set of the vine arms on his website. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Aged ape

    Villafane has carved a wide range of subjects over the years, from ferocious animals to President Obama. His detailed precision makes every pumpkin seem to come to life. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Peter peter pumpkin eater

    "He is not limited by any material. The man could sculpt the statue of David out of a stick of butter," Villafane's colleague Andy Berholtz told TODAY.com in 2011. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Gone pig wild

    Villafane crafted this pumpkin of a deranged pig for his family in 2011, according to his Facebook page. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Feeling the squeeze

    While Villafane's smaller pumpkins are impressive enough, the carver and his team made a "harvester" display at the New York Botanical Garden on Oct. 20, 2012, using an 1,800 pound pumpkin. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. What an adorable little girl

    "When I carve, I kind of go with the flow," Villafane said. "Sometimes I might have a preconceived idea, but sometimes I make up the idea as I go." (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Viking’s life for me

    Ray Villafane's signature Halloween pumpkins are known for their intricacy and lifelike subjects. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Lean on me

    In addition to carving pumpkins, Villafane also works with wax and sand. “He is not limited by any material,” said Andy Bergholtz, Villafane’s colleague and a fellow sculptor. “The man could sculpt the statue of David out of a stick of butter.” (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. It’s a werewolf!

    Villafane advises would-be carvers to steer clear of perfectly round pumpkins. His favorite carving pumpkins have an oblong shape. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Knockout!

    Villafane also encourages aspiring pumpkin carvers to work with thick pumpkins. “Pick up three pumpkins of the same size,” Villafane advised. “If one feels much heavier than the others, it’s got a thick wall.” (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Torment

    We’d rather not ask what this poor fellow did to get himself this distressed. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Glutton

    Maybe this carving could inspire kids to cool it a bit with the Halloween candy? (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Grumpy Gus

    Funny detail: Villafane has made a name for himself with pumpkin carving even though he's allergic to pumpkins. "If I’m carving too many or too long, my skin gets really itchy," Villafane said. "If pumpkin juice gets anywhere near my eyes, my eyes itch." (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Headache

    This guy might just need to take two aspirin and call us in the morning. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Child’s play

    Awwwww. Remember Chucky? (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Spooky

    People often ask Villafane whether he crafts some of his pumpkin creations by putting more than one pumpkin together. His answer? Nope. With only a few rare exceptions – like this embellished carving – he makes a point of using just one solid pumpkin. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Native American chief

    Villafane said an oblong-shaped pumpkin is best for carvers who want to create realistic-looking faces. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Misfit

    Because everybody feels a little bit out of place at times. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Burp

    Villafane's two youngest sons, ages 5 and 7, love to carve pumpkins too. “When they see me carving, they get mad because THEY want to carve the pumpkin,” Villafane said. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Got my eye on you

    Villafane’s 7-year-old son once asked for a pumpkin when he was offered the chance to get a new toy. “He wanted the pumpkin so he could carve it,” Villafane said. “He’s going to be an AWESOME pumpkin carver when he’s older.” (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Who let me outta here?

    Villafane recommends using the following tools to carve a pumpkin: a large clay ribbon loop; a medium clay ribbon loop; a mini clay ribbon loop; an X-ACTO knife, and a paring knife. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Would you open this zipper?

    Villafane’s pumpkin-carving has opened all sorts of unexpected doors for him. To name just one example: He’s carving pumpkins in Las Vegas for Heidi Klum's Halloween party this year. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. President Barack Obama

    Villafane carved for President Obama at the White House last year. He was invited to return for a repeat performance this year, but he couldn’t make it because he already had been contracted at the Nicholas Conservatory in Rockford, Ill. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. More than pumpkins

    Villafane has sculpted for Marvel, DC Comics, Warner Bros. and other outlets and has created collectible figurines from “Batman,” “Superman” and other beloved comic-book series. He’s also made collectibles from movies such as “Terminator,” “Ghost Rider” and “X-Men” and from the role-playing game World of Warcraft. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Wowing TV viewers

    Villafane has trounced competing carvers on television on “Food Network Challenge: Outrageous Pumpkins” more than once. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. It’s a good thing

    The artist also demonstrated his carving prowess on “The Martha Stewart Show” on the Hallmark Channel in October 2011. Martha wanted to inspire her viewers to give carving a try. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Busy month

    This October, Villafane also did some serious pumpkin carving at Sousa’s Gardens in Bermuda and at the New York Botanical Garden. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Predator pumpkin

    Villafane used a little bit of extra pumpkin meat to create the tiny spikes added to this Predator’s face and head. Otherwise, the rest of the carving was made with just one pumpkin. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Motorized Medusa

    The protruding snakes on Medusa's head – carved from separate pumpkin meat and added to the sculpture – are attached to tiny motors so they move. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Native American portrait

    Villafane made the feather on this carving of a Native American from separate pumpkin meat and added it to the sculpture when it was done. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. David Letterman

    Villafane said his carving prompted an invitation to carve on the "Late Show with David Letterman." (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

    Or, wait ... maybe this guy's from Dr. Seuss ... (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Brainiac

    Are you lookin' at me? (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Foods with moods

    Is he happy or angry – or both? (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Biting his tongue

    That's right, buddy. Fight the urge to say something you might regret. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. The fear inside

    To learn more about Ray Villafane's work with pumpkins, wax and sand, visit VillafaneStudios.com. (Villafane Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
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